After months of feverish anticipation, the first of eight restaurants at the luxurious mixed-use development River Oaks District is getting ready to make its debut. Toulouse Café and Bar, a French brasserie concept from Dallas-based restaurant group Lombardi Family Concepts, will open for dinner April 4. It's the first of two Lombardi Family restaurants to come to ROD; Italian restaurant Taverna will open in May.
While the restaurant may be from out of town, diners will find familiar faces in the dining room and the kitchen. Owner Alberto Lombardi has hired Philippe Schmit as executive chef and former Smith & Wollensky general manager Giorgio Ferrero to run the dining room.
"I asked around which one was the best chef in Houston, because we like to hire local people. They told me there was a famous chef, Philippe; they call him the 'French Cowboy,'" Lombardi tells CultureMap. "I call him. We have a meeting. I took him out to talk about philosophy. We say, 'Let’s do it. Let’s try.' As an Italian, we say, we make him an offer he couldn’t refuse."
Working at Toulouse marks Schmit's return to full-time restaurant cooking for the first time since his abrupt departure from the Galleria-area restaurant that once bore his name (now La Table). Of course, he's remained busy. After splitting with Philippe in 2013, the chef organized a Houston visit by the Master Chefs of France, consulted on the menu for Highland Village restaurant Drexel House, and helped bakery/cafe Flo Paris turn into one of 2015's most pleasant surprises.
"I’m happy to go back to real life as a chef," Schmit says. "I still have my hands full, but at least it’s in one kitchen."
Expect that one kitchen to be very busy. Toulouse has what may be River Oaks District's most desirable location: right in the middle of the complex, adjacent to Dior. A climate-controlled patio looks out onto a courtyard, which should become an excellent place for people watching. Inside, both the large bar area and expansive dining room look into the open kitchen. The room itself recalls Thomas Keller's casual Bouchon Bistro with a pressed-tin ceiling, wood-paneled walls, marble table tops, and a tile floor.
To fit its location, Lombardi says that Houston's Toulouse will be a little fancier than its Dallas counterpart. "In Dallas, it’s much more bistro, easygoing. This is more brasserie, meaning the layout (with the larger bar area). Even the menu is a little bit different. We emphasis a little more on steak, seafood, besides the classic things you expect to find in a French restaurant: escargot, beef bourguignon, duck confit, steak frites, le moules."
Schmit and corporate chef Renato Di Pirro are working to finalize the menu, which will blend dishes that have worked at Toulouse with some of Schmit's classics like bouillabaisse and escargot. Specifically, Lombardi notes that the restaurant has become known for its "mussels on steroids" (due to their size), which will come in three varieties with or without pommes frites.
Entree prices at dinner start in the mid-20s and run up to $44 for lamb chops, but most items are clustered from $28 to $34.
In addition to lunch, dinner, and brunch, Toulouse will serve breakfast during the week. Lombardi says he expects breakfast to appeal to businesspeople who want something a little more elegant than what they might find at a hotel or coffee shop. Look for omelets and other egg dishes, pastries such as croissants, coffee, and fresh-squeezed juices.
Taken together, Toulouse looks to be a combination of a number of successful Houston restaurants. The French-inspired menu (including cold seafood options), lively bar scene, and expansive patio have all been components of Brasserie 19's success. All-day utility is something recently introduced as part of La Table's transformation.
Both Schmit and Ferrero are veterans at giving Houstonians what they want, and their experience should help Toulouse get off to a strong start. If everything comes together, Toulouse will both kick start River Oaks District as a dining destination and earn the title of Houston's first significant restaurant opening of 2016. No pressure.