Critics, whether they specialize in theater, tech or restaurants, have a reputation for being a bunch of negative Nellies. Admittedly, we’ve earned it. At least as far back as Plato, writers have dug deep to come up with interesting ways to express their adverse opinions. In literary terms, it can be easier to come up with fresh ways to say something unfavorable than the inverse.
But the truth is, it’s more fun to be pleasantly surprised by excellence than to slaughter a sacred cow. No one loses their livelihood, and you get some good meals out of the bargain. This doesn’t happen often—usually a restaurant gets and retains a bad reputation for a reason. But not always. Case in point: Toulouse, the first of two restaurants opened by Dallas-based Lombardi Restaurant Group in the chic River Oaks District shopping center this summer.
A snowball of negativity formed amidst the food community after many tried—and strongly disliked—the cuisine presented by original chef Philippe Schmit. The place garnered a two-and-a-half star rating on Yelp for both food and service (which it still has, as of press time). Owner Alberto Lombardi swiftly replaced Schmit with Laurent Dubourg, telling Houstonia at the time, “They told me Philippe was the right guy in Houston. We tried but realized when you do a lot of volume, it’s difficult at certain times to keep the quality if you’re not well-organized.”
But my experience at Toulouse was different. Indeed, each visit felt like a trip to a true Parisian bistro. The checkerboard tile floors, the lofty plaster ceilings, the sizable covered patio designed for people-watching—all conspire to conjure a lived-in 19th arrondissement feel. The only hint of its high-end retail location is prices that might make bargain shoppers sweat.
The steak frites took me back to a week in Paris, when I ate the dish for every meal (along with a lemon-flavored Pschitt soda because I was 12 and wanted to say the name). The only American iteration I’ve had that’s as transporting is the one at Les Halles in New York. At Toulouse, the beefy New York strip (not a typical onglet) is admirably grill-marked, trimmed perfectly lean and served with both tangy Béarnaise and eminently crisp, salty frites. A pile of fresh greens on the side is really more of a gesture than a salad, as should be the case. It’s a plate of delights at every turn. And at $39, it damn well better be. Upgrade to a filet mignon, and it will set you back $48.
However, this is a rare case in which I don’t completely fault a restaurant for charging excessively; it’s merely surviving in its environment. There’s a reason that every eatery that’s opened in River Oaks District is part of a chain that’s already successful elsewhere: Those rents don’t allow for experimentation. And $39 for steak frites doesn’t seem so bad compared to that $380 Jean Harlow T-shirt from Roberto Cavalli around the corner.
Some of Toulouse’s price points can also be attributed to niceties like the warm, crusty ficelle that arrives wrapped in novelty newsprint just after you sit down. It’s accompanied by perfectly salted, ideally softened butter. Our attentive server seemed proud to bring it to us and later told us, in his own words, how excited he was when we ordered a soufflé. It turns out he was right to be jazzed.
The descriptors for a perfect soufflé have all long been hackneyed: airy, cloudlike, delicate. But they still apply to the supremely moist Grand Marnier–flavored concoction that your server will spike with cream at the table. I’ve yet to try a better one in Houston, except at newly opened Uptown specialist Rise n°2.
Steak tartare is available as a starter or with pommes frites added to make it a main dish. I got the smaller plate, but regretted there wasn’t more—dipping some fries in the Dijon-and-cornichon tang of the chopped beef may well have been just the ticket.
Of course, since this is River Oaks, lighter ladies-who-lunch fare isn’t ignored. The lobster salad is an avatar, in the ancient Hindu sense, of just such a dish, heaven-sent for watching one’s figure. Shimmering chunks of lobster are dressed with sophisticated sweetness in Champagne-raspberry vinaigrette, a considerate companion to the bed of compressed melon and mixed lettuces.
But the ladies (or waist-conscious gents) dining during the day may well experience the same drop in quality that I did, with a dramatic decrease in attentiveness from dinner to lunch, both from the kitchen and servers. There’s no other way to explain “trout almondine” (their spelling, not ours), which was presented to me with a fin still attached. The table next to me ordered the same dish with the same result. And I didn’t see my waiter enough times during the meal to bother asking about it.
Though Taverna opened two months after Toulouse, I have yet to see the service there stumble. Perhaps that explains why the buzz has been more charitable. It’s a younger staff, everyone chipper and eager to please, including the bartender, who created an original gin-soaked sangria for us one giddy night. Chances are, sangria or no, you will leave with a smile.
Prices are still high, if more moderate than at Toulouse—plus, portions this large of heavy dishes like risotto and pasta lend themselves to leftovers. That risotto con burrata, all creamy, cheesy goodness broken up by the pop of cherry tomatoes, actually seems like a steal when its $20.50 is distributed over three meals. The risotto con gamberi e prosecco is also excellent, inhabited by meaty morsels of shrimp and al dente asparagus, its lighter body made even sprightlier with lemon zest.
Pastas, meanwhile, are made in-house by chef de cuisine Bruno Amato and his team. The yellow-and-green tangles of skinny tagliolini are visually splendid in a truffle-suffused cream sauce woven with chicken and mushrooms, but Amato saves his best trick for the thin, toothsome jackets of the ravioli Maremmani. Stuffed with Swiss chard, spinach and ricotta, the pasta is bathed in butter-Parmesan sauce spotted with fried sage leaves.
Even when Amato ventures beyond classic Italian flavors, he succeeds. Taverna’s pizza crust is thin, chewy and crisp, but it may be best topped with ultra-fresh avocado, cilantro and chopped tomatoes along with chicken, mozzarella and feta in the California pie. Avocado also featured in a pleasing tuna tartare that, unfortunately, has been eliminated from the menu.
Taverna’s only real deficit is in its dessert game. It’s a buzzkill to be presented with a stiff panna cotta lacking its promised mint flavor or a Nutella tiramisu so bitter, even a coffee-lover pushes it aside—each, by the way, $9.
Then again, maybe that’s just part of a secret plan to help drive diners to Italian-born gelato chain Amorino farther on in the District. And skipping dessert certainly isn’t a bad idea before trying on an Eres swimsuit. Either way, neither that nor low ratings will keep me from the newest European fare in River Oaks.