They say that when life gives you lemons, you make lemonade. Well, when life gives you cold and rainy weather for weeks on end, you should seek comfort and refuge in a hot savory casole of Cassoulet :) Those that recall my longstanding affinity cum obsession with this deceptively simple dish of meat and beans will not be shocked to find out that I've already begun my seasonal affair with this wonderful bite of Provence.
Thus with a good friend's birthday looming, I casually offered to take him out to dinner to celebrate the ocassion. Of course, when the notion of exactly where we should go for dinner arose, I suggested a French restaurant. Initially, I suggested Chapeau! because I've enjoyed their Cassoulet in the past. However, as I was sorting through a sea of fond memories of duck and goose confit, garlic sausage, salt pork, and rich creamy beans under a crunchy garlicky crust, I thought why not try some place new?
As I recalled Ruth's recent experience at Cafe Rouge, two things stood out in my mind. First, she was there for her birthday. Second, though I can't recall what she had, I do remember she had mentioned that Cassoulet had made the cut for their seasonal menu. Then it all made perfect sense. Now I thought, here is a place that has their own meat counter. They make their own sausages and more importantly, their own duck confit! Surely this must be the place to go.
Fortunately, my friend shares my love of the dish (most likely one of the reasons why we are friends). So, with a quick call, the reservations were made. Now it had been a little while since my last visit to Cafe Rouge and I had forgotten how nice their dining room actually is. They seem to have changed the decor a bit and made the bar more diner friendly. The bar is now an inviting bistro type affair with wines by the glass listed on chalkboards along with the "bar menu" which includes their wonderful Niman Ranch hamburger and several other drink friendly items, including a curious but enticing mention of "beef jerky" at the bottom. That's probably the first restaurant I can recall have the timerity to include a beef dish so unique on its menu, bar or otherwise.
We were quickly seated and had to exercise restraint in not simply shouting out our order. However, we did peruse the menu and it looked very interesting. My friend decided to start with a salad in a vain attempt to offset the richness of the Cassoulet to come. He chose the grilled Chickory salad which was tasty and served with a nice vinegarette that complimented the smokey bite of the Chickory very well. I ordered the carrot and blood yam soup since I also have a thing for carrot soup (my favorite being the carrot and ginger version at King's Road Cafe in L.A., but I digress). The soup was hot and inviting and a good way to ready myself for the main course. I expected more sweetness and body from the blood yams, but I suspect that there was a heavy predominance of carrots in the soup. In short, it was tasty, but I definitely had more interesting versions. Even a drizzle of pumpkin seed oil or truffle oil would have jazzed it up nicely. (Really though, who am I kidding? I didn't go there for the soup :)
It is worth noting that the two tops are fairly close together along the wall, so we had an opportunity to observe our neighboring tables' orders. Meat was definitely the order of the day. In particular, the steak frites seemed to be popular. Now, I can't say that the thought of a marbled piece of Niman Ranch beef perfectly cooked and topped with a dollop of red wine and shallot butter didn't get the old mouth watering, but it bears mentioning that when our excellent waitress set down two steaming hot earthenware dishes of Cassoulet, all eyes looked to our table. Hushed comments of "What's that?" "That looks really good!" and the ever woeful "I should've gotten that/I'll get that next time" could be heard from both sides.
With a quick but heartfelt birthday toast we tucked into our Cassoulet. The crust was nicely browned and gave way to an excellent garlicky sausage that was definitely housemade as it was a whole link rather than a sliced portion of a larger one. It's natural casing popped and contained a properly coarse filling that was very satisfying. The pork had been slowly cooked and was fork tender and moist. A dry or overly salty piece of pork is usually the tell if dish was rushed or shortcut. The centerpiece of course, was the duck confit. Wonderfully crisp on the outside, yet tender and flavorful on the inside, this was proper confit.
Now the trick with Cassoulet undoubtedly, is to get all of these ingredients to marry their flavors and aromas into one harmonious meal. The unifying component then is the beans. As I have mentioned in prior posts on the subject, there is much disagreement as to the proper bean to use. Even between the founding towns of Carcassonne, Castlenaudry and Toulouse, there is no concurrence other than that the bean should be white. For myself, I care only that the skin not be overly tough, and that the bean be rich and creamy as can only be achieved through the long slow cooking process. Specifically, when pork fat, duck fat, and garlic surround the beans and eventually impart their heady tastes to the very center of the beans, then that's all I need to know.
Cafe Rouge took a chance and some culinary liberties by selecting an Italian bean for its version of Cassoulet. Now, while I realize that the Fraternal Order of Cassoulet (I'm not making that up) would likely frown upon such a deviation from tradition, here again, I'm more forgiving if the outcome is positive. Still, upon inspecting a large white Corona bean, I was somewhat skeptical that this Fava sized legume would have a good result. Happily, after biting into its soft toothsome flesh, I was pleased to find it creamy and delicious with all the flavors of the other ingredients well represented therein.
Overall, the dish was an excellent version of one of my favorites. The portion was generous and the quality of the meats was more than up to expectations of a restaurant with its own meatcounter in the back. As the two women dining next to us inquired as to how it was, I described it in detail and recommended that they try it next time. Both agreed that a return trip would be made in the near future to do just that.
Desserts were simple and pleasing, if not a bit uninteresting after the showcase entree. My friend had the warm chocolate cake with peanut ice cream and I had the berry tart. The warm chocolate cake, which has already been the people's choice accross many restaurants was decent, but not quite as "molten" in the center as others I've had. The peanut ice cream was very subtle and not the peanut butter meets Dryer's concoction that I was expecting. My berry tart was not the bubbling crisp on the outside, hot and inviting on the inside sort of dessert that I had thought would compliment my savory Cassoulet. Instead, it was a slice of a regular tart that was warmed slightly. In a perfect world, I would have skipped the desserts and gone accross the street to that wonderful little ice cream shop that does the rustic Italian desserts for a more dynamic finish.
Well, this has turned out to be another lengthy post, so I will again thank all who managed to make their way to the finish :) Cafe Rouge is one of those great little places that I've forgotten about and rediscovered happily several times. As always, their meats are the showcase, whether it be staples such as their Niman Ranch hamburger or seasonal dishes like the Cassoulet we so enjoyed. So, when the wind is howling, the rain is coming down in sheets thick as lead, and you just can't seem to shake that chill in your bones, I suggest you bundle up and find a hot steaming casole of Cassoulet. Trust me, all will be well.