Houston’s Best French Bistro Retreat?
A River Oaks Hotspot Grows Up, Flexes Real Food PromiseBY James Brock // 06.15.17
Paris is eternal, for many reasons, not the least of which is its cuisine. Stroll down nearly any stretch of sidewalk in the French capital and you’ll be greeted by the sights and smells of everything from fresh oysters nestled in ice to crepes sizzling on griddles to a mouthwatering display of cheeses in glass cases. It is, in the best sense, a moveable feast.
I don’t get to Paris as often as I’d like, but a few days ago I imagined I was there while sitting in Toulouse, the Parisian-inspired bistro in Houston’s River Oaks District. The light outside was different — there’s something ethereal about a Parisian sunset in the summer, a softness I’ve not seen anywhere else — and Toulouse’s interior is too much a replica (the French-themed prints on the wall speak “tourist” and would almost never be found, especially in such numbers, in a real French bistro), but the food was quite good.
To begin our meal, I ordered crab cakes, and my dining companion went with escargots. Jumbo lump crab meat in the former, served with a salad of mixed greens and a “honey-Dijon dining sauce.” The cakes had a nice sear on them, and while I found their consistency a bit soft and the “lump” of the individual pieces not as pronounced as I would have liked, their flavor was satisfying, redolent of the best I’ve had. (Thank goodness the addition of bread crumbs seemed virtually nonexistent here; nothing worse than grainy, mealy crab cakes.) The greens were crisp and fresh, and were not an afterthought.
The escargots are served on a small plate, nestled in their cavities in that wonderful mixture of Pernod, butter, garlic, and parsley. Is there anything better? Is there anything more Parisian? Perhaps there is, but these snails were just what we wanted.
They were hot, plump, not chewy at all. Only qualm? These escargots were a tad small, not much larger than the average grape. Perhaps a look at suppliers would be in order. That aside, we ate all of them, then polished off the sauce by dipping bread into it. Would anyone do otherwise?
We were drinking a Sancerre from Langlois-Chateau, and it paired well with our first courses. I had arrived a little before 7 p.m., and 45 minutes later the dining room was beginning to fill. A couple celebrating what we later determined to be an anniversary lingered over their dessert, and a multigenerational family loudly occupied the table next to us. It was a pleasant scene.
Our waitress brought the second courses to the table, Mr. L’s Dover sole and my duck confit. The skin on the duck looked crisp, and I hoped it was. We watched Stephanie filet the sole, which she did with care and grace, and ordered a bottle of Ponzi Pinot Gris. Another good selection, food-friendly, enjoyable with the fish and the duck.
To the dishes we went, and I first took a bite of the lentils that accompanied my duck. I am a stickler when it comes to these wonderful legumes, and have cooked them hundreds of times. I like them neither too soft nor too hard. I like them with the proper (yes, it’s subjective, I know) amount of salt. I prefer them with olive oil.
My first bite was a good one, because these lentils were done well. They had not been pulverized, and the seasoning was balanced. The confit duck was, while not among the very best I’ve had, a very good version of the classic preparation. The skin was not uniformly crisp, but the fat had been rendered well, and the meat was (except the small amount closest to the bone) moist, tender, and rich, as it should be.
The sole was, according to Mr. L., perfect. It certainly possessed a wonderful color, that off-white tone that a nicely seared sole can have. This was done Meunière style, and the technique exhibited the skill of the cook. The butter sauce was slightly underseasoned, to my palate, but overall this was a proficient sole. It was served with steamed vegetables — traditional, yes, but they were full of color and flavor. No mash here.
The restaurant has added a few new items to its menu, including a potato gnocchi dish, which I look forward to trying on a return visit.
No, we were not in Paris, and we knew it, but if you can’t get there tomorrow and are craving some French food, you can do much worse than Toulouse.