By Zacchoreli Frescobadli-Grimaldi/Photos by Diane Padys
--European-style dining with a community ethic--
A Lynden strip mall on the corner of Hannegan and Pole roads seemed an unlikely location for restaurateurs and chefs Tiffany Hudson and Gabriel Claycamp to open Cassoulet Café last year. Yet it is proving to be the ideal place to bring to life the vision of supporting agribusinesses and developing a collaborative culinary community within Whatcom County.
Community figures in to much of the founders’ ethic – from the community-style seating in the restaurant to supporting culinary students from the technical college.
In the Kitchen
Claycamp, a culinarian with more than 15 years’ professional experience, recently parted ways with Cassoulet. His talent and guidance in Cassoulet’s early months helped shape the restaurant’s reputation. Taking his place in the kitchen is Chef Martin Woods, who has received much attention as executive chef at Seattle’s Re:public. Woods also served as chef at Seattle restaurants Bastille and Cantinetta.
Hudson, a baker with 13 years’ experience, developed her appreciation for exceptional breads and pastries when she lived in Naples, Italy. She guides the Cassoulet Café’s baking program with the care and finesse of one dedicated to her craft. Traditionally, breads and pastries were made by two differently skilled bakers, but Hudson has a skill and appreciation for both as she directs her team.
Although both baker and patisserie work with flour, they have very different culinary skills and equally unique personalities. Bakers are focused on the formation of the crust and the elastic texture of the interior. The patisserie, on the other hand, is deeply in love with each and every aspect of their delicate creations, and anguishes over the texture of a light and flaky crust, the incorporation of butter, the interaction of sugar with the other ingredients. At Cassoulet Café, the three-member baking team has little time for these pastry neurosis and hoity-toity attitudes. Nor does it matter, as their creations showcase their delectable skills.
Hudson begins her typical workday at 4 a.m., when she sets about feeding the feminine-named starters: Molly, the white bread starter, and Amelia, the whole-wheat. These year-old starters are the basis for the fresh baguettes, levain batards, bagels and croissants baked in this tiny kitchen. The incomparable quality of these breads are, in large part, a reflection of the care and attention the starters receive. With each bite the crust shatters over the tongue with a satisfying crackle. Cassoulet Café’s handcrafted breads are by far the finest in Whatcom County. The tart crusts are both buttery and flakey, the pastries light yet decadently rich. These fresh-from-scratch desserts include crème brûlée, multi-layer cakes, coffee cake and bread pudding, all so rich and satisfying that other restaurateurs may want to pay closer attention to these carefully crafted desserts.
Hudson employs a staff of 11, including four students from Bellingham Technical College’s Culinary Arts program. On Friday and Saturday evenings a per-person $60 prix fixe menu dominates the kitchen, and for an additional $20 guests can enjoy a variety of alcoholic beverages paired with each course. These menus change weekly, so call the restaurant for details; reservations are recommended. Bear in mind that building community is an important part of the Cassoulet Café business model. Unless you request otherwise, you may well find yourself sitting with diners you’ve not met before. Personally, I find this concept refreshing; the arrangement reminds me of many European restaurants.
A Dining Adventure
One recent Friday evening, my partner and I went to dinner at Cassoulet Café. Upon opening the door, fantastic aromas taunted my senses and teased my appetite. Quickly, I found myself feeling quite at home in this intimate restaurant. The yellow-painted, hand-plastered walls are reminiscent of Southern France. Surrounded by an eclectic collection of vintage dining room chairs, the rustic tables made of repurposed wood makes this space feel warm and inviting. We brought a bottle of red wine, for which Cassoulet Café charges a $15 corkage fee, and settled in for a marvelous experience.
As the kitchen hummed smoothly along, Claycamp hosted the front of the house. He visited with guests as they dined, moving throughout the room, happily answering questions and racing between table and kitchen with tasty tidbits to sample that enrich each guest’s dining experience. At Cassoulet, helping diners learn why flavors and textures work to satisfy the taste bud is just as important as selecting the right beer or wine to accompany the meal. Teaching the public about the food’s origin and how it is prepared in the kitchen is an integral element of the Cassoulet food philosophy. From the salad selection we ordered Salade Lyonnaise, a perfectly poached egg set atop a fluffy bed of crispy fresh frisée and peppery arugula glistening under a light drizzle of bacon-mustard vinaigrette. One can feel the firm but fragile egg white relent under the weight of the fork, then brilliant yellow egg yolk spills across the salad where the colors, textures and flavors mingle. In retrospect, if only we had thought to drink white wine with our first course, we’d have discovered gastronomic nirvana. The shame is ours, because Cassoulet Café has full bar service, and a respectable wine and beer selection.
Slathered on house-made bread, our other opening choice, a Brandade Gratin is a marvelous $8 hors d’oeuvres. The gratin is a piping hot creamy mélange of house-made salted cod, Swiss chard and paper-thin potato slices, served with lightly toasted croutons and a generous dollop of fresh, spiced tomato jam. Everything was mindnumbingly delicious! We could have easily ordered one of these decadent starters to share with plenty to spare – but it was so good we ate every last bite.
I make no apologies; rabbit is quite simply – even before pizza – one of my favorite foods. Rabbit is actually a rather delicate meat; it dries out quickly when overcooked, rendering it akin to a canine chew toy. Thus, when Claycamp introduced loin of rabbit with truffle as the evening’s special, I ordered it without hesitation. Marvelous aromas wafted to the table while the entrées were set before us. The rabbit, wrapped in house curedpancetta, was moist, succulent and full of rich flavors. The steak (courtesy of a Limousin from a Whatcom County herd) was cooked to perfection and fork tender. And, as if we were in France, the accompanying hand-cut fries were crispy on the outside and creamy on the inside.
After dinner we enjoyed dried plums soaked in Armagnac, a silky smooth Earl Grey crème brûlée and a glass of Golden Boy whiskey from Samish Island. A confident whack with the back of a spoon and the brûlée’s burnt sugar cap cracked and splintered with a rather reassuring tinkle, just as a beautifully prepared brûlée should. The flavors of toasted sugar, subtle bergamot and the silky texture of the crème was a perfect way to conclude a flawless meal.
As we finished our whiskey, Kelly, one of the culinary arts students, stopped by our table to inquire about the quality of our meal and share a chinwag. She pointed out that as the students conclude their formal training and prepare to enter the workforce they are gaining valuable experience here that they wouldn’t get elsewhere.
Cassoulet’s progressive, community-focused restaurant concept promotes local jobs and culinary education. They use the best that county agribusinesses have to offer, all the while providing area gastronomes affordably priced, spectacular faire. My partner and I spent several relaxed hours enjoying a brilliantly prepared meal, grand service, interesting conversation and at the end of the evening happily paid slightly more than $100 (including tax and tip) for the two of us. At this rate, I suspect that Cassoulet Café is going to become the It spot for corporate parties and special events. Become part of the community and make reservations online at cassouletcafe.com.
Monday through Friday 11 a.m. - 2:15 p.m. & 4-9 p.m.
Saturday 10 a.m. - 2 p.m. & 4-9 p.m.
Sunday 10 a.m. - 2 p.m. & 4-8 p.m.
Happy Hour: 4-6 p.m. Daily
6912 Hannegan Rd., Lynden