Toutant, named for Chef James Roberts’ great-grandfather’s South Louisiana fishing and trapping camp, was his family’s sustenance and livelihood at the turn of the century. Now, at the turn of Buffalo’s culinary renaissance, Roberts is opening Toutant to bring the low country soul food that he craves to the city that will soon learn to do the same.
Emphasizing fresh ingredients, in-house preparation and accessible dishes, Toutant, opening May 14, seems poised to fill Buffalo’s Southern food void.
The restaurant is at 437 Ellicott St., next to Maureen’s wholesale flower shop and down the street from SeaBar, in a building that formerly housed the Golden Swan with a host of low-income apartments upstairs. Roberts has turned the former dive into an open, airy, industrial chic force, with three floors, tall windows and custom-made tables and woodwork with a sturdy, butcher-block feel.
Exposed brick plays against clean, freshly painted walls in earth tones, and sleek, diner-style chairs cozy up to those hefty tables on all three light-filled levels, with stunning views of downtown. A neon sign in an upper window advertises "HOT BISCUITS." They will be made to order for customers, but were not yet on offer at the open house we visited Saturday night.
A long aluminum bar sets the tone at the outset, with a wide selection of whiskey, bourbon and small-batch bottles on handcrafted, rustic shelves that stretch to the high ceiling, with a ladder propped nearby for easy access. That rail serves up New Orleans standard cocktails, a well-crafted selection of beers and wines and a daiquiri machine for seasonal fruit blended drinks. Next to that, a shelf holds rolled-up T-shirts with the bar’s logo, so fans can rep that swag around town, street-level marketing at its finest.
But how’s the food? Let’s put it this way: Roberts’ fried chicken is the stuff of dreams. Succulent meat inside a crackling batter that’s the perfect blend of salty and sweet with hints of pepper and rosemary.
Then there’s the cast-iron cooked jambalaya, with the option of vegetarian, lump crab, Andouille sausage and of course, shrimp, that did not need the Tabasco buffet nearby for spice.
Roberts cures his own country ham, a salty, smoky meat that paired beautifully with house-made chicory mustard and also showed up in hush puppies that wrote the book on crisp skin and moist – not mushy – pepper-studded cornbread inside.
The drum fish arrived just that morning and its blackened skin crackled against stewed tomatoes and flaked apart with the touch of a fork. On this first real weekend of summer, its charcoal-scented skin was just the thing. Speaking of fork-tender, smoky brisket arrived on homemade bread with house-made pickled cucumber and jalapeno with a vinegary kick.
Oysters Rockefeller were easily the largest we’ve ever seen, but were tender instead of rubbery and cornbread with cultured butter reminded us why we could never give up carbs.
The meal wrapped up with powdered sugar beignets, and chicory coffee made especially for Toutant by Public Espresso + Coffee. The coffee is drip for now, but will eventually come in French press as well as cold brew styles.
At first glance, Toutant is the restaurant Roberts was meant to raise, with his Southern roots and country club chef background coming together in an elegantly casual spot. As one patron remarked, Buffalo’s bars are being bought out and turned into the kind of places we would brave downtown parking to try. First Buffalo Proper flipped Laughlin’s, now Toutant has turned the Golden Swan into, well, gold.
(Toutant opens May 14; you can make reservations through OpenTable at toutantbuffalo.com)
Lizz Schumer is the author of “Buffalo Steel,” the editor of The Sun and writes about food and whimsy for a variety of publications. She can be found @eschumer, facebook.com/authorlizzschumer and lizzschumer.com.