A proper cassoulet


Talented chef David Myers of Comme Ca, the restaurant that he operates both in Los Angeles and at the Cosmopolitan Las Vegas, is a Francophile who did much of his early training in Paris. But he’s also a multi-national with two restaurants in Tokyo, a curious intellectual and a stickler for detail, which is why his bistro fare is so authentic.

That’s what made it so odd his chefs took their collective eyes off the ball with regard to their Tuesday night plat du jour, cassoulet, about a month back. Now, it’s been greatly improved. I’m not even going to tell you about that first one. Let the dead bury the dead.

So just what is this hearty, magical winter dish, a mainstay in La Belle France for centuries? Think white beans, haricots blanc in French, that are cooked in an earthenware vessel with varying types of meat, then finished with a bread crumb gratinee.

The ingredients vary according to the region. In Toulouse, the largest French city famous for the dish, it will have pork, andouille sausage or even a duck leg confit in the pot. In Carcassonne, they use big chunks of lamb as well. Some cities in the southwest of France use goose.

The point is, it doesn’t matter, as long as the beans and meat are done together and cooked slowly. It’s a labor intensive and time consuming dish, so it’s understandable that when you find it in this country, it’s an abbreviated version of the real thing. But Myers takes the time, trouble and expense to do most of his plats right, so you expect that it’s going to be done right at Comme Ca, eventually.

Now, it seems, Brian Howard, once of French Laundry, and late of the Nu Sanctuary, has been added to Comme Ca Vegas’ kitchen staff. The cassoulet they do isn’t perfect, but it’s the best version in town, maybe the best ever done in Vegas, and good enough to come back for.

Here’s a brief description of my last dinner at Comme Ca, featuring a new, improved cassoulet. We began with a charcuterie plate stocked with ham, chicken liver mousse and grainy pate de champagne, then progressed to a fine frisee au lardons topped with a poached egg.

The cassoulet is normally served for one, but at $32, it’s not cheap, and frankly, filling enough for two to share as an entrée. The beans in this version are coco beans, not coco de Tarbes, which are larger and whiter, but small white beans, rather like Navy or cannellini.

Personally, I prefer Great Northern beans in the absence of classic haricot blanc, but that’s splitting hairs. The meat and beans were all nicely mingled, although the cassoulet’s duck meat was placed on top, so I doubt that is was cooked in the casserole dish.

The pork belly and Toulouse-style sausage were definitely cooked in the cassoulet, though, and as a result, the beans had a rich flavor. The chefs are also using a liberal amount of bread crumbs, a clever idea, to mix with the beans and meat, in addition to those used to form a crust on top. So overall, this was a formidable effort, a version they can tout with confidence.

But was it the way I like it done? Maybe not. For one thing, I prefer duck meat on the bone, and cooked inside the pot. Both my friend and I, furthermore, ended up fishing around for the sausage. I’d like to see this dish done with a six or seven inch length of sausage, in its casing.

Max Jacobson is the Vegas Seven food critic and writes at Unica World.