Representative Dish: Cassoulet
Address: 1220 Ben Sawyer Blvd., Suit I, Mount Pleasant
Bar: Full-service bar
Hours: 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Tuesday-Friday, 5-10 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday, 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Saturday-Sunday
Costs: Appetizers, $9-$12; Entrees, $18-$25
Decibels: 70 (weeknight)
When you're hungry, a foil-wrapped burrito doesn't sound half bad. Yet there's nothing like a cylindrical sandwich of rice, beans and cheese to keep restaurant executives up at night. Earlier this month, TGI Friday's launched a strike against Chipotle, which has been steadily chipping away customers from the sit-down chains, with a promotion designed to emphasize its hospitality, sociability and unhurried pace. For $10, deal takers get all of the (choose one) stuffed potato skins, spinach dip, mozzarella sticks or boneless chicken wings they can stomach.
What our stars mean
5 stars: Exceptional; sets a standard for dining excellence.
4 stars: Superior; worth a trip beyond your neighborhood or culinary comfort zone.
3 stars: Solid example of this type of dining.
2 stars: Adequate if you're in the neighborhood or seeking this type of dining.
1 star: Generally disappointing dining experience.
What our $ signs mean
One $: $5 to $15
Two $$: $15-$25
Three $$$: $25-$50
Four $$$$: $50 +
These salty, saucy, no-fork-needed snacks are the official foods of hosted unwinding in America. Whether friends are meeting for after-work drinks or football fans are gathering around a television set, the pub grub almost never changes. Relaxation calls for cheese.
The cheese in question, of course, isn't often a stinky, oozy camembert or an aged comte. But what's so enticing about Bistro Toulouse, which opened in April in Mount Pleasant's Sea Island Shopping Center, is how persuasively it puts forth an alternative narrative. The supremely comfortable dining room hints at what it might look like if escargot and steak tartare took the place of mini-quesadillas and fried green beans as the nation's go-to group fare.
To be sure, Bistro Toulouse has loftier ambitions than serving bar food. Most Toulouse patrons sign on for multi-course meals, not quick appetizers. Still, by adopting a few well-chosen casual dining hallmarks - children are welcome, servers are open-hearted and a pair of TVs is typically tuned to sports - Bistro Toulouse has found a way to successfully distinguish itself from the battalion of French restaurants that has lately occupied greater Charleston. (Recent openings include Chez Nous, Brasserie Gigi, Annie's Bistro, Bougnat Restaurant and Saveurs de Monde Cafe. If you're a French onion soup person, you may well be in for the best winter of your life.)
Unlike the majority of its competitors, Bistro Toulouse doesn't boast any kind of French pedigree: owners Candice Mahala and Matthew Schulz, graduates of the Culinary Institute of America, acquired most of their restaurant experience in large hotels in cities such as Miami and Washington. According to the restaurant's website, Schulz, who serves as chef, especially likes grilling meat and making sausage.
Like the majority of its competitors, Bistro Toulouse serves a fairly predictable menu of classic dishes: Here's a coq au vin, there's a cassoulet. The standard menu is augmented by a list of daily specials, many of which feature fresh seafood and vegetables. The best dish I tried over the course of two visits, a juicy stir of braised and roasted rabbit with plugs of doughy gnocchi and slow-cooked leafy greens, was a one-off.
Other dishes were competent, but most notable for being filling and fairly priced. And really, that's not a bad thing, especially if you live in the neighborhood.
If I had to pick a single dish that summed up the cooking at Bistro Toulouse, I'd go with the mussels. Toulouse offers two mussels preparations: a Thai curry and a traditional Mariniere, for which the saute pan is primed with white wine, shallots and garlic. Toulouse's mussels obediently gape when steamed, but the surrounding liquid served with the bivalves is a dull, watery disappointment. While Schulz should probably be commended for not cheating with heavy cream, a more acidic wine might have perked up the stock; nobody felt like dredging bread through the sauce after the mussels were gone.
Much of what I sampled at Toulouse fell into the same category. Overall, flavors were too muted to inspire any feelings more passionate than mild approval, but almost everything, excepting a unpleasantly floury wedge of potatoes Dauphinoise, was generally sound.
A salty-skinned duck breast was nicely seared, although I wish the housemade pappardelle and woodsy mushrooms tucked beneath the bird weren't so muddled with a heavy brown sauce. Over-saucing also afflicted a spindly Lyonnaise salad and the pounded veal that shared a plate with the offending potatoes, although the dry meat wasn't any worse off for it.
Seafood is perhaps a better choice: A tomato-rich bouillabaisse finished with a strikingly yellow pennant of rouille, or saffron mayonnaise with peppers, provided a perfectly decent platform for shrimp, mussels and squid. Squid also got the saute treatment for an appealingly bright appetizer with a Mediterranean bent, featuring the calamari curls in an oily sauce dosed with roasted red peppers and olives. Finally, a simple wreckfish chowder, garnished only with croutons and parmesan cheese, had a lovely oceanic tang.
Unfortunately, desserts aren't so reliable. A gummy and bitter tarte Normande with a sloping crust wasn't worth finishing, and a bulky dark chocolate souffle was nearer to pudding than puff.
The souffle came recommended by a server who swung by the table during the entree course to ask if I'd like to order the dessert we'd talked about on my previous visit. Although I wasn't crazy about the souffle (and had to be reminded about the pastry we'd apparently once discussed), I loved everything about the exchange, which showed the server to be personable, professional and very enthusiastic about the kitchen's output.
Good service helps compensate for most of Bistro Toulouse's minor plated faults. The restaurant gets an additional boost from its tasteful decor. It's astounding what wooden floors, wooden chairs, warm lighting and tables covered in butcher paper can do for a strip mall space.
Service and taste also are defining elements of the wine program. There aren't too many challenging bottles on the list, but the two dozen or so mostly French wines are splendidly food-friendly, and each one is available in a three- or six-ounce serving. Impressively, even the tasting portions are poured at the table, so nobody ends up spending four dollars on an unwanted Sauvignon Blanc.
Even if it doesn't ascend to tremendous culinary heights, there's lots to like about the affable and unpretentious Bistro Toulouse, which proves French food can be accessible and affordable. Putting aside problems of saucing and seasoning, it's a fine setting for relaxing with friends. Just look for the pink-and-blue neon "open" sign" over the front door.
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