(Saugatuck, MI) A couple summers ago, we stumbled upon Restaurant Toulouse while shopping in Saugatuck. We enjoyed a nice dinner on their patio, and I began my love affair with cassoulet. We’ve been meaning to go back and when Groupon recently offered a deal, we snagged it and made reservations. Under cloudy skies and light rain, we drove to the Michigan lakeshore in the hopes for a repeat dinner performance...
Despite grey weather, Saugatuck is busy. There is a wedding party nearby, braving rain for outdoor pics on church steps. Tourists dart from storefront to storefront. Somehow we manage to score a parking spot next to Restaurant Toulouse. We arrive 10 minutes early for our reservation to find the front door locked. What the heck? A passerby—clearly someone in management—lets us in. The wait staff isn’t ready yet for the general public, but they let us in and we have our pick of tables. Already there is some awkwardness afoot, but at least we’re inside!
Our previous night’s revelries at Reserve ensure that we will behave tonight so I limit myself to one fresh fruit mojito. Muddled mint mingles with blackberries, two of my favorite fruits! The drink is tasty but I end up leaving nearly half of it because the chunks of fruit get clogged in the straws. Very refreshing, though.
We begin with Brie stuffed with seasonal fruit. I’m not sure how seasonal apples are in May (seems more like an autumn flavor to me). The cheese itself could have used a bit more time in the oven; it hasn’t attained the oozy factor quite yet. Taste, too, is bland. It won’t offend anyone but doesn’t have much depth in flavor. The baguette slices are too thin to stand up to spreading cheese. Overall, it’s probably the most pedestrian brie I’ve ever eaten.
Next, we decide to split the Grilled Romaine. I fancy myself quite the griller, and we’ve made some very nice grilled salads over the years. Toulouse’s is better. They get just the right amount of char on the leaves then top it with walnuts, boursin cheese, and a garlic vinaigrette. There is a delicious interplay between the earthy vegetable and nuts, the puckery dressing, and the lively chunks of cheese.
I also decide to try a cup of their soup-du-jour, a thin Brazilian stew. It has chunks of carrots, mushrooms, and celery amid the black beans and citrus-tinged stock. In spite of all those promising components, it tastes one-dimensional. I leave half of it in the cup.
For my main, I forgo the cassoulet that is calling to me and instead opt for the pork special: a cut of loin stuffed with dried cherries and goat cheese. The pork arrives a bit pink, but that doesn’t bother me; more squeamish customers might have sent it back. I take a bite and am immediately underwhelmed. The meat has that dry, liver-and-onions texture to it. Cherries add a bit of sweetness and the goat cheese must be in there somewhere, but I don’t see it. As is often the case with “meat rollups” the interior components sometimes leak out into the pan or dissolve altogether. There is perfectly-prepared asparagus and clumpy apple couscous (again, seasonality?) as sides.
Dessert choices are only three (no menu to peruse, and no models to demonstrate), so we end with coffee (no espresso). Our server is cute-as-a-button, and it being her second day on the job, we can forgive her forgetting my soup. The entire dining experience is not bad, not good, but somewhere in the heartbreaking middle ground.
After a day of high temps and bright sunshine, the weather turns rainy and grey about two hours before we depart for Saugatuck. Ahhh Michigan! The rain does not slow us down and we arrive to Toulouse a few minutes early.
Our waitress is adorable, but seems slightly ill at ease. Later I overhear her tell another table it's her second night. She has some opening night jitters and forgets a few things but she tries hard which counts for a lot in my book.
I'm a sucker for a brie platter and we order it as a starter. After a 20 minute wait, it arrives but still cold in the center and not the melty-gooey-awesomeness I was hoping for. Even worse it's garnished with very thin slices of untoasted baguette drizzled with olive oil. I was expecting charred bread slices I could use to scoop up the buttery brie. Instead I pick up a floppy piece of damp bread, chisel off some brie with my knife and plop it atop. Overall it's lackluster and bland.
We decide to split the grilled romaine salad and it turns out to be the highlight of the evening for me. We've grilled romaine at home, but it's tricky and can either be sublime or pure slime. Toulouse's is the former. The half head of romaine is lightly charred, but still crunchy and cool at the core. Grilling has given it a smokiness and the addition of creamy boursin (not Feta as the website indicates), candied walnuts, crispy green onions and a light herb vinaigrette ratchets up the flavor even higher. Again I am reminded how fantastic a salad can really be and I promise to jazz up our salads at home more. (I tend to open the plastic clamshell of organic arugula or spinach, plop it on a plate and call it salad. I know I should do better!) We divvy up the salad and actually scrabble a bit for the last remnants—it's that good.
I am quite tempted to order the rack of lamb, despite having phenomenal lamb at one our favorite downtown Grand Rapids eateries the night before. I absolutely adore lamb and a rack with three chops sounds like great fun. But the salad has made me feel slightly virtuous and I opt for the sauteed walleye lightly dusted in walnut flour. Three beautiful wedges of walleye are piled on a bed of rice pilaf with three asparagus spears perched (fish pun!) on top. The fish is mild and flaky and the walnut meal in the coating shines through. The pilaf is perfectly cooked and the asparagus is roasted and crisp tender from tip to stem end. It's a lovely dinner and quite satisfying.
I'm feeling downright honorable after a salad, fish, rice and veg, so I skip dessert and opt for a cup of French press coffee. (Of course, later I end up skipping down to Kilwin's for fudge. Honor and virtue be damned.)
Toulouse reminds me of that guy down the block your aunt fixes you up with. You know the one; he's smart and charming with a steady job and good teeth, but you just don't feel the "vavavoom" for him. Toulouse looks great on paper, really it does. But it just didn't make my heart go pitter patter. It's not you Toulouse, it's me.