Brasserie La Provence
French kiss the cook
My experiences with French food and wine have been better than my experiences with the French language. In high school, my Midwestern-accented mispronunciations were second only to my grossly butchered written phrases. But my homemade coq au vin (chicken stewed with wine) was tasty enough to get me out of the class with an A.
I’m giving Brasserie La Provence an A as well, for exceeding my expectations with laid-back yet fulfilling service, a personable staff, nearly flawless traditional French dishes and a wine list with very little California and a whole lotta Français.
My server J.J. greeted me with a resounding “Bonjour,” then immediately admitted that was the extent of her repertoire. (I know the feeling. Despite my college French, I can only muster the basics: “My name is Jennifer,” “More wine” and “Go f$%# yourself.”)
The wine list is captivating. It’s divvied up by les vins blancs (whites) and les vins rouges (reds), then separated by region (Alsace, Bourgogne, Bordeaux, etc.). I ordered a glass of 2005 Côtes de Gascogne, Domaine de Pouy ($6 glass, $22 bottle) with the meal. This affordable white (psst ... you can get it for about $11 a bottle retail) has a clear, pale straw color, a citrus nose and a bouquet of orange peel and fresh herbs, all with a nice, nutty finish.
The wine went well with a plate of escargots de Bourgogne ($7.50), salade Niçoise ($11.95) and vichyssoise ($5.25).
Snails cooked in butter are something special that everyone should try at least once. Thanks to the escargots-flinging scene in Pretty Woman, nearly everyone at least knows they exist. The escargots I had were not the more common petit-gris snails but Burgundy snails--large and juicy with a distinct earthiness. They were served bubbling in a beautiful butter sauce infused with green herbs. Soaking up the sauce with a slice of chewy baguette was almost as good as savoring the tender meat of the snails themselves. Like I said, just try it.
Niçoise salads are well-known here in the states with the same basic ingredients: tuna, hard-boiled egg, anchovy, olives, tomatoes, tender-crisp green beans, par-boiled potatoes and salad greens, usually served with a lemon-based dressing. La Provence follows suit, sans whole anchovies (they instead use a lemon-anchovy dressing) and with potatoes that are cubed and lightly fried. Tuna fillets are seasoned with black pepper and seared to a fine medium-rare, for an overall excellent presentation.
I was sorry to hear the vichyssoise (cold potato-leek soup) won't make it past the seasonal menu change. Chilled, thick and creamy, it'd make a lovely light lunch with the addition of a green salad. I joked with owner Marc Maurin-Adam about adding green chile to the soup—it might tempt the palates of local diners even into winter.
When you get down to it, steak frites ($13.50) is, basically, steak and potatoes. But the triumvirate of warm, savory sauces that accompany this pile of golden fries and succulent, herb-rubbed, Angus flatiron steak takes an ordinary dish and pumps it up. I could not decide on a favorite between the warm, salty Roquefort cream, the meaty, rich Bordelaise and the fruity cognac-peppercorn sauce.
I wrapped up the meal with an aperitif: Dubonnet Rouge ($6.75), a spiced, fortified red wine with sweetness that's contrasted by a hint of quinine. Owner Marc was absolutely charming. In fact, I found out he used to be a big-deal soap star in France. Cool. It was like talking to Rick Springfield. I asked him what the most popular thing on the menu was.
“Me!” he said, with a brilliant smile.
“OK, but what’s the most popular food item?” I asked.
“Me!” he said.
You gotta love a guy who has a sense of humor, runs a great restaurant and ignores my terrible French grammar. Très bien, or something like that.