A change of scene for this blog, for 'tis I, Tiny, 'guest blogging'. The Ample Cook was uncertain how to tackle this one so neatly sidestepped and before I knew it the laptop was on my lap. The keener eyed amongst you may notice there has been a slight delay in publishing and there are no photos– this will all be explained further on.
The subject of this blog is the Toulouse Restaurant in Southend-on-Sea. We had heard mixed reviews from fellow foodies so the opportunity to go with a confirmed supporter gave us the opportunity to make up our own minds. Toulouse is housed in a converted public convenience (two loos, geddit?) on Southend's seafront, away from the gaudy amusements thankfully, with views across the estuary to the twinkling lights of Kent (if you ignore the burger shack dead opposite!). Presided over by Stephane Bailhe, ex-proprietor of Stefans Restaurant, Toulouse opened with the obligatory open kitchen, slick web-site with the arty quotes from the chef proprietor, and minimalist design that passes for 'London chic'. It should be said at this point that we had enjoyed a couple of cracking meals at Stefans so we hoped for an enjoyable evening of French-based food.
The evening started well as the welcoming maitre d' guided us to join our friend who was already in residence sipping a glass of prosecco with a selection of olives. AC decided to follow suit with the prosecco whilst I plumped for a G&T choosing Bombay Sapphire over Tanqueray. The drinks arrived with no further olives and my G&T was premixed – not impressed, I like to control how much tonic I add to my gin. Still, lots of catching up to do with our friend and an interesting menu to peruse.
Having made our choices we were shown to our table, just near enough to the open kitchen to be able to see what was going on without suffering too much from the noise, perfect for nosey buggers like us. A bottle of Shiraz and a bottle of Chilean Sauvignon Blanc were dispensed by the waitress along with a glass of soda water. Is it me, or is £2 a lot for a glass of soda water?
Starters arrived, in order of acceptability: crab, and prawn fishcakes with red mullet beignet, salad and oriental dressing; duck terrine with orange chutney and toasted brioche; and caramelised onion and stilton tart with wild roquette. Our friend's fishcakes were made from minced fish, negating the ability to identify any of the ingredients which is probably just as well as the oriental dressing clashed badly with the bland fishcake. On the positive side, the red mullet was deemed 'delicious', the overall dish just seemed ill-concieved. My terrine was of a strange, slimy, texture with a distinct lack of taste and little sign of the slices of duck breast the maitre d' had waxed so lyrically about, whilst the chutney consisted of primarily of hard pieces of orange peel. The single slice of brioche was out of all proportion to the amount of terrine served. These two dishes were off the 'Daily Specials' menu, whilst the AC's dish was off the a la carte.
The onion tart had a number of issues: the pastry was so overcooked that approaching it with a fork turned it into space dust; the onions were undercooked to the point that the coarser pieces were stil hard; the stilton was virtually non-existent (which may be just as well considering the state of the cheese board!); but the 'wild roquette' was just what it said on the menu. The AC politely pointed out these shortcomings to the waitress and just as she was gaining momentum it became obvious that our fellow diner didn't have quite the appetite for complaint that we have. We'd already vetoed the idea of taking photos due to the 'embarrassment' factor!
On to the main courses. The two ladies chose Honey roasted Breast of Gressingham Duck, Confit of Leg, Potato and Spring Cabbage Cake, Cider Jus and both professed themselves happy with their choice. If we were being picky (which of course you are now expecting) the potato and spring cabbage cake was too wet and lacking in cabbage but the duck and the jus were just right. I chose the Cassoulet Toulousain – just the name conjured up visions of crispy skin yet soft meat of duck confit with a garlicky robust sausage and pieces of slow cooked belly pork nestling amongst unctuous tomatoey beans flavoured with just a hint of thyme. So what did I get? Insipid bean mush with a sausage that had no texture or discernible taste, and a duck leg that was tough and showed very little signs of being confited – I suspect it had just been slow braised. Disappointed would be an understatement! How can a restaurant have a perfectly adequate piece of confit duck on one dish yet get it so wrong on another. I tasted the AC's piece and it was a totally different experience.
The ladies chose to forgo dessert (one was full and the other just wanted to escape!) so it was left to me to give Toulouse a chance to redeem itself. In a French restaurant, what can be nicer than the cheeeseboard to round off the meal. Well, in this case, just about anything would have been better. The trolley had a large number of very sorry looking pieces of cheese and I was hard pushed to choose four that I hoped would eat better than they looked. I was, of course, wrong. They were universally rubbish with the pride of place going to the Roquefort which managed to be acidic, harsh and wet. Call me old-fashioned but I like a Digestive biscuit with my cheese but there were none to be had, plus there was only one Hovis cracker left in the stale Jacobs cracker selection. Only to be expected really! By now the AC and I were laughing at the absurdity of the evening only for it to reach new heights – the cheese was served in a shallow dessert bowl. When the AC asked why, the waitress, without a hint of irony explained they hadn't any clean side plates! If she had bothered to look around the restaurant there were empty tables, fully set as they had remained unused all evening, complete with side plates.
We called for the bill, and after a discussion with the maitre d' the AC's starter was removed but we still ended up paying the best part of £150 for a fairly awful meal. We were going to blog the meal anyway but didn't want to do a hatchet job, so I contacted the restaurant outlining the exoperience we had 'enjoyed' and inviting their comments and to the Chef's credit he came back to me with his views, some of which I found a little puzzling, so I sent another email to which I didn't get a reply.
The best comment he made was “As for the dishes served that night, most of them are removed from the menu and I am back to the drawing board to improve them”. If he knew they were sun-standard, why did he let them out of the kitchen and, more importantly, why was he happy to charge punters for them? Having watched Stephane in the kitchen, perhaps 'happy' isn't a description that sits easily on his shoulders!
His explanation of the cassoulet was also intriguing: “The Cassoulet in southwest France is a bit like roast dinner in England; every family have they own recipes and interpretations. The dish was designed by peasants to cook slowly all ingredients in one pot over the fire while they were working in the fields. Almost anything was placed in the pot with addition of “haricots blanc” and water. I am sorry that my version did not meet your expectations”. I have never eaten such a poor cassoulet and every recipe I have read fails to mention 'cook the beans until they are a mush, then throw in a bit of tough old duck and a Tesco's sausage' – perhaps I'm wrong? It was how I imagine those cheap tins you see in French supermarkets would be.
So, am I going to take up Stephane's offer of “I will be very happy to cater for you and your guests to better standards”? I'm sorry but no. I object to being charged £2 for a glass of soda water, disagree with the practice of charging £3 for a side order of a single vegetable, and, above all, do not go back to a restaurant where I had an awful meal on the promise that they will be better next time! It's a shame that, in an area where there is a marked lack of good places to eat, we have yet another restaurant in the area that has the look and prices of a London venue but without the quality of food to back it up. Given the choice, would you rather spend £48 on the set lunch at Le Gavroche or a meal at Toulouse? No contest I'm afraid.
“All fur coat and no knickers” as my mother would say!