By Eric Snider
Another Friday, another dish I don’t often eat.
That’s one of the things I like about this gig: It all but forces me to broaden my culinary horizons. Falafel, chicken wings, jambalaya, Tandoori chicken — all recent Food Fight contestants, and all stuff that I wouldn’t ordinarily order in a restaurant or sit down to at home.
Which brings us to French toast, another dish that’s a very occasional thing for me — although, I have to say, folks who eat it frequently should probably walk around hooked up to a heart monitor.
We decided to conduct our French toast test in one outing. Wednesday morning was perfect: cloudless skies, 70 degrees, a mild breeze. We didn’t want to do diner French toast, but instead were looking for something more — ahem — elevated. So after perusing menus online, we hit Cassis in downtown St. Pete, after which we went directly to First Watch on 4th Street North. (The chain, which has restaurants in 29 states, has been headquartered in Bradenton since 1986.)
We knew we’d be sharing the plates, but we also knew we were in for a plentitude of French toast, and would have to be careful not to turn our FFF field work into something we regretted for the remainder of a gorgeous day.
Located on Beach Drive just west of the Pier in the heart of downtown’s high rent district, Cassis has an enormous footprint, seating more than 300, indoors and outdoors. We arrived at 10 a.m., and during our visit the capacious, classy interior had two diners, while nearly all of the outside tables were occupied.
We sat at a covered four-top and chatted as folks strolled by on Beach Drive. Cassis serves brunch from 10 to 3. We ordered Brioche French Toast, with honey mascarpone, bananas and strawberries, and a cup of coffee each.
We were pleased to see that the portion was sensible, not monstrous. The whole affair was sprinkled with powdered sugar. The maple syrup came in a cute little jar.
Texture and Taste
Lovely and decadent, as French toast should be. The brioche bread could’ve used a longer soak — it wasn’t exactly dry, just not as moist as I’d hoped. The syrup readily solved the issue.
The strawberries, perfectly ripe, added a welcome tartness when blended with the sweet stuff. The banana chunks, which I had to slice in half, didn’t add much, and many of them got left on the plate. Kudos to the honey mascarpone, for its velvety smoothness.
My best bites combined toast, strawberry, and a dollop of the soft cheese, liberally coated with syrup. Very rich, but worth the indulgence.
We sat at a two-top on the patio, which overlooks a busy stretch of 4th Street. At about 11:15, the traffic was heavy, creating a constant hum, except when some knucklehead with visions of NASCAR grandeur decided to roar down the thoroughfare, or someone nonsensically honked their horn, or an ambulance activated its siren. Don’t these people know we’re trying to enjoy our late breakfast?
But hey, the weather was gorgeous.
We ordered Blackberry Lemon Cream French Toast and, on a whim, I asked for a glass of milk. I know for a fact that milk goes well with French Toast.
Placing the French toast in a shallow bowl was a nice touch. It was readily apparent that you had to like blackberries. I like blackberries. I don’t love blackberries.
Texture and Taste
This French toast was ambitious, a complex blend of flavors and textures, very blackberry-forward. Add in the mixed-berry compote on the bottom of the bowl, and the maple syrup was rendered all but moot. The challah bread was lusciously moist and the lemon curd added moments of puckery surprise. The milk proved to be an ideal complement.
And the Winner of the French Toast Taste-Off Is …
This was a close call, and it was refreshing to have a close call after a series of mismatches. I ultimately preferred the comparative simplicity of the Cassis version. I admired First Watch really going for something unique, and enjoyed my meal, but in the end it was a bit too much of too many good things.
Let me add that Bonnie, my partner in life and Food Fighting, much preferred the First Watch version. That’s all well and good, but please note that my decision is official and final.