In 1897, Frank Norris wrote that there were only three “story cities” in the United States: New York, San Francisco, and New Orleans. “Fancy a novel about Chicago or Buffalo, let us say,” he smirked, “or Nashville, Tennessee!” Clearly, the man was indulging in hyperbole so off-base as to be inane–what else do you expect from a San Franciscan?–but he did pinpoint something about these three cities’ gifts for cultivating their own mystique.
Just as much as America has felt the pull to visit New Orleans, idealize New Orleans, and deposit millions of dollars in Anne Rice’s bank account to mythologize New Orleans, its potent mystique has been caricatured to the point of inanity. Mardi Gras beads, voodoo, gumbo, Big Easy, absinthe, les bon temps that roo-lay—if there was one positive outcome of the Katrina disaster, it was that it reminded us all that this mythic tourist magnet was a real city, full of people who lived beyond the limits of cliché.
So when I first read that Peso’s owner Brian Hutmacher was building Toulouse Petit, a restaurant that would combine New Orleanian and French food, I sighed, picturing the intersection of faux-Creole and faux-Frog. But it turns out that Hutmacher’s vision has produced something charming, strange, and even a little magical. The sprawling restaurant has its flaws, to be sure, but cheap caricatures are not among them. And much of the food’s good, too.
Located next to its sister restaurant on the corner of Mercer Street and Queen Anne Avenue, Toulouse Petit serves both breakfast and lunch. I can imagine the appeal of sitting alongside the story-high, small-paned windows that make up its exterior walls, but I’ve only been there for dinner, when the restaurant waxes gothic. The wood tables are inlaid with a complex weave of symbols—the Enochian alphabet, an angelic language revealed to 16th-century mystics—and hundreds of votives flicker along the walls. Spindly, baroque wrought-iron chandeliers and pendant lamps simultaneously evoke Tim Burton and Spanish moss.
You’d expect the effect to be dark and moody, except the walls are thickly daubed with plaster mottled in a half-dozen pastel hues. The effect—a Thomas Kinkaid grotto—is too much. But when the crowd crackles and roars to life, as it does around 7 each night, everyone glows in the peach light, looking more wholesome and less wasted than they would at Peso’s.
The strength of the menu turns out to be its juggling of Creole, Cajun, and French cuisines. Eric Donnelly, formerly the exec chef of Oceanaire and a collaborator with Hutmacher on the restaurant, isn’t content to merely replicate standards.
Donnelly cooked at Sazerac under Jan Birnbaum, famous for welding together big-ass Louisiana flavors and freshness-obsessed West Coast sensibilities. Birnbaum’s disciple also shows respect for traditions without being a slave to the illusion of authenticity. His fried chicken–and-sausage gumbo is built on a solid, chocolate-colored roux, redolent with onions and peppers. The stew is garnished with crisp-skinned chunks of chicken breast and throbs with the spices of house-made andouille sausage (which passed muster with two former Louisianans at my table). His baked Oysters Kilpatrick are perhaps a touch overcooked, and firmer than they should be, but the finely chopped bacon, tasso (peppered, cured pork shoulder), and herbs covering each bivalve deliver a rush of flavor. And his blue crab served over fried green tomatoes, a classic from the famed Galatoire’s, successfully pairs a mess of creamy, tarragon-flecked crab meat with the tomatoes’ bright crunch and tang.
Two New Orleans classics that hew most closely to canonical recipes don’t come off so well. Crawfish étouffée, a handful of tails smothered in a dark brown sauce, is seemingly made with the exact same roux as the chicken gumbo; it has none of the funky, sweet flavor or complexity that crawfish shells would bring to the sauce. The jambalaya also appears to be made with all the right ingredients—it’s packed with tender chicken, fat shrimp, and pounds of andouille, all coated in a vivid tomato-onion-pepper sauce. But the hearty meatfest is garnished with approximately 20 grains of undercooked rice.
Donnelly is overseeing an insanely ambitious program: homemade charcuterie (terrines, rillettes, sausages), classic bistro salads and appetizers (including such off cuts as beef tongue and pork cheeks), roast chicken prepared four ways, seafood up the ying-yang. Then there’s the menu’s two-page steakhouse section, which I never got to; and, surprisingly, one of the juiciest beef burgers I’ve eaten at a restaurant in years, served on a crisp, light, house-baked bun. The woman sitting next to me on my next visit told me the lamb burger was even better, but it would probably take another 20 visits for me to get around to testing her claim.
That sprawling menu seems the source of many of the problems I encountered. Our first night’s waiter didn’t inform us that the Oysters Kilpatrick one friend ordered for his main dish contains only six bites, even though it’s listed in the entrée section. We didn’t blame her—after only six weeks on the job, was she expected to have all 60-some items down?
Then there was the case of the duck confit. We sat at the bar one night, waited on by the world’s friendliest tender—the meal involved multiple rounds of handshakes. He mixed a proper Sazerac, the whiskey haunted—rather than possessed—by the anise flavors of absinthe. He was quick with recommendations to guide us through the menu, which is how we ended up with a mustardy, yolk-enriched steak tartare spiked with shallots and capers—a good pick.
But then he typed the wrong duck-confit dish into the computer. We wanted the red-bean “cassoulet,” but instead got the duck with black French lentils and pearl onions. It was a good leg of duck that had been braised in its own fat and then reheated, to its discredit, in the deep-fryer, a quick method for finishing off the dish that dries out the exterior instead of merely crisping it up. Our bartender tried to convince us that the lentils also contained red beans, saw we weren’t convinced, then poured us a free beer by way of apology. What could have prevented these errors? Restricting the menu to one duck-confit dish, and allowing enough time in the kitchen to properly polish it for service.
It’s a testament to Donnelly’s skill and experience that so much of the food is good. But if the chef can do so much with a 70-item, two-cuisine, all-over-the-map menu, how much more could he and his cooks put into one half that size?
Hutmacher and Donnelly have written a good story—an epic, even, one sure to inspire a mystique of its own. All they need now is a good editor.
Price Check Fried-chicken gumbo $7.50 Crab over fried green tomatoes $14 Beef burger $13 Oysters Kilpatrick $13 Duck confit with lentils $14.50