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Cafe Toulouse impressions [DFW]

I haven't seen any topics on Cafe Toulouse, located on Knox Street in uptown Dallas. I've been their twice now - once this spring, and once a couple of weekends ago. The food was superb on the first try, but very disappointing the second time.

Let me start off by saying that I love the Parisian cafe ambience. It is warm and inviting and relatively authentic, with a great patio.

But, what is going on in their kitchen?

I came on a Sunday night and ordered from the chalkboard on the recommendation of the server - a pork tenderloin with asparagus. The tenderloin came in 3 slices. Each was thin and tough, surrounded by a ring of flavorless fat and drizzled with bland gravy. The asparagus was skinny in diameter and chewy; another disappointment.

I ended up picking off my friend's plate - who had ordered the seared tuna. It was served on a tomato/veggie base. The tomato overpowered any of the subtle fish flavors you'd generally get from a rare-cooked tuna. Pretty boring stuff.

Halfway through the meal, someone from the kitchen (possibly the chef?) came to check on our meal. I didn't want to be too negative in front of my guests, so I said the food was "fine" in a lukewarm tone. If he had been listening at all, he could have pried to better understand by lack of enthusiasm. Instead, he answered confidently, "That's what we like to hear!" Thanks for the lip service, guy.

After he walked away, my guest (who was also picking up the tab) said, "Should I have told him the duck sucked?" Which made me cringe, since I suggested the restaurant.

Has anyone had similar or better/worse experiences at Toulouse? This place generated a fair amount of hype when it arrived on the scene a year ago... a creation of restaurateur Alberto Lombardi with direction from former Lola chef Scott Gottlich. I personally had high hopes for a comfortable neighborhood spot with fresh French-inspired food and mid-tier prices. But I fear something is amiss in the Toulouse kitchen these days.

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  1. A little over two weeks ago, Cafe Toulouse had a change in chefs. I don't know if that was before or after your meal, but you may have caught them in a transition period (either for the better or worse).


    1. I think the atmosphere at Toulouse is the biggest draw. Unfortnately I've never found the food to be very well executed. Co-workers do rave about the hamburger, and the fries are delicious (although twice I've had to ask the server for different fries, as the ones he brought us were soft and cold), but to me, Toulouse is more of a "4pm drinks on Saturday" kind of place than a serious culinary destination.

      1. Given the opportunity you had, I would have told the chef that the food you had on your first visit was much better and left it at that.

        1 Reply
        1. re: Scagnetti

          Scagnetti - I immediately regretted not speaking up. At the end of the meal, I mentioned the tough meat entrees to our server... but I doubt he passed on the feedback.

        2. We stopped in for a late afternoon snack once and the quality of the food was indifferent bordering on almost bad. Can't really judge a restaurant on one visit, but it was enough to put it way down on my list to visit, even though it's within walking distance of my Dallas pied a terre'.

          1. The food has definitely been hit or miss in my experience. Most of the seafood dishes have been less than stellar, but the quiche (very fluffy and light) and croque madame (almost can't go wrong with ham, egg, and cheese) on my last trip were great. I've decided to stick to the basics there and will probably continue to go back just for the ambiance.

            1. My family loves it for the atmosphere and the kid-friendly servers. Their fries, if warm, and beignets (without chocolate sauce) are good. Everything else that I've tried hasn't been great, but perfectly okay.

              1. The semi-authentic cafe atmosphere and lovely patio are the only reasons to visit Cafe Toulouse. The food is very hit or miss and usually a miss. Great concept poor execution.

                1. In my experience, the food has never been that impressive, and the service left much to be desired. I live about a block away but still not in my dining rotation. I had a decent brunch experience, but it's near the bottom of my list for Knox-Henderson dinner destinations.

                  1 Reply
                  1. re: nachomamma

                    Please share your dining rotation in the Knox Henderson area.

                  2. My grandmother, who is French and too old to taste anything (she's 86), loves the place. Although it's been a good 6 months, I have been a total of at least 10 times.

                    I think the food terrible. It's been a while since I've been, but I had their version of bouillabaisse (do they call it Fisherman's stew?) and it tasted as if a powder mix had been added with water.

                    I remember food coming out a bit cold, ingredients not being highest quality, etc.

                    But it does have a great crowd (if you like the Highland Park/Dallas thing), a great patio and a decent enough drink selection.

                    1. My theory is that the food was better when Craig Patzer was chef (from mid-2005 to mid-2006). He cut his teeth for a few years as sous-chef at a French restaurant called Jardiniere in San Francisco before coming to Toulouse. A year later, Jardiniere missed him so much that the founder recruited him back to run their kitchen as Chef de Cuisine. You can tell from the Jardiniere menu (http://www.jardiniere.com/menu.html) that they do higher-brow French fare.

                      I don't want to bash Jim Oetting, who is the current Toulouse chef, but he worked previously in Denver for a chain called California Cafe. He may not be as passionate about authentic French bistro food.

                      1 Reply
                      1. re: interference

                        Saw some interesting news today: Toulouse is changing chefs once again. I have higher hopes for the kitchen now that it will be run by Colleen O'Hare, who has been executive chef at both the Green Room and most recently, Kitchen 1924. Google search indicates she has worked at York Street with Sharon Hage as well.

                        Came across pictures of some of her Kitchen 1924 dishes:

                      2. To me a bistro is a bistro....not fine dining, simple food and good atmosphere. Good salads. sandwiches and fries. I like the short ribs w eggs for Sun brunch...good espresso...just relax and don't expect French Room quailty when you are paying Chili's prices....MH

                        1 Reply
                        1. re: hhhill

                          I haven't been to Chili's in a while, but I don't recall entrees averaging $17 - $23. Toulouse pricing is comparable to Taverna (another Lombardi-owned restaurant) or La Duni (one of the best values in town, in my opinion).

                          But I agree with you in theory, hhhill. A bistro should be comfortable, accommodating, and certainly not snobby. I guess I'm nostalgic for Paris, so I find myself drawn to Toulouse's excellent concept and ambience. I don't know of any Dallas spot that nails the Paris corner cafe feel better. If only they would raise the quality of the food a notch, I would be a loyal regular. I'm not talking about fancy food. Just simply-executed dishes with consistent quality.

                        2. The Chili's comment was tongue in cheek, but I have always thought the quality of food at Taverna (Dallas/Austin both) is better executed and higher quality than Toulouse. I always seek out bistro/brasserie spots in all cities I visit and have always been disapointed that Dallas has only Toulouse. I read recently about a new bistro far north Dallas but have not made the trip.

                          I guess my expectations are not as high in Dallas for bistro fare, so I always take it for what it is....decent simple French....MH

                          1 Reply
                          1. re: hhhill

                            On that note, do you have a favorite bistro / brasserie in Austin?

                            I wonder why Lombardi can't hold Toulouse to the same quality standard as Taverna?

                          2. For dining around Knox-Henderson, I will consistently pick La Duni, Taverna, Tei Tei, Fireside, maybe even Hibiscus for their sweet potatoes and tasty barbecue sauce, and Ziziki's. Does Salum count as Knox-Henderson? I had a decent brunch experience at Toulouse but would still rather go to La Duni. I was underwhelmed with my few dinner experiences. Service...eh, food...eh, atmosphere...eh.

                            1. This Houstonian (and friends) visited Dallas this past weekend. Heeding my friends' "no Mexican, no Italian, no burgers" edict, we stopped in for lunch at Toulouse yesterday. It was absolutely horrible.

                              First of all, it being a holiday, the place was overcrowded and understaffed. We ordered coffee and waited... and waited. Finally three empty coffee cups arrived, but actual coffee was still a few minutes away. When it finally came we placed our order. We started with salads... the house salad was swimming in a too sweet vinaigrette and the Toulouse salad wore hardly any dressing at all. Bland.

                              Two of us ended up having the burger anyway. It was decent. Juicy, if unseasoned, meat with bacon and avocado, on a ciabatta bun that wasn't too crusty. Not the biggest burger I've ever had, but a decent $8 burger. Unfortunately it was $11. The "house specialty" pommes frites were nothing special at all... I've had better at too many other places for these to even register.

                              The French onion soup was BAD. Whatever wine/sherry was used in the soup completely overpowered any other flavor. It bordered on inedible. But the worst tragedy was when we decided to order a chocolate souffle for dessert. What we got was a caved-in, eggy disaster that WAS inedible. Neither the kitchen nor the waiter know what in the world they were doing with that one. It shouldn't have even been on the menu, and we sent it back.

                              Finally, it was raining, and as we were walking out of the restaurant, their tile floor was slippery and yours truly slipped and fell. I will never return to Toulouse, either in Dallas, in Austin (per the manager, yep, it's coming), or in Houston (they're looking at West Ave.).

                              4 Replies
                              1. re: jim1126


                                Funny... I was also at Toulouse this past rainy Memorial Day weekend. And we went during the same awkward understaffed time between lunch and dinner. Perhaps it's my recently lowered expectations, but I actually had a pleasant time. Stuck to the basic casual fare and topped it off with a souffle.

                                My souffle was not like yours. It came out fluffy, not caved-in. We were oohing at the first few bites, which were just the egg white part on top. I couldn't wait to get to the richer, yolkier part at the bottom. Oddly, that part never came. The souffle was egg whites only, right down to the very bottom.

                                So ultimately, our souffle was a meringue, with sauce poured on it. Delicious in its own right, but perplexing.

                                1. re: jim1126

                                  Jim--I've had that eggy souffle too. It was truly awful. This was about two months ago, so clearly, something is going very wrong in that department. We sent it back and complained, and they seemed so surprised! (No, souffles should NOT taste like burnt eggs.) Thankfully, they took it off the bill...but they should take it off the menu if they're going to butcher it so badly.

                                  1. re: Piegirl

                                    The food at Cafe Toulouse is just as bad as the food at Sangria. Lombardi can certainly put together a great package (concept, interior design, menu items, etc.). It is unfortunate that food is so poorly executed. I could not have been more disappointed w/ my meal at Sangria, last night.

                                    1. re: carousel

                                      I haven't tried Cafe Toulouse in response to the so-so reviews I read. Now that they are introducing Collen O'Hare from Kitchen 1924, I will certainly give them a visit. I had some very tasty dishes from her previous stint and actually had one of the better duck plates I have ever tried.

                                2. I used to love their brunch - and I still am fond of the place - but I just brought a group of foodie girls and while the french fries and bloody marys recieved rave reviews, my eggs benedict was not very good. The egg was overcooked (e.g. hardboiled) and the muffin was tough.

                                  1. I recently returned to Toulouse to try the revamped menu. If this visit was any indication, Colleen has whipped the menu and the kitchen staff into shape. At first glance, the menu looks very familiar... however most of the items have been given a serious makeover. Our seafood entrees were excellent; not only was the food quality far better than before, but the presentation was more artful.

                                    This really highlights the importance of your executive chef. I hope that Lombardi will keep this in mind going forward -- he knows his market and knows how to launch a concept, but lasting impressions are made by the food. If he can retain talent like Chef Colleen O'Hare, Toulouse (and his other uptown eateries) will be better for it.

                                    1 Reply
                                    1. re: interference

                                      For the sake of being comprehensive, I'm continuing to update this thread, following my past negative feedback.

                                      A few months ago, I (and others) knocked the souffle at Toulouse, but I have since given it another chance. It was excellent -- eggy and rich, unlike the strange meringue I was served in June.

                                    2. I don't like to sit at tiny tables in a crowded restaurant and eat mediocre overpriced, poorly imitated (French style) food. Only in Dallas could a restaurant like this succeed. it would fail in less than a week in New York, Los Angeles or San Francisco.
                                      Oddly enough, Alberto Lombardi's other restaurant, Taverna, (around the corner) is wonderful and deserving of my patronage.