Menu Details: Charcuterie & Cheese, Falafel, Pork Adana, Kefti & Egg Tagine, Cana Balm
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Ask most people how they’ve met their husbands, wives, or significant others these days and you’ll probably get a sheepish smile and then the inevitable admission—we met online. Way back in the olden days, before the era of mix-n-match online catalogue shopping, err, dating, people met through friends, at parties, or on blind dates. (I met Craig at the coffee shop where we both write.) Vicki Freeman met her husband when she hired him. It was 1993, and he was a chef and she needed one for her first restaurant, a place in Soho called Vix. After some time passed, they got together. On nights off, they frequented a restaurant they both loved called Provence. It was an authentic slice of the French countryside, a sweet spot set behind a set of tall doors thrown open to a sleepy, tree-lined block of Soho that always seemed drenched in a haze yellow sunlight and pink wine.Review By: Andrea Strong
Three years later, on a night over dinner in 1996, Marc took a chance and posed one very significant yes-no question. The answer he received was yes. They married the next year, and went on to open Five Points, where they grew a following for killer brunch and an American menu that mirrored the seasons. Five years later they opened their second restaurant, Cookshop, a more serious meditation on local ingredients, with farmers listed on a chalk board and a menu of grilled and rotisserie meats, and again, a Sunday brunch that’d pull Rip Van Winkle out of bed.
They had their two restaurants, two kids, and seemed content to let things develop and grow. But then, you know the saying: the best laid plans. Provence was up for lease by its owner Michel Jean. There was a chance for them to take it over and to resurrect and refurbish Provence in a style true to its beginnings. And so a little over a year from opening Cookshop, they partnered with Aibhinn Wilson O’Keeffe, one of their managers from Five Points, and started work on Provence. Their chef de cuisine, Lynn McNeely (formerly of Barbutto) was dispatched to Provence to eat and cook. His menu would be seasonal, of course, but would be embroidered with the soul of this Mediterranean paradise—olives, garlic, figs, rosemary, and lavender. They brought on Jim Meehan (Gramercy Tavern, PDT) to develop a list of cocktails that would honor the classics and yet recognize the spirit of Provence in drinks like the Corpse Reviver, a lively mix of gin, Lillet blanc, Cointreau, Pastis, and lemon. They hired Christopher Hirsheimer and Melissa Hamilton (a food photographer and food editor, respectively) to spiff up the place. The pair traveled to Europe to hand-pick chairs and antiques that would lend an authentic Provençal flavor to the restaurant. They reupholstered the chairs, wrapped the room in lace and toile, painted walls yellow and blue, and shined up the bar—a heavy slab of ivory marble veined with gray—and the wide facade of French doors. Adding a bit of whimsy, they wallpapered the bathrooms with the pages of The Hunchback of Notre Dame in the ladies room and Three Musketeers in the men’s (a mesmerizing experience and has caused a delay in my return to my table on more than one occasion). They opened the doors in April, and the crowds descended, right on cue.
Jamie, Alison, Kiri and I had dinner early on in the life of the new Provence. It was a rainy Friday night, and we found Provence bursting at the seams with life. It was three-deep at the bar, with icy platters of oysters and glasses of sparkling wine littering the marble top. Banquettes were lined with faces aglow with the sunny warmth of Provence. Rosé flowed, even though the night was cold and rainy.
Dinner was, for the most part, terrific. A platter of golden salt cod fritters were fat and firm, all salt cod, served with a creamy aioli warmed with the flavor of orange ($9). An endive salad was dressed in anchoide—a lemon and anchovy dressing that’s bold and naughty—and tossed with Treviso (a red radicchio from the city of Treviso) and Parmesan ($10). The goat cheese soufflé ($10), made from Westfied Farms cheese, was something from a cheese-lovers dream sequence—high, fluffy and warm and tangy with fresh chevre. When punctured, it remained spongy but still light and buoyant, slowly falling down over grilled asparagus.
For dinner, the whole dourade, grilled in a splash of lemony chervil vinaigrette and topped with Nyon olive puree, was magnificent ($M/P). The skin was nicely seasoned, and the right wrapper for delicate meat. A plate of glossy melting braised shortribs was set up with roasted fingerling potatoes and a punch of fresh horseradish could not have been simpler, or better. But even so, a side of long, hot freshly salted fries with aoili took center stage ($6). We picked at them in between bites, first pulling them out one by one and then in more ample bunches. The only dud was a promising vegetable and seafood stew (that was curiously bland and tasted almost watered down.
I took some time to return to Provence, wanting to give Lynn and his crew some time to find a rhythm and work out the kinks. Craig and I went back last week to celebrate my father’s 65th birthday. Again the setting was magical—that lovely light, the banquettes filled up, the bottles of rosé perspiring in corner wine buckets, the sheet of marble bar topped with cool cocktails and elbows of couples leaning in. We sat at a round table in the rear enclosed garden, a room marked by original mosaic tiled floors, a tented ceiling draped in cream fabric, and walls climbing with garden vines and twisted lengths of tree limbs that give the illusion of outdoors without the risk of rain or summer swelter.
Since we were celebrating (and honestly even if we weren’t), we started with a bottle of sparkling wine and an icy shelf of oysters ($2.50-3.50 each), some brilliant and brackish, some sweet and creamy, all cold and plump, minerally and saline. I slurped back my share without even a squeeze of lemon. We moved onto a bottle of—you guessed it—rosé—and our first courses. A big steamy bowl of beautiful Bouchot mussels ($17) was my favorite. The mussels were almost chubby they were so plump, perfectly steamed in a deeply spicy broth of chili, chorizo, green onion, and garlic that brought beads of sweat to my nose. These were amazing. My dad went for the calamari ($12), which made me recall the first time I tried calamari. I was as a little girl, maybe 8 or 9 years old. My brother and I were with my Dad for the weekend in the city and we were at one of our usual spots, The Metropolitan Café on Second Avenue in the 50s. My Dad ordered an appetizer for us all to share, and told us it was chicken. It arrived, and I was skeptical. It didn’t look like chicken to me. But my dad said it was chicken and told me to have some. Let’s just say I knew better than to argue. And yes, that was my first taste of fried calamari. When I found out I had been tricked, I was not happy. After I got over it, I realized I liked it. I hoped we’d have it again the next weekend. We did.
The calamari at Provence is quite different than my first taste of cornmeal fried ringlets with pulpy tomato sauce. The squid in this case is naked, not breaded, and sautéed in garlic and olive oil and garnished with currants and pine nuts. While I liked the preparation—the squid was shockingly tender—I think the dish could use a little lift in flavor, perhaps with a squeeze of lemon, a hit of chile, or maybe even the salty punch of a few capers.
But the coil of meaty, spicy Merguez on Craig’s plate was flawless, resting on a fluffy bed of cous cous lavished with briny Nyon olives, little nuggets of soft goat cheese and a gloss of harissa heat ($10). This should be on the brunch menu, topped with fried eggs.
In between appetizers and entrees, we did some gift giving, picture taking, and some more toasting. My dad had forgotten his digital camera and instead was using a disposable he’d gotten at the corner deli. They do come in handy. But soon, with all the picture taking, toasting, and gift giving, it was getting to be like a scene from a long lost Bar Mitzvah. I was expecting someone to get hoisted into the air on a chair. Luckily everyone stayed grounded. Dinner had arrived.
After consuming enough beef for a small country the week before at Hill Country, Craig and I had both decided to have fish. He had the halibut—a buttery golden seared hunk set over a team of asparagus that were lined up like a picket fence on the plate, and dressed in a preserved lemon butter sauce that was more like a beurre fondue. I had the mahi mahi, quite moist and seriously flavorful, served with a bracing tapenade and grilled leeks. But we were both eyeing my Dad’s roasted leg of lamb, served with a colorful summer squash ragout. He noticed, and sliced us each a taste (yummy), which we gladly accepted.
We didn’t have to choose a dessert, because we had ordered a cake, a chocolate and raspberry layer cake that was lit up with candles (just a few, not 66). My Dad closed his eyes, made a wish, and blew out his candles. The cake was sliced and served. It was moist and decadent and required that second helpings be distributed. What remained was boxed for my Dad to finish the next night (or knowing him, with coffee in the morning).
As we left, my Dad thanked us for taking him and went on about how perfect the meal had been and how much he had loved the restaurant. I agreed. But while Provence was the perfect place to celebrate my Dad’s birthday, it is also a place that requires no special occasion at all. If you find yourself, on one of these hot sticky nights, in need for a few glasses of rosé and a cold tray of oysters, the bar is beckoning. If you’re searching for a place to get together with a few friends for a fine supper, there’s a table in the garden dining room waiting for you. Or you should find yourself with a certain pressing question on your mind, and in need of a magical place that will cast a certain glow, well, it’ll work for that, too.
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