In the past few decades, we've seen French restaurants come and go. Francophiles still wax nostalgic about fine dining at Marianne (where Sticky Fingers is now), Restaurant Million (site of McCrady's), the smoked trout salad with haricots verts at Mistral, or duck fat fries at La Fourchette, while stalwarts like Gaulart & Maliclet ("Fast & French") and 39 Rue de Jean hold court for reliable bistro fare.
When culinary school grads Candice Mahala and Matthew Schulz arrived in Charleston two years ago, they took the city's pulse and decided we were in desperate need of a French infusion. Mahala and Schulz are not French themselves, but that certainly didn't stop Julia Child from mastering the art. Child pointed out that of all the cuisines in the world, French cooking is "one of the few that has rules; if you follow the rules, you can do pretty well." Mahala and Schulz combined those rules with their extensive culinary, pastry, and front-of-house experience and launched Bistro Toulouse, now celebrating its one-year anniversary.
Tucked away in a Mt. Pleasant strip mall between a barbershop, laundromat, and Harris Teeter, you might miss it. I certainly did. Perhaps that's due to the plethora of other French venues that opened last year, such as Brasserie Gigi, Chez Nous, Annie's Bistro, and Bougnat Restaurant. When City Paper asked me to review Bistro Toulouse, I asked a French friend if she had heard of it.
"Oh no, we don't go there," she explained.
"Because," she replied, revving her guttural Rs for emphasis, "they play rock 'n' roll music!"
Aha. So not only are the owners not French, but they don't play Edith Piaf. Is it fair to give it the guillotine accordingly? I had to go see for myself. And what I found was quite tasty.
At lunchtime, a smooth purée of carrot soup (cup $4, bowl $7) went down nicely between bites of baguette slathered in whipped butter. Multiple crêpes tempted my palate. There was shrimp with pickled garlic; chicken with melted leeks and gruyere; roasted squash with brie, pine nuts, and sage pesto, but I went for the duck confit crêpe ($10). The blend of moist pulled duck with julienned strips of apple, fennel, and arugula topped with a touch of balsamic reduction was delightful. The croque madame ($14) sported a sunny-side up egg atop stacked layers of thinly sliced ham, melted gruyere, and bread. It was a fresh and filling version of a French classic.
A few visits later, I felt like a regular. One evening started off with a French margarita ($10), a chilled and strained martini glass of blended tequila, Chambord, and Grand Marnier with a rim of delicate Fleur de Sel. Another opened with a delightfully original Chrysanthemum ($10), a bright mix of Benedictine, dry vermouth, and absinthe that mimicked the distinctive earthy-sweet smell of its namesake flower. The taste was otherworldly, neither too saccharine nor too tart due to the fact that, as the bartender explained, co-owner Mahala experimented with multiple versions and staff tastings before hitting it just right.
In other words, this couple puts serious thought into each creation and keeps their staff in the loop. This was evidenced by the waiter being able to explain the ideal room temperature and tasting window for appreciating my steak tartar ($11). It's best when devoured within 20 minutes of hitting the table in case you were wondering. The mash of unctuous red meat with finely diced cornichons and red onion, topped with a raw quail egg, easily scooped up with toasted gaufrettes reached maximum appeal just at that time. Mahala also volunteered the precise oven temperature — 350 degrees — at which the herb roasted chicken ($20) was baked, lest I need to heat up my leftovers accordingly. The dish elevated a common barnyard bird to great heights, its crispy browned skin stuffed with herbs, resting on a mixture of slow baked potatoes, carrots, onions, garlic, and parsnips, all bathed in butter and chicken drippings. Deceptively simple comfort food at its best.
The thin broth of a daily mussel special ($14) was disappointing. But only because I would have preferred something richer or more strongly seasoned to mop up with bread. But the escargot ($9), swimming in little pockets of garlic, butter, flat parsley, and a touch of lemon, were better than any I have tried in Paris. "Sacré bleu!" you might say, but let me remind you that plenty of Parisian bistros have dumbed down French classics to shuffle tourists along their way. Bistro Toulouse puts heart into its offerings, with Chef Schulz popping out of the kitchen often to survey the tables.
Our friendly, vigilant server steered me toward some excellent wine pairings: a light, Le Fils des Gras Moutons by Domaine Claude Branger, a crisp muscadet from the Loire region ($9) to accompany the mussels, and a full-bodied Catelonian Grenache-syrah blend ($10) called Mas Marer, for the richer cassoulet ($22). The epitome of French countryside cuisine, the steaming cassoulet came in its traditional cast-iron dish. Luscious, slow-cooked white beans formed a bed for tender pork belly, golden chicken, house-made sausage, and duck confit. This was traditional, stick-to-your-ribs, hardy fare worthy of any Languedoc resident.
Perhaps the truest test of French technique is in the execution of pastry, and here Bistro Toulouse shined brightly. The lavender crème brûlée ($8), topped with a paper-thin tuile and a shattering sugar crust, achieved subtle perfection, its lavender essence summoning a gentle Provence breeze rather than tasting like a bath product (always the challenge with the flowering plant). House-made ice creams, in this case pistachio and vanilla, formed rich centers for profiteroles ($8) drizzled with dark chocolate sauce. The sizeable menu, including a worth-the-wait orange-vanilla soufflé ($10), and weekend brunch beignets with bourbon syrup ($7) are definitely worth the trek towards Sullivan's Island.
Yes, it's in a strip mall, in a location more likely to harbor a Sally Beauty Supply store than fine French cuisine. Yes, they play Aretha Franklin and Michael Buble rather than French café traditional accordion or breathy Carla Bruni. Yes, they boast three flatscreen TVs tuned to Food Network and ESPN, a decidedly Americanized approach to dining. Apart from the line of Toulouse-Lautrec prints on the wall, you would not peg this for a French restaurant. That is, until the food arrives. At which point you'll be saying "Ooh la la!" and rolling your Rs with the best of them.