During our trip to Western Michigan, we spent some time in the small arts and shopping community of Saugatuck. We'd been in Saugatuck once before and found it to be a nice little community with a big harbor filled with a number of large boats that were seaworthy enough to be on Lake Michigan. We were looking for some place nice to have a fine dining experience in Saugatuck and came across a little French style restaurant - Restaurant Toulouse - or "Toulouse" as it's known to the locals.
Toulouse has been open for a little over 20 years, housed in a historic building in Saugatuck, just up the way from the city's marina (see map). The building stands on what was the site of an old boarding house/hotel in Saugatuck - the Union House Hotel (it was also known as the Sherwood Hotel). The original building was first used as a boarding house for workers in a sawmill owned by the man who built the place. Later on as a hotel, it played host to a number of sailors, woodsmen and traders who drank and danced with the young prostitutes who worked the hotel. A number of townspeople weren't sorry when the hotel was destroyed by fire in 1897.
In 1905, a local man, Roger Reed, built a new building to house his feed, livery and stagecoach station business. This is the present day Restaurant Toulouse. Progress in the form of the new-fangled automobile meant the end of Reed's livery and stagecoach station and it later became a fire station before the city of Saugatuck built a new fire station a number of years ago.
In 1990, Ellen Heyer bought the building and worked with a local architect to restore the building and turn it into a fine dining establishment. They completely renovated the inside, but restored the outside of the building to the same standards as it was when it was built in the early 20th century. Heyer also owns Chequers, an English gastropub just down the street from Toulouse. (There is also a Chequers in the Chicago suburb of La Grange.)
We had made reservations for 8 p.m. at the restaurant. We were a little early when we went in and went to the hostess counter inside the front door. The bar area had a fireplace and some tables with white tablecloths on top. I understand there's a larger dining area for spillover and/or private dining. We were asked if we wanted to sit inside or outside. It was a lovely evening and we immediately asked for outdoor seating. The young hostess left for a moment to check to see if a table was set up. She came back and escorted us to the outdoor dining patio.
We were seated at a table just near the awning of the very nice patio area. There were a number of diners on the patio, but not enough that it was packed with people. We were given our menus and told that Jimi would be our waiter for the evening.
Most of the food at Toulouse has a French/International theme to it with a bit of American thrown in. They try to use the freshest ingredients by buying locally raised foods and prepare them fresh each day they're open. (Toulouse is open Thursday thru Sunday from 5 p.m. until 10 p.m. in the summer. Off season hours vary, we were told.) The menu features a number of interesting appetizers, bistro favorites and French auberge-style entrees. (An auberge - pronounced aw-BERJ - is basically a rural French restaurant that serves food that is raised in the immediate area - the original concept of "farm to fork". For years, auberges were restricted to serving only food that is raised or grown in that specific French province or in the province next to the home province. But from what I understand on my trips to France they've lightened the restrictions to allow some inner-provinces to serve seafood. But most auberges continue to serve locally grown and raised food.)
We had quite a while to look over the menu and the wine list as Jimi was talking with a table of four seated near us. It turned out they were friends of his who had come over for drinks and an appetizer. He was paying much more attention to them than he was his other tables until a lady - whom I presumed to be Ellen Heyer - came over to remind him that he needed to check on his tables.
We knew we were going to get wine with the meal, but Cindy wanted a drink to start out. She had a hankering for a mai-tai while we were in Michigan for some reason and she found that Toulouse featured a mai-tai martini. She ordered one of those for a pre-dinner drink. I asked Jimi if they had Barcardi Limon. He asked one of the other waiters if they had it in the bar and the waiter confirmed that they did. So I ordered a Bacardi Limon and Lemonade. Jimi said, "Ah, but we don't have lemonade. We have sweet tea." It reminded me of being in Savannah where NO ONE had lemonade to be able to go with the Bacardi Limon. I took a quick look through the beer menu they had and found a Bell's Amber Ale on tap. I got that to go along with Cindy's mai-tai martini (pictured right).
Toulouse's executive chef Curt Baas offered some pretty interesting appetizers on the menu including pan-seared Foie Gras served on a crostini spread with goat cheese. They also had an onion-stuffed brie available that evening as well as a chicken pate for appetizers. I almost pulled the trigger on the onion-stuffed brie, but Cindy had her eye on the pickled beet and goat cheese salad, served along with fresh spinach and marinated onions then sprinkled with crushed walnuts. I decided to get the caprese salad with fresh roma tomatoes on top of a bed of cucumber strips, topped with sliced fresh mozzarella and fresh chopped basil and drizzled with olive oil and balsamic vinegar.
For our main entree, I really wanted to get Toulouse's signature dish, Cassoulet (pronounced cass-o-LAY). This French auberge-style entree featured a duck leg with great northern beans, bacon, pork sausage and duck confit. That sounded good and interesting. But I also saw something that caught my eye - Coquille St. Jacques (pronounced co-KEEL saint zjock). I had Coquille St. Jacques on my first visit to Montreal 10 years ago tomorrow when I was there interviewing for my current job. The Coquille St. Jacques I had in Montreal featured shrimp with mushrooms in a cream sherry sauce, then topped with mashed potatoes and baked in the oven broiler. The Coquille St. Jacques at Toulouse was similar, but used scallops instead of shrimp. The Coquille St. Jacques I had in Montreal was the first and last time I had gotten that and it was a memorable meal as I was offered - and subsequently accepted - the position I hold today. It continues to be the best job I've ever had.
Cindy was looking hard at the marinated and grilled lamb chops, as well as the chicken piccata - a thin-breaded chicken breast drizzled with a lemon caper beurre blanc (white butter) sauce. If they had that in a veal dish, I would have hopped on that. But she ended up settling on the walleye entree that had sort of a Mexican flare to it. They take a walleye filet and roll it in a combination of corn meal and chili powder before it's baked. The walleye filet is then rested on a bed of bell pepper quinoa (pronounced KIN-wah), then it's topped with a chopped salsita consisting of jalapeno, apple, avacado and orange.
When Jimi finally came back after kibitzing with his friends for awhile, we were ready to order the salads and the main entrees. Since we were both getting fish/seafood, I also ordered up a bottle of a 2008 Franciscan Sauvignon Blanc. They also had the Ferrari-Carano Fume Blanc on the wine list, but Cindy wanted something a little more fruity than dry that evening.
Jimi brought out our salads and soon delivered the chilled wine to the table. Cindy was still nursing her mai-tai martini so we told him to hold off on opening the wine. He put it in the ice bucket and we dug into the salads.
My caprese salad was very good. The tomatoes - even for early in the season - were fresh enough, as was the very flavorful basil. Instead of decked like a regular caprese salad, the tomato slices, the fresh mozzarella slices and the basil were all sort of interspersed on the plate. The oil and balsamic vinegar was light, yet had a great taste to it.
Cindy's beet and goat cheese salad (above right) was a rather large bowl that had chunks of cheese, walnuts, onions and pickled beets tossed on a bed of fresh spinach. She said the salad was delicious and offered me some, but I declined. I did give her some of my caprese salad which she liked immensely as well. She said, "You know, we could have split one of these salads." But, aaah! It was a nice meal at a nice restaurant. We needed to splurge and try things.
Jimi's friends had left and a large table he was helping was also finished for the evening so he had a little more time to pay attention to his other tables, including us. He came over to open the bottle of wine and asked how our salads were. "Great," Cindy exclaimed. "I would have never thought that a combination of pickled beets, goat cheese and spinach would be so good. Heck, I could make this at home!"
Jimi said, "Isn't it amazing how something so simple can be so good?"
Not long after we finished our salads, Jimi brought out the main entrees. My Coquille St. Jacques was piping hot out of the oven. And Cindy's walleye had a nice presentation with three or four golden brown filets resting on the bed of bell pepper quinoa. Fried zucchini - the vegetable du jour - rested on top of my bed of potatoes with the scallops, mushrooms and cream sherry sauce underneath. Cindy also got a side of zucchini with her fish.
The Coquille St. Jacques was very good and very rich. The potatoes had a nice carmelization and crustiness on top. The scallops and mushrooms lying below the bed of potatoes were both very good. I especially liked the cream sherry sauce they had with the Coquille St. Jacques.
Cindy showed me that the walleye was light and flaky and we traded bites of the scallops and potatoes and the walleye. The one thing that got Cindy, though, was the green bell pepper quinoa. We'd never had quinoa before - hell, we'd never heard of quinoa before. She had to ask Jimi what it was again halfway through dinner and he told us that it was the seeds from a South American or Spanish grain that was high in protein. "A lot of vegetarians eat quinoa," another waiter interjected. I had a couple bites and it was sort of crunchy, yet cooked. It had an agreeable taste.
Cindy immediately said that she wanted to find some quinoa to make at home. We were told a lot of vegetarian and/or natural health food stores had quinoa. She said, "Geez, as many times that I've gone into health food stores in the past I've probably seen it, but didn't know what it was!"
We ate at a leisurely pace and thoroughly enjoyed not only our dinner, but the pleasant evening. Once Jimi's friends left, he was much more attentive to us and we found him to be a nice guy. Once we were finished, he asked us if we'd be interesting in any dessert. The Coquille St. Jacques was very rich and filling, and I wasn't certain I wanted anything other than, maybe, a scotch. He dropped off a dessert menu and Cindy found creme brulee. She wanted the creme brulee - two spoons - and I got a glass of The Macallan 12-year scotch.
The creme brulee was good, but not the best we've had. We didn't even take a picture of it because it was dark out (it was close to 10 p.m. and small LED lights helped keep a nice ambiance within the outdoor patio) and it looked like any other creme brulee we've had. As I said, it was good and rich, and we had trouble finishing it. Cindy finished her last glass of wine, I leisurely sipped on my scotch. It was a great night outside and we were savoring our very good meal.
And it was a very good meal at Restaurant Toulouse. Once Jimi's friends went away and he became more attentive, he did a great job. It had been a long time since I'd had Coquille St. Jacques and it was as good as I remember it to be 10 years ago. Cindy loved her walleye and was happy to learn about quinoa. Toulouse was relaxing and an overall fine meal. We decided that it was a perfect meal for a perfect night.
(Update - After 24 years, Ellen and Dave Heyer closed Restaurant Toulouse in May of 2015. They also closed Chequers at the same time. It had been open since 1988. The reasons for the closures were reported to be "unknown".)