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La Vie en Lavender at Bistro Provence

The delicate squash blossom was coated and fried in a light lavender batter. The snapper was served on a bed of confit nectarines and lavender rice. The tartlet was redolent with lavender, mixed with the strongly herbal taste of fennel. Even the duck leg was glazed with a honey-lavender sauce.

If I thought that lavender couldn't be used effectively across so many dishes, or that I would grow tired of eating an herb usually reserved for perfumes and candles, Bistro Provence proved me doubly wrong last night at its one-night-only lavender dinner. The dinner was the latest in its ongoing "Herbes de Provence" series of one-off dinners, in which Chef Jeremy Griffin works with owners Jean-Philippe and Genevieve Guy to create entire menus based off one herb from the famous blend. That herb is spotlighted in a five-course meal that's served by reservation only on the first Tuesday of every month.

The dinner series began in earnest with an all-rosemary dinner in February, followed by all-tarragon and all-thyme dinners that quickly sold out. Lavender, however, proved to be the biggest challenge to the restaurant, as the Guys later told me. How best to incorporate such a fragrant, floral herb into five diverse courses?

Simply and subtly, as it turns out. At no point did I feel as if I were eating a Crabtree & Evelyn bar of soap, which could have easily happened to lavender left in less skilled hands. Instead, every application of the herb was just bare enough to be tasted for a few lingering seconds, then overtaken by the sweet freshness of seared red snapper or the dusky heartiness of duck leg.

Genevieve Guy came over to the table toward the end of the meal, looking exhausted but happy. Unlike the previous dinners, the lavender dinner hadn't quite sold out (there were a few seats left on the patio), but the evening had been a hectic one regardless. Anyone who's cozied into an intimate table at Bistro Provence knows how busy the restaurant usually is and how fast the whole staff moves in the small space.

"We're working on an absinthe ice cream for the next dinner," she told me, her eyes bright. "You know, because it's made with fennel." Fennel, which was hinted at in the savory tartlet from the evening's second course, will be the next featured herb in the dinner series on July 5.

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It seemed to me an excellent way to showcase the medicinal herb in a dessert course, although at the moment I couldn't imagine anything better than the lavender crème brûlée sitting in front of me, its crackled top waiting to be cleaved open. Inside, the custard had been softly flavored with the herb, twining around darker, sweeter hints of vanilla. A success down to the last course.

The fennel dinner on July 5 is available by reservation only (and no regular menu items are served on these Herbs de Provence nights) for $48 a person by calling 713-827-8008. And if licorice, absinthe and Fernet Branca aren't your ideas of great flavors, don't despair; there are still basil, marjoram, sage, summer savory, oregano and lovage dinners to come.


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