Plaza, 1475 Western Ave., Albany, 689-7777, provence-restaurant.net
Serving lunch 11:30-3 Mon-Sat, dinner 5-9 Mon, 5-10 Tue-Thu,
5-10:30 Fri-Sat, 4:30-8:30 Sun. AE, D, MC, V.
price range: $10 (small plate of pork medallions) to
$31 (rack of lamb)
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.
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
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
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.
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.
here for a list of recently reviewed restaurants.
West African Night at Carmen’s Café (198
1st St., Troy) from 6-10 on Feb. 27 with a gluten-free
buffet of West African-inspired dishes by the
Natural Kitchen’s Susan Garth. Selections include
sweet potato and roasted cashew soup, West African
beef stew, vegetable groundnut stew, spicy braised
greens, toasted millet pilaf, spiced plantains—and
Carmen’s famous rice pudding. And you’ll be dining
to New World Jazz by Elizabeth Woodbury Kasius
and Heard. Sassy live music and spicy delights,
just right for these winter nights. It’s $30 per
guest, and you should reserve a seat by calling
Carmen at 516-857-0474. . . . Remember to pass
your scraps to Metroland.