The town doesn't lack for good piano bars, cabarets, or restaurants, but not many venues offer a sophisticated mix of the three. You can count such spots on one hand, and when you do, three of your fingers identify Bob D'jahanguiri's supper clubs, Toulouse, Yvette, and Yvette Wintergarden.
The Wintergarden is still relatively new--just about two--but I've been hitting the original Yvette for all of its decade and Toulouse for most of its 13 years. I go primarily for the food, but tasty jazz combos and vocalists always boost the experience.
At the moment, for example, my favorite cabaret singer on earth, Audrey Morris, holds forth at Toulouse in the early evening on Friday and Saturday. Morris has a wide repertoire of standards as well as many of the more obscure works of classic American songwriters, each of which she invests with qualities as personal as Billie Holiday's. Her piano playing could stand alone, but she uses it to caress and embellish the meanderings of her natural instrument. I could go just to listen.
Through the years the cooking at all three locations has ranged from very good to outstanding; occasional disappointments occur, but the consistency has been remarkable and the cuisine sometimes at the cutting edge. The current results are all in the very good category. D'jahanguiri (pronounced jan-goor-ee) regularly searches the best kitchens in the area for promising talent--and often sends his chefs to places like Le Francais for a bit of extra training.
The dapper Iranian, who worked as a waiter and captain in smart venues such as Arnie's and the old Mr. Kelly's before striking out on his own in 1979, has a similar passion for elegant cabaret music and keeps a string of local players working through good times and less than good times.
During my most recent visit to Toulouse, singer-guitarist Frank D'Rone was closing after a long run. His songs and sinuous instrumental lines were a wonderful counterpoint to the rich meal set before us in this, the most intimate of D'jahanguiri's spots.
There are always nine or ten entrees to pick from, including daily specials of pasta as well as fish and a "spa" type dish. Supper kicked off with a rich crab cake ($7.50) that had plenty of intrinsic flavor but lacked the crisp crust of the best such cakes. Another starter, snails in a slightly pungent mushroom sauce ($7), had an even deeper, earthier flavor. The only complaint here was that the menu promised wild mushrooms, but the fungi that appeared were all of the domestic, button variety. Not to nitpick a very tasty dish, but you ought to get what the menu promises.
Absolutely no complaints, however, about an unusual salad shared with my companion: chopped leeks dressed with a sharp vinaigrette and accompanied by a terrine of Roquefort cheese ($4.50).
My companion can't pass by a rack of lamb on any menu, and this was no exception. What she got was a beautifully roasted, well-trimmed set of four meaty ribs, a perfect pink inside the light crust ($19.50). They were tender as well, full of good lamb taste without a hint of gaminess. Couscous was the side, there to soak up the extra natural juices.
Good as that was, I preferred my salmon, a thick, bone-free, steaklike chunk studded on the outside with peppercorns in the manner of the classic beefsteak dish ($16.50). What a fine contrast between the sharpness of the crust and the sweet, rare interior. It was all brought together with a light butter sauce with tomatoes melted in and a few capers adding the right acid.
A meal like this doesn't need much in the way of dessert--and neither does my gut--so we tapered off with some mixed raspberries and strawberries touched with creme anglaise ($4).
The current act, in addition to Morris's weekend stint, is the singer-impressionist Bill Acosta with Bruce Robins at the piano.
Toulouse is on Division between State and Dearborn. Just around the corner on State is Yvette, another sanctuary for grown-ups at the edge of the Division-Rush madness. There's a big bar and dining area up front, which opens onto the street when the weather is right. Joel Barry is at the piano there in the cocktail and early dinner hours, Tuesday through Saturday. The good-looking, multilevel dining room in the rear is the place to concentrate on your food. You get a show there too, for at eight every evening a big set of double doors slides away to meld front and back together with the bandstand in between.
Dinner here recently got under way with a fresh tuna carpaccio, sliced then pounded so thin it was translucent ($5.50). The raw fish was glossed with a film of good olive oil, and nestled nearby was a crunchy relish of cucumber minced with a bit of vinaigrette--stupendous on a crisp triangle of toast with a few tiny capers added.
My companion did well with five slightly small grilled shrimp, done nicely with an external char that added flavor, though the centers were not overdone ($6.95). The relish was a mix of tomato, cucumber, and the unusual touch of fried capers, which we found delightful.
Mussel soup, a creamy billi-bi with three small, perfectly done mussels tossed in for good measure, was as rich as you can imagine ($2.95). The du jour special, a cream of artichoke, was good enough but suffered by comparison.
I went with an entree of sea scallops napped with a citrus beurre blanc sauce ($12.50). The morsels of seafood were fresh tasting and very tender, done just to the point of opacity. The sauce was smooth enough and could even have been a shade more tart.
My pal the carnivore saw no rack of lamb on the menu, but bought the twin tournedos: a pair of beef tenderloin slices that could easily have been designated filets mignon ($14.95). Expertly sauteed, they were blood-rare as ordered, lightly charred outside and so flavorful they didn't need further help, but what came with them was a bed of sweet and sour onions simmered in a shot of red wine. Vigorous.
The younger sister, Yvette Wintergarden, is in a spectacular, perhaps even overwhelming setting: the South Wacker building with the weird illuminated top that looks like a wedding cake. There's an imperious quality to this huge marble palace and the atrium with its array of giant palm trees and massive fountain. This true postmodern monster is tamed somewhat when you escalate down to the restaurant level.
Facing away from the fountain toward the bandstand, you first encounter glass and wrought-iron tables and chairs that constitute the cocktail and cafe terrace. OK, if you really like gigantic atria. I prefer to move inside, to the other side of the bandstand where Wallace Burton's bright, swinging trio holds forth most evenings. This calmer, not quite intimate bilevel setting has cozy booths lining the mural-covered walls and freestanding tables in the center.
The menu substantially overlaps its sister's, but a few items are priced higher by anywhere from 50 cents to $1.50.
The pineapple-cured salmon caught my eye and then my palate. It was basically a smooth gravlax with a tinge of pineapple instead of the traditional dill seasoning, elevated by a relish of melon that also seemed to have a hint of pineapple ($5.95). Highly recommended.
A gratin of pancetta and artichoke ($6.50), one of the overlap dishes, is relatively interesting--as is almost anything with pancetta and artichokes. The two ingredients were bound by a lush cream sauce that had me polishing the plate with bread to catch the last drop.
Chicken and shrimp etouffee on a bed of scallion rice ($14.95) is another overlap dish, and one that induced mixed emotions. There's a nice piece of chicken and about five nice shrimp, all well seared and lightly sauced. But to call this an etouffee and suggest that it bore any resemblance to New Orleans cooking and a true smothered sauce is enough to make Justin Wilson sue.
Much more satisfactory was a roast fillet of striped bass, one of those lovely fish that doesn't get on many menus ($15.95). The cooking process put a terrific herb-laden crust on the flesh side and left the inside juicy as an orange. The sauce, based on manila clams, was a lovely foil.
A flaky strawberry tart ($4) capped it all as we soaked up the sounds of Burton's little band doing "All the Things You Are" with the Dizzy Gillespie-Charlie Parker intro and coda.
Toulouse, 49 W. Division, is open 5:30 to 1:30 Tuesday through Thursday and 5:30 to 3 Friday and Saturday, and is closed Sunday and Monday; 944-2606. Yvette, 1206 N. State, is open 5 to 1:30 Monday through Thursday, 5 to 2:30 Friday and Saturday, and 5 to 12:30 Sunday; brunch is from 10:30 to 3 Saturday and Sunday; 280-1700. Yvette Wintergarden, 311 S. Wacker, is open 11 to 10:30 Monday through Thursday, 11 to midnight Friday, and 11 to 1 Saturday, and is closed Sunday; 408-1242.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Paul L. Meredith.