What Have You Got, Toulouse?
A Week of Breakfasts at Queen Anne's Ornate Crowd-Pleaser
All Photos Kelly O
Toulouse Petit opened last November, serving an upscale Cajun/creole menu in lower Queen Anne (brought to you by the same owner as Peso's next door). It's become known for its insane decor and insaner morningtime happy hour, which offers approximately one billion breakfast dishes for the low, low price of $6 each from 9:00 until 11:00 a.m. every weekday. Six dollars for a hot breakfast at a place approximately one billion times fancier than Denny's—how can you lose? I went every day for a week to test it out.
Toulouse Petit's interior design might best be described as aggressively intricate. The high-ceilinged room has more than 600— six hundred—wood-framed four-by-eight-inch windowpanes. The floor gathers thousands (millions?) of square-inch tiles into abstract mosaics that ebb and flow around the room. Each tabletop has detailed inlaid wood artwork; seating is either lush leather and velour booths (in the main dining area) or wooden chairs (in the bar). Above each table dangles a golden lamp of blown glass suspended from an asymmetrical rod spiraling down from the ceiling, and the large room's different areas are demarcated with swirly wrought iron railings. The icing on the crazy cake is the heavily treated walls, from which layer upon layer of puckered plaster explodes against a yellow-and-orange spackle, creating a veritable meringue sunset. It's a lot of stuff happening at once.
And then there's the food. Confronted by Toulouse Petit's vast menu—which features no less than 30 breakfast items—I settled on the eggs forestière ($9.50 reg/$6 happy hour), a scrambled-egg concoction involving shiitake mushrooms, asparagus, and fresh herbs that was thoroughly wonderful, with a rich, carefully constructed flavor that was almost smoky while staying light. Also impressive: the coffee, roasted by Caffe Vita and served in a French press with a warmed porcelain cup. Left alone after a few bites: the Toulouse breakfast potatoes, large chunks of (over)roasted potato unremarkable in every way except in their quantity (a lot).
Day #2 began with Toulouse beignets ($4.50), served with powdered sugar and chicory anglaise and delivered to the table with the smell of the fryer still wafting off them. "The beignets at Cafe Du Monde aren't any better than this," said my dining mate as we cleaned the plate, driven in part by the chicory dipping sauce, whose odd brownish-gray color held a complex coffee/hazelnut flavor that was addictive.
My entrée was the classic egg breakfast ($9.50 reg/$6 happy hour), with two over-medium eggs, sliced avocado and tomato (in place of bacon/sausage), and one of Toulouse's creole buttermilk biscuits. The eggs were fine, the avocado/tomato was plentiful but added little in the way of taste, and the biscuit blew my head off. Toulouse's biscuits are small—roughly the size of a silver dollar and two inches high—but they produce layer after layer of flaky perfection, ready to be slathered with French butter and berry jam, and rich enough that eating just one makes perfect sense.
My dining mate had the cured pork cheeks confit hash ($10.50 reg/$6 happy hour), a layered tangle of arugula, parsnips, eggs, onion, potatoes, and pork that was so generously portioned she could eat only half and so impressively flavorful she was happy to take the rest home. Our friendly, spiffy server (even at breakfast, the Toulouse staff is in slacks and dress shirts) was pleased to provide a to-go box.
Another day, another dining mate—this one enjoyed the classic egg breakfast with the house-made sausage ("good, but heavy on the fennel") and another pile of Toulouse potatoes, which he also felt compelled to ignore after a couple bites: "They taste like Ore-Ida." Meanwhile, I selected another fancy scrambled- egg dish—eggs with Jerusalem artichokes ($9.50 reg/$6 happy hour), served with the listed shallots and tomato-and-garlic confit (featuring big soft cloves of garlic) and unlisted parsnips, which were fine but added to the ragbag feel of the dish. Where Monday's eggs forestière were a thoughtfully accomplished delight, today's eggs with artichokes etc. seemed tossed together, more like a typical diner scramble.
This is the day that the Toulouse Petit audio component fully sinks in. The soundtrack is a never-ending parade of alterna-rock standard aptly described by a local restaurant- review site as "dishwasher's iPod." For the record, I approve of the dishwasher's iPod. I would consider attending a club night called Dishwasher's iPod. But the Toulouse Petit's dishwasher's iPod needs to lay off the Citizen Cope.
On this post–St. Patrick's Day morning, Toulouse Petit fills up early with the usual neighborhood crowd of businessfolk and tourists, along with more than a few bleary-eyed hangover cases. But all I can think about is Sandra Bullock, forced into the morning headlines by her husband's alleged adulterous affair with a literal contender for the Worst Woman in the World. There's nothing like the man you love cheating on you with a Nazi stripper to make even a beautiful Oscar-winning actress feel like a sack of shit. To offset the unfairness of life, I order dessert for breakfast: crème caramel French toast ($7.50 reg/$6 happy hour), featuring big fat slices of French bread fried in a light egg batter and served with Belle de Brillet pear-brandy caramel and fresh strawberries. The caramel-bread was delicious by definition, and the strawberries did a good job of offsetting the face-puckering sweetness. Jesse James remains a tool (in part for forcing me to have sympathetic feelings for Sandra Bullock).
Day #5 brought the fullest house yet to Toulouse's breakfast happy hour, which is clearly filling a niche on lower Queen Anne, especially for those put off by the nearby Mecca Cafe (which offers comparably priced diner food in a much grungier setting). Joining me were two guests, both of whom investigated the meatier corners of the menu. Guest #1 ordered the biscuits and spicy creole sausage gravy ($8.75 reg/$6 happy hour), featuring a pair of those miraculous mini-biscuits drizzled with garlic sausage and cream gravy. He was underwhelmed, as the glory of the biscuits was hampered by the unimpressive gravy, which he described as "thin" and "lacking body." Guest #2 had a similarly bumpy experience with the crawfish étouffée and eggs ($12.75 reg/$6 happy hour), which offered admirable spiciness while suffering from a "funky grease dispersion" in the less-than-emulsified étouffée and almost entirely lacking the promised creamy corn grits ("I got like one grit!"). Meanwhile, I had a comparatively good experience with a fried egg breakfast sandwich ($9.50 reg/$6 happy hour), served on light rye toast with the triple whammy of shredded lettuce, tomato, and avocado making the whole thing a flavorful if lukewarm mess. On the side: pomme frites, a big tangle of thin-cut fries that were appropriately crunchy and salty but also lukewarm.
Over the course of the week, I'd managed to sample (either firsthand or vicariously) only a fraction of the breakfast menu, but I'd learned everything I needed to know on the first day: Toulouse Petit has a massive breakfast menu, and some of it is very good, and some not so much. For six bucks, though, it's worth taking a chance.