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Avec l’amour

by B.A. Nilsson on February 18, 2010

Provence
  • Cuisine: French-inspired
  • Entrée price range: $10 (small plate of pork medallions) to $31 (rack of lamb)
  • Ambiance: metropolitan bistro

Photo by B.A. Nilsson

We survived Valentine’s Day. We ignored it or embraced it but we couldn’t avoid it. We thought that a quarter century of marriage spoke for itself, requiring no phony-assed flowers and such. We were mistaken. Or I was, at any rate.

“Our child is going to a friend’s birthday party Saturday night,” was the windup. The pitch: “Why don’t we go out to dinner?”

Because it’s the night before V-Day. Perhaps the horror of that thought put the pitiful quaver in my voice that must have helped me snag a late reservation at Provence. We showed up at 8:30 to find the place teeming, tables filled, customers waiting, maître d’ parsing the dining dynamics to efficiently feed those in line to just-vacated seats. All while pianist Peg Delaney offered a peacefully contrasting set of standards to take the edge off the night.

I want to race ahead and say that my wife and I had a splendid dinner that night. This allows me to bitch about a few things before recapturing the wonderfulness.

There are few absolutes in the restaurant biz. Fat guys shouldn’t wear lobster bibs, it can be argued, but that’s purely an aesthetic matter. Fine-dining restaurants, on the other hand, shouldn’t have TV screens. An outsized LCD screen hangs over one side of the bar, competing with the music, sucking in the attention of customers who might otherwise actually talk to one another, and serving only one not-terribly-useful purpose: When a TGI Friday’s ad burst onto the screen, we were reminded how truly terrible the food there looks.

There’s also what I call the friend-of-the-house problem. I haven’t been to the place in a decade. While we weren’t expecting picture-perfect service on a Valentine’s Day weekend Saturday, it was discomforting to watch those who clearly were regulars get fussed over while I struggled to catch a server’s eye for a wine refill.

The menu adapts a solidly French (or southeasterly so) center to local and current tastes without much compromise. Most of the appetizer and entrée plates are available in two sizes, a boon if you want to order a smaller starter (I did) and the server remembers that aspect of your order (he didn’t).

That said, it’s on to the good stuff. I kept my appetizer plate, thus enjoying half of the assiette de charcuterie ($7.50/$13) for V-Day breakfast. Two types of pâté are featured, both sliced from soft loaves. One is a liver-rich compote, the other more of a mixed-meat terrine with prominent pistachios. They complement each other nicely but they’re fantastically rich—and hard to commit to when you’ve also got saucisson (a garlicky pork sausage) and prosciutto to enjoy.

Among the weekend specials was chimney pot soup ($7), a hodgepodge of chicken and vegetables in a dark broth that featured kale among its ingredients, and thus had my wife all excited. She reveres that tough, cranky leaf, continuing to believe that there’s a health benefit in food that fights back unless cooked into submission.

Other starters include mussels in a white wine and cream broth ($6.50/$10.50), escargots ($11), a smoked salmon plate ($7.50/$13), crab cakes with spicy black bean salad ($7.50/$14) and lobster macaroni and cheese ($14.50).

Wishing to prolong this comfortably child-free meal, we ordered salads. The offerings include some impressive sounding compotes, including one of lobster (served in a well-trimmed piece of shell) and shaved fennel with avocado and grapefruit slices ($14), beautifully arrayed and combining nicely, and what I learned is one of the most popular salads, a mixture of chopped beets with long spears of endive set off by wine-infused pears, candied walnuts and Roquefort cheese ($10).

Entrées cover a variety of meats and fish, but in such guises as a veal and sausage ragout ($12.50/$21), rack of lamb with garlic confit ($18.75/$31), bouillabaisse de Provence ($14.75/$25), pesto-crusted salmon ($13.25/$22), duck breast with a cherry demi-glaze ($23) and, for the ultimate sandwich, le hamburger de boeuf de Kobe avec foie gras ($25.50). Enough said.

Susan’s half-plate of coquille St. Jacques was correctly sized ($13.25, $22 for the large one) and gave a remarkably fine variation on what’s traditionally a cream-rich dish. Here the scallops (plump and perfectly cooked) are served alongside a large, scallop-shaped mix of tomato, spinach, bread crumbs, bacon and a finish of tangy seasoning.

Back in the days when French service was economically feasible, your steak au poivre would be flamed at tableside. No surprise that mine arrived already assembled ($17.50/$30), but it sported an excellent slab of Black Angus sirloin, cooked truly rare, its flavor a-sparkle with the crumbled peppercorns mashed into the faces of the meat and infusing the brandy-based sauce as well. A garnish of garlic mashed potatoes and crisp spring beans was perfect.

Responsible for this magic is Michael Cunningham, who has been chef at Provence since 2005, but worked alongside owner Daniel Darves-Bornoz during the glory days of Ogden’s. Cunningham runs a scratch kitchen, breaking down all cuts of meat and fish, and the baking comes from sister restaurant Milano.

“It’s very comfortable here,” says Cunningham, “because this is the way I’ve always cooked.” And you’ll see him there, in the open-to-view kitchen, a picture of calm as the orders roll in, dispatching tasks to his talented crew, plating what’s ready to go alongside them. It’s worth taking a moment to see this because it shatters the notion that kitchens must be crazy and reminds us that the best food, whether presented on Valentine’s Day or any other time of the year, enjoys a good measure of love from the get-go.