By Kaitlin Steinberg
By Minh T Truong
By Molly Dunn
By Brooke Viggiano
By Kaitlin Steinberg
By Molly Dunn
By Molly Dunn
By Eating Our Words
As the proprietor of Bistro Provence on Memorial approached our table, I started getting nervous. My tablemate had just sent his veal shank back because it was cold in the middle. It was also tough and sinewy, as if it had been insufficiently cooked. The last time I sent the osso bucco back, the owner of the restaurant threw me out [See "Osso Bucco Me? Osso Bucco You!" September 16, 2004], so I was prepared for the worst.
"I completely agree — that was not a good piece of osso bucco," Jean-Philippe Guy apologized at tableside. And then in a French accent he asked if he could bring us something else instead.
What a relief.
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Seafood pizza: $13
Rabbit stew: $23
Duck confit and beans: $16
We asked for the duck confit. It came in a crock over a terrific bean stew. There was a breast portion with crispy skin that was dabbed here and there with Dijon mustard, and there was also a succulent leg quarter. The fat that oozed out of the long-cooked duck meat seasoned the "panache" of assorted beans underneath it. Throw in a couple of chunks of sausage and you'd have a reasonable facsimile of the bean, duck and sausage stew called cassoulet.
I got to eat half of the duck confit and beans because I gave my lunchmate half of my civet de lapin — rabbit stew in French. Chef Michael Wagner marinated a cut-up rabbit in red wine with garlic and peppercorns and then stewed the meat until it fell off the bone. Eating the soft, gamy rabbit with crusty bread dipped in the garlicky stew was an experience so profound, we were reduced to grunting. When it was all over, my tablemate said he liked the rabbit better. I said I was crazy about the duck. But it was the kind of argument you can't lose.
Our lunch began with a bowl of giant pale-colored mussels in a creamy saffron broth with chunks of sausage floating around in it. "What kind of mussels are they?" I asked the young waiter, who had started working at the restaurant a few months ago. "I think they're French mussels," he said cluelessly.
I hate it when waiters make shit up. And so does Jean-Philippe Guy, who corrected the waiter from across the small room. "Excuse me. They're green-lipped mussels from New Zealand," he told the waiter in a voice loud enough for us to hear.
The mussels were delectable when dunked in the saffron cream sauce in the bottom of the bowl. Unfortunately, a chunk of bread dipped in the broth tasted unpleasantly salty. And a spoonful of the broth left a brine coating in my mouth that was so intense, it required an immediate rinsing with half a glass of iced tea. I like my food salty, but the mussel broth at Bistro Provence was over the top. Which is a shame since the cream, saffron and seafood flavors are spectacular.
Bistro Provence is as close as you can get to the experience of eating at a French restaurant without leaving town. It's a virtual clone of a middle-of-the-road eatery in the south of France. The faux half-timbered interior is decorated with ceramic roosters, fake Van Gogh paintings and old French advertisements. The hanging lights are covered with old-fashioned white eyelet shades. And the tables are too small and too close together.
The restaurant's kitchen is open to view, and the area is dominated by a giant dome-shaped pizza oven. As soon as you sit down at your table, you get a pretzel-shaped piece of hot bread from the wood-fired oven. In keeping with the customs of Provence, the bread comes with olive oil and herbs rather than butter.
A restaurant that uses lots of pesto (or pistou) and prides itself on great pizza doesn't sound very French to a lot of people. But much of Provence and the French Riviera border on Italy, and the food is pretty similar on either side. As in France, the pizza here is eaten with a knife and fork. It has a crunchy bottom crust, but the toppings are higher and wetter than those on a typical American pie.
There are ten or so tables on the sidewalk in front of the restaurant. On a warm night, it's a joy to sit outside and eat a light meal, as we did on our second visit. "We'll split the salade maison, the charcuterie plate and the pizza bistro," I told the French waiter that balmy evening. He looked puzzled, so I pointed the items out on the menu.
"Ah, the salade maison," he said, enunciating emphatically as if he were teaching me French.
Many years ago, while trying to buy a pack of Camels in a tiny shop in rural France, I had a life-changing experience regarding language. When I said "Camels," the bleached-blond clerk shook her head, shrugged to indicate she didn't understand what I was saying and ignored me.
"Camels, Camels," I repeated loudly, pointing at a pack of cigarettes just beyond my reach as I stretched across the counter. She finally turned around and looked where I was pointing.