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.
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.
"Ah, cah-MELS," she finally said, haughtily demonstrating the proper mispronunciation of the English word for my edification. At that moment, I decided to stop trying to pronounce French words correctly. I'll say filet mignon and salade maison any damn way I please in my home country. And if the French don't like it, they can bite me.
The simple salad of Boston lettuce, goat cheese, pine nuts and red peppers in a Dijon vinaigrette wasn't very big for the eight bucks it cost, but it tasted fine. The charcuterie plate featured thick slices of cured ham, excellent salami, creamy soft duck rillettes and the house pâté, which was a little disappointing. I liked the strong flavor of pepper and garlic and the walnuts studded through it, but it was much too hard and dry for my taste. I like a pâté that you can spread.
The pizza was piping hot and crispy on the bottom, but unfortunately, the topping of prosciutto, goat cheese, mushroom and parmesan ended up tasting too similar to other things we were eating. But that's hardly the restaurant's fault. I really wanted the pizza Provence, which is topped with anchovies and olives, but I couldn't talk my dining companion into the pungent little fishes. We split a bottle of Fischer, the Alsatian beer, which complemented the salty flavors of our dinner perfectly.
Bistro Provence was founded by the French chef Georges Guy. He sold it to his son Jean-Philippe Guy a couple of years ago when he opened Chez Georges on Westheimer [See "An Aging French Romantic," February 15, 2007]. There used to be another outpost of Bistro Provence on Shepherd where Red Lion Pub is now located, but now only the original on Memorial remains.
On my first visit to Bistro Provence, I was accompanied by the French artist Bernard Brunon, who, at my encouragement, ordered the tripe sausages called andouillettes. Bernard comes from the area of France that is famous for the stuff. We had sampled the same dish recently at Brasserie Max & Julie and found the smell of the tripe disgusting.
As Bernard ordered, the same French waiter who had trouble understanding the way I said "salade maison" suddenly looked grave when Bernard pronounced the word ahn-dwee-YET with all the proper Lyonnaise gutturals.
"These aren't the classic andouillettes that you might be used to," the waiter warned. "They are made with pork tripe, not the authentic calf tripe."
Bernard told him to bring them anyway. And, lo and behold, they were wonderful. Just a faint aroma reminded you that the tender organ meat was actually tripe, and with a dab of Dijon, that gaminess became exciting.
Even the squeamish at the table allowed, "I could see how people could like this stuff." It's nice to know that somebody in town knows how to make a proper French chitlin' sausage.
Bernard also liked the bouillabaisse, which was loaded with shrimp, scallops and mussels. But he said he tasted too much fennel. "It's good, but it's a little one-dimensional compared to Philippe Schmidt's version," he sighed. Unfortunately, Schmidt, the former chef at Bistro Moderne, doesn't make bouillabaisse around here anymore.
I got the pizza Méditerranée, which was topped with mussels, jumbo shrimp, scallops and calamari. Eating a pizza loaded with juicy seafood with a knife and fork was a weird experience. It tasted fabulous, but it just didn't seem like a pizza.
Four of us split a bottle of Domaine Crotereau, a crisp white from the Quincy subregion of the Loire Valley. The nuanced Sauvignon blanc has a tartness that reminds me of raspberries. It's an excellent bargain at under $40 a bottle. I highly recommend it the next time you're eating tripe sausage, bouillabaisse and seafood pizza.
Bistro Provence isn't perfect, but some of the food is stellar. On a frosty night with a bottle of French red wine and the aroma of garlic and mustard steaming from one of the braised meat dishes, I can squint my eyes and imagine I'm in a cozy dining room in France.
I'm not sure if Bistro Provence is the best French restaurant in Houston — but I think it's the most French.
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