People of Seattle, let me call your attention to something important. Fall is well under way, winter is fast approaching, and most of you are walking around with some seriously dour expressions peeking out from underneath your knit hats. You need some cassoulet.
Why is it so urgent that you eat this hearty stew? Because the first bite is instantly soothing. You are mentally transported to a library with shelves of rich, lustrous mahogany. There is a colossal fire. The stew is impossibly smooth and decadent. You are sopping it up with crusty, chewy, yet oh-so-airy baguette. Three months of pissing rain, pre-happy-hour sunsets, and miserable cold ain't got shit on you. You feel as though you're harboring a Duraflame log in your innards. Your soul is not only warmed, it has become warmth.
Cassoulet's origins can be traced to the Languedoc region in southern France. The legend goes that the stew was born of desperation during the Black Prince's siege of Castelnaudary during the Hundred Years' War. The townspeople gathered what food they had left and stewed it up. Naturally, as Frenchmen, they ended up with a culinary marvel.
Like many other French classics, it has a basic formula with a bazillion hotly debated variations. The dish's most vital components are white beans, water, duck or goose confit, and sausage simmered for a very long time—along with a varying cast of supporting characters including but not limited to pork, rabbit, partridge, lamb, and mutton. The exact ingredients matter very little. The important thing is that it all goes in your stomach. Luckily, there are several places in town where this can be accomplished.
At Cafe Campagne (1600 Post Alley, 728-2233, cafecampagne.com), cassoulet is something of a signature dish. They've been serving it up in their iconic orange Le Creuset crocks—accompanied by a Columbia City Bakery baguette in a wire basket and a perfect triangle of clarified butter—for as long as I can remember. The dish is what you would expect from an old favorite. Its formula hasn't been tweaked in ages, and it offers no surprises: tender pork, hearty chunks of lamb, and a bone-in duck leg or thigh. The dish's great northern beans have a slightly pasty texture, which is, unfortunately, par for the course given their girth.
But while cassoulet is a dish that depends on excellent ingredients, it also transcends them. And the cafe's cassoulet, taken as the sum of its parts, does exactly what cassoulet does best: warms you to the core and sends you out into the cold liberally larded with heat-conserving fat. And leftovers: I split a green salad and an order of cassoulet ($24) with a companion and still had some to spare. When asked for a box, our waitress gave us a knowing smile and returned with a tip: It's better the day after, and better still with a fried egg on top. And, if the lovely weather has got you feeling so miserable and antisocial that you can't even stomach interacting with Cafe Campagne's delightful waitstaff, you can also take home a fancy unbaked version, so you can enjoy this dish in bed, in sweats, or, ideally, in both.
Speaking of cassoulet for breakfast, Renee Erickson and Susan Kaplan have resurrected their superb version of the dish just in time for winter at Boat Street Cafe and Kitchen (3131 Western Ave #301, 632-4602, boatstreetkitchen.com), their charmingly French/Northwest hole-in-the-wall. Their secret? French coco beans, so named for their coconut-like shape. They are expensive, but it's clear from the first bite why Kaplan uses them: They cook through to a superlatively soft texture without giving up their autonomy as individual beans.
Kaplan also includes carrots in her dish and leaves them in, unlike some. "I'm kind of a lazy cook," she joked, although the details of her stew indicate otherwise. To wit, she removes the skin from the duck confit to reserve it for a brunch benedict that is probably worth killing kittens for, but does not give the cassoulet short shrift, replacing the duck skin with a perfect rectangle of sizzling pork skin, scraped of its excess fat to give it the perfect texture.
Despite such extravagances, the dish is relatively light, served with a petite hunk of toasted baguette, a lightly dressed salad, and thin slices of Granny Smith apple. The cassoulet itself comes in a much smaller crock than any of the others I tried, pared down for its role as a midday dish—it's available exclusively for brunch and lunch and costs $18. Still, it's a dish that would adequately fuel you up before a vigorous Sunday hike. Emerging into the bracing November afternoon from the semi-subterranean atrium that houses the cafe, I was neither chilled by the bitter cold nor slowed by too heavy a meal—a phenomenon I can only describe as "peak cassoulet."
For my final cassoulet, I decided to try the version at Voilà! (2805 E Madison St, 322-5460, voilabistrot.com) because I was intrigued by their use of fresh tomatoes. Serendipitously, I went on a Sunday, which is half-price bottle night at Voilà! I couldn't resist, and I'm glad I didn't. The cassoulet at Voilà! is definitely of the rich and decadent variety, and it demands a wine to match. In a vain attempt to offset the extravagance of the entrée, my guest and I shared an endive salad. Though it is an excellent salad—the bitterness of the endives is perfectly balanced by creamy flecks of blue cheese and the occasional walnut—it was an ultimately futile gesture. When the cassoulet arrived, I immediately forgot the salad. Hell, I nearly forgot salads in general.
If there are two philosophies of cassoulet—one that gives prominence to the beans and one that gives prominence to the meats—Voilà!'s version falls squarely in the latter camp. The amount of meat is lavish, given the dish's relatively average price of $25. There is a whole hindquarter of duck confit. There are crispy knots of lamb—the blackened crust giving way to an impossibly tender interior. There is sausage—wide, thinly sliced disks of sausage. But the highlight is the tomato chunks—delightfully tangy and piquant—which add a brightness to the dish that meat and beans alone cannot achieve.
I'd recommend all three of these places, but they're not the only options for cassoulet in Seattle. I've heard wonderful things about the cassoulet at Cassis, out at Alki, and I know that Bastille, in Ballard, has been a steady source of cassoulet in years past (though I hear that theirs is something of a deconstructed cassoulet, with the sausage and duck confit resting atop a ragout of white beans). Le Zinc also offers cassoulet, though only on Tuesdays. And Luc, Thierry Rautureau's French bistro that sits directly across the street from Voilà!, has it on their menu as well.
It matters little where you get cassoulet, so long as you do. Because, while it may not cure your seasonal affective disorder outright, it will at least give you a contented glow, allowing you to wave at your neighbors, smile at your fellow pedestrians, give directions to tourists, and engage in all manner of other very un-Seattleite niceties. It's a truly transformative dish.
Bastille Cafe & Bar
5307 Ballard Ave NW, 453-5014, bastilleseattle.com
Available "for the season" (the season being now until your thermal leggings go back in their drawer), for $25. With duck, pork belly, and sausage.
Boat Street Cafe and Kitchen
3131 Western Ave #301, 632-4602, boatstreetkitchen.com
Seasonally available for brunch and lunch, for $18. With duck confit, house-made Toulouse sausage, lamb, pork, and pork skin (yes, pork skin). There just might be a God.
1600 Post Alley, 728-2233, cafecampagne.com
Available daily for lunch and dinner, for $24. With duck confit, braised lamb shoulder, sausage, and pork served up in the cafe's iconic orange Le Creuset mini-crocks.
2820 Alki Ave SW, 743-8531, cassisalki.com
Available for dinner every night except Tuesday, for $27 (or $50 for two). With lamb, duck confit, and sausage.
1449 E Pine St, 257-4151, le-zn.com
Available for dinner on Tuesdays, for $28. With pork shoulder, ham hock, sausage, and confit duck leg.
2800 E Madison St, 328-6645, thechefinthehat.com/luc-restaurant-seattle
Available for dinner nightly, for $24. With duck confit, crispy pork belly, sausage, and a superfluous but likely delicious arugula salad.
2805 E Madison St, 322-5460, voilabistrot.com
Available as a special "almost every night" for $25. With bacon, lamb, sausage, duck confit, and an intriguing innovation on the dish: fresh tomato chunks.
Editor's note: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that French coco beans cost $26 per pound, and that they are the preferred bean of choice in French cassoulet. This version has been corrected.