Let’s play a quick regional cuisine association game. Ready? It goes like this: I say, “Spanish,” and you say, “Tapas.” Great, you’ve got it. Now, most likely, when I say, “Moroccan,” you’ll cry, “Tagine!” Awesome. That was a tough one. Okay, here’s an easy one: when I say, “French,” you will (most definitely) shout, “Fry!”
Because the french fry, the pomme frite, the steak frite, the victory fry—whatever you want to call a potato sliced thin, fried to a golden brown, with a crisp exterior that crunches into a hot, soft center—is the definitive dish of a French bistro. French fries were a national treasure in France and Belgium long before Ray Kroc was a gleam in his father’s eye.
So I ask the obvious question: why doesn’t Toulouse, Cafe and Bar, the au courant restaurant on Knox Street opened by Alberto Lombardi, one of Dallas’ greatest restaurateurs, serve perfect pommes frites?
It’s not like they haven’t had proper input. Famous longtime Dallas chef Jean LaFont was a consultant for all things traditionally French. Dallas native Scott Gottlich, 30, whose tour of duty has included stints in the kitchens of Le Bernardin and Aubergine before he returned to Dallas as executive chef at Lola, has added modern Parisian touches to a menu that includes old favorites like coquilles St. Jacques Parisienne, duck confit, and onion soup. By the time you read this, Gottlieb probably will have departed to work on his new fine French dining spot, due to open next year in the State-Thomas area.
The result of their collaboration is what I’d call Highland Park French—traditional French flavors glossed over and made pretty. Goat cheese isn’t “stinky”; it’s fragrant. And you won’t find French staples like rabbit, pigeon, or l’ortolan. Free-range chicken with oven-roasted tomatoes is as wild as the menu gets.
I tried the “house specialty,” pommes frites served with aïoli, on five different occasions, and, although the last basket was better than the first, the fries were consistently greasy and limp. Viagra jokes flew around the table.
The stiff jokes weren’t always aimed at the frites, however. The average age of the crowd that jammed the joint this night was well above 50. At peak hours, the place is often a mosh pit of Parkies, fashionistas, monied gays, and restaurant critics vying for a coveted spot on the patio where the people-watching is superb: diamond rings the size of small ice rinks glimmer in the candlelight, Rolexes mark the long wait time for a table, and Prada pounds and pats the pavement.
Once I put my pomme frite anxiety aside, I was pleased to taste some classic dishes and welcome the return of French bistro dining to Dallas. (Heck, it wasn’t long ago we boycotted all things French unless, of course, it was a necessity of life, like Lancôme mascara or Chanel No. 5.)
Toulouse offers mussels served six ways. We tried two: marinière (butter, white wine, and shallots) and Provençal (tomatoes, onions, and niçoise olives). Both were classic LaFont and superb. Huge bivalves bulged from the shell, and the remaining sauce was sopped up easily with bread. Chef Gottlieb’s hand in the niçoise salad was obvious: a slab of pepper-crusted ahi seared rare was perched on a small bed of greens studded with fresh herbs, red onions, egg, haricot vert, and anchovy. It was a glorious take on an old favorite that once delighted Dallas with Chicken of the Sea tuna.
The ultimate Highland Park French dish proved to be the steak tartare; the delicate taste of raw sirloin, ground fresh to order, was masked by too much of a good thing—Dijon, capers, and fresh onion. You could have slapped it in a bun and called it an old-fashioned burger.
Pan-seared trout amandine was fresh and memorable. The $17 price is right for the portion, something you don’t see too often these days. The filet au poivre et cognac would have been a real winner—the meat was tender with a cool, pink center, and the crunchy peppercorns filled my mouth with exotic flavors—but then there was the nasty problem of the pommes frites weeping alongside.
Desserts were hit and miss. A chocolate soufflé was uneventful, mainly because the accompanying chocolate sauce was too sweet, and the same chocolate soup was served with profiteroles. (Are they using Hershey’s?) However, a chocolate terrine with crème anglaise was, like the crowd, velvety and rich.
And speaking of rich, the interior, by Ron Guest, is the most authentic aspect of Toulouse. Accordion wooden doors with beveled glass open to the patio and the Katy Trail. Black and white hexagonal tile with pattern inlay covers the floors, and antique mirrors hang over walls with walnut wainscot paneling. Thonet chairs upholstered in cherry leather and brass nailhead trim surround marble and walnut tables. The patio is pure Gay Paree: the woven bentwood cafe chairs were imported from Paris. The bar, which specializes in aperitifs and champagne cocktails, features an antique mosaic tile that once hung at Le Rendezvous, Lombardi’s first French restaurant, opened at McKinney and Hall in the late ’70s.
No doubt Alberto Lombardi has come a long way from his days of waiting tables at The Grape. To date he has opened more than 30 restaurants, including Lombardi Mare, Bizu (also French), 311 Lombardi’s, and Taverna, the wildly popular Italian spot on Armstrong that has spun off four locations, with four more in the works.
Despite his Italian heritage, Lombardi has made us say, “Yea! It’s hip to say Français!”
Get contact information for Toulouse.