1815 N 45th St, 547-5791
Tues-Sun 5-10:30 pm, Thurs-Fri 11:30 am-2:30 pm, Sat-Sun 10:30 am-3 pm.
2359 10th Ave E, 329-0580
Sun-Thurs 5-10 pm, Fri-Sat 5-11 pm.
1600 Post Alley at Pine St, 728-2233 (cassoulet hotline: 448-7740)
Lunch Mon-Fri 11 am-5 pm; dinner Sun-Thurs 5-10 pm, Fri-Sat 5:30-11 pm; brunch Sat-Sun 8 am-4 pm.
Cassoulet is not the kind of thing any sane person should eat three nights in a row. Oh, I suppose if you're a farmer in Languedoc, plowing the fields from morning to night, a beany casserole full of sausage, duck confit, and hunks of bacon might help you get a few extra furrows in before nightfall, but for a semi-sedentary cook/writer it's a little much. Besides, I'd kind of sworn off the stuff after a year of working at the prime cassoulet factory in this country, Berkeley's Chez Panisse. Week after week we'd make super-specific regional varieties of the dish, sweating bullets to stuff and truss dozens of goose-neck sausages between 2:00 p.m., when we'd arrive, and 5:30 p.m., when the first customers would be seated. But it's been a few years now, the duck fat in my veins has dissipated, and I'd been hearing murmurs about cassoulets around town. I figured I could give it another go.
Night one, I went to Au Bouchon bistro in Wallingford, where cassoulet is a periodic special on winter Saturday nights. I wasn't the only one who wanted a beany fix: The restaurant was full and a little harried when we arrived. We nibbled on escargot before the main course. Here's my feeling on snails: They're fine, pleasantly chewy (my dining companion, who apprehensively chewed her snail for at least two minutes before swallowing, may disagree), but they still taste a little like dirt in the end. But dirt doused in buttery garlic sauce is kind of pleasant anyway.
The cassoulet ($20) arrived in big bowls, with plump garlic sausages prominently stacked on top, but the fun of cassoulet is in the quasi-archaeological dig for goodies: hunks of duck confit, chunks of lamb, bits of bacony goodness, and, yes, more beans. Au Bouchon's beans, white flageolets to be specific, are bold: They're salty (good salty, but salty nonetheless), herby, with big lamb overtones. The sausage is succulent, the duck a little sparse, and the portion wildly generous. I could only finish about half of mine, including some that I gave to my friend the snail-doubter, who had less luck with her pork loin.
The next night, I just couldn't eat out. I wanted... television, I wanted a sofa. So instead of eating in Cassis' soft-lit dining room, I ordered the Sunday-night special, cassoulet ($22), to go. It turns out cassoulet thrives in privacy, since it's roughly the same kind of indulgence as eating ice cream straight from the carton. Cassis was kind enough to loan me a cassoulet dish, and when I pulled it out at home, I found a prickly layer of bread crumbs, deeply browned, hiding the bounty of the cassoulet. This crusty element was totally missing in the Au Bouchon version, and until I launched into Cassis', I didn't realize how much I'd missed it. More bread crumbs mingled with the beans, making a cohesive pudding studded with its disparate elements: whole duck leg, sausage, tender pieces of pork, and home-smoked bacon.
"Why didn't my mother tell me about this kind of food?" my husband asked dolefully as we sat down for our third and final cassoulet. Had she willfully held back on him regarding one of life's great greasy pleasures? Once again we were eating at home, using Cafe Campagne's take-home cassoulet kit ($16). Andrew, a near-total non-cook, had prepared it, combining the containers of broth with the beans and meat, and, after the dish had been in the oven a while, applying bread crumbs and browning them. Campagne's version was even more tender and stewy than its predecessors, with a mixture of beans for textural fun, pull-apart lumps of pork and lamb, and occasional assertive flecks of ham hock for punctuation. If it hadn't been my favorite version already, the lower price would have swayed me. We may be lacking good Chinese takeout in this city, but at least you can fall back on French.