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LE COLOMBIER, TOULOUSE: RESTAURANT REVIEW

Opinions are most often formed through first impressions and early experience. That's OK. First impressions can be spot on. The deal that appears at first blush to be too good to be true probably is too good to be true. The trick in reviewing restaurants, which by its very nature is 100% opinion, is to overcome your preconceptions, treat each meal as a unique experience, and review what's on the plate in front of you on its own merits.

Chili, for example, comes in many styles and colors. For most of my life, chili was best defined as bean stew. If you didn't like beans, you didn't like the average dish served up as chili regardless of the amount of beef or fatback or tomatoes were incorporated. I don't particularly like beans.

But then there's Texas chili, a dish that I came to late in life. Simple, almost elegant. Beef and chili powder and not much else. You can add onion or dried chili peppers or cumin. But imagine that you are riding herd out on the range. All that you really need to make chili is a cow, a little leather pouch with your favorite chili blend, a sharp knife, a pot, and a fire.

In other words, after a lifetime of eschewing chili based on that terrible stuff that they served us for lunch in my New Jersey elementary school cafeteria, I learned that at least one form of chili could provide a most satisfactory gastronomical experience. Having made it that far, I could then rate those other faux chilis for what they were...variations on a meritorious theme.

We're in France, though. Southwest France, more precisely. If there's a dish that is as varied in execution as chili, not to mention a dish also featuring beans, cassoulet comes immediately to mind. Some call it the national dish of France. For that reason, there's a wealth of information available in print and online to guide a taste tester. Briefly, there are three general types of cassoulet, divided by region: Toulouse, Carcassonne, and Castelnaudary. I will not go into the details, not only because the rules are as arcane as the rules governing cricket, but also because there are sufficient points of contention even within the borders of each of the Cassoulet Trinity's regions themselves to make simplistic comparisons useless. The beans. The meats. The crust. The moisture. It's all up for grabs.

Yes. An actual restaurant review follows.

My wife Cathey, my sister-in-law Connie, and I recently spent a few days in Toulouse, a brief change of scenery prior to putting Connie on a plane bound for the Colonies. We took daily advantage of the varied local cuisine. One restaurant that Connie had come upon in her reading about French food was Le Colombier, touting signature Castelnaudary cassoulet. We made reservations.

Le Colombier has occupied a pleasant stone and wood space, formerly a stable and a postal relay station, since 1873. There's that white tablecloth, cloth napkin, sparkling silver and crystal feel that comes with age and old school sensibilities. Our server was pleasant and cheerful, practicing her quite good English as we replied in our serviceable French. We felt comfortable, never rushed and never ignored, on a mid-week night in the half-full house.

Since the girls both went for the cassoulet, and since I knew that they would provide an informed, honest opinion, I decided to try something different. I began with a smoked salmon appetizer - good quality salmon sliced thicker than usual, served with a dab of whipped, herbed cheese and assorted greens. Well done. For my main, duck tartare. I enjoy a good beef tartare but this was my first try at duck. Our server pulled a small table over next to ours and proceeded to make a light mayonnaise from scratch, then added shallot and capers and other goodies. The mound of seasoned tartare that resulted was simply wonderful, fresh and sweet and delicious.

Now, the cassoulet.   

Served as it should be, piping hot in their earthenware pots with an empty plate on the side for the actual eating, both girls found the dish to be outstanding. Plenty of meat including pork rind to flavor the beans. Beans well seasoned and not over cooked. Soupier than some. And I should note that several online comments criticized the broth as being too light. Thus my intro to this piece. The light broth is simply one iteration of the dish. Not a failure but a difference.

Cathey found the dressing on the small side salad particularly intriguing. She inquired and was told that the secret was the combination of cider and wine vinegars, the proportions of which would remain secret.

For dessert, an in-house apple tart with a spoon of ice cream. If Cathey liked the salad dressing, she flat out envied the buttery pastry of the tart.

With an appropriately schiste-flavored rose with the meal, the tab for three came to 142 euros. Hefty but not out of line for the quality of the meal. Le Colombier may be a restaurant that we will never visit again but we're very happy to have visited it once.

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