Iimagine, these days, there are thousands of restaurants around the world named Provence (a quick Googling reveals one in San Francisco, one in Sacramento, and another in Prague). But if you’re a New Yorker of a certain age, and if you’ve ever fancied yourself a bit of a Francophile, and if you’ve had an old-fashioned French meal downtown in the past two decades or so, chances are the Provence you’re familiar with is a little place on a tree-lined stretch of Macdougal Street. This comfortable old establishment had a faded blue façade, with tall windows thrown open to the street. As I dimly recall, the proprietors celebrated Bastille Day, the way proprietors of French restaurants used to, and made a big deal about the annual arrival of the Beaujolais nouveau. The waiters were weary Gallic gentlemen, and there was a greenish, slightly dank garden room in the back where you could sit at rickety tables and dine on increasingly tired servings of salade niçoise, escargot in little pools of garlic butter, and brown crocks of oversalted onion soup.
But at Provence these days, as at everywhere else in the embattled realm of French dining, escargot tongs and sturdy crocks of onion soup are relics of the past. The restaurant has new owners (Vicki Freeman and Marc Meyer, who run the successful downtown restaurants Five Points and Cookshop), a new menu, and a refurbished set of rooms designed to exude a polished new-millennium sheen. The façade is still blue and the tall windows still open onto the street, but the walls have been painted in shades of orange and mustard and there are fresh sprays of flowers in all the rooms. The garden room is painted a kind of glowing golden yellow instead of dank green, and curtains of cloth have been folded over the ceiling to give the aged room an airy, angelic feel. Up front, there’s a new marble bar sporting a de rigueur display case for fresh oysters and other fruits of the sea, and all the tables are covered in snappy white linens and set with those totems of modern Mediterranean dining: a bottle of rosemary-flavored extra-virgin olive oil and a bowl of artisanal salt.
For devotees of the old restaurant, this revamped look isn’t an unpleasant thing. The space feels familiar but also brand-new, like a shambling country house you’ve visited before that has been carefully reimagined by eager new owners and their well-compensated decorator. Not surprisingly, the new menu has a similarly studied au courant look. There are seasonal plates of shellfish (oysters from Skookum, Washington, scallops from Taylor Bay) and selections of charcuterie tastefully arranged on a wooden butcher block in accordance with the rustic dining fashions of today. Since this is Provence, there’s also a dense, greasy, anchovy-rich pissaladière tart on the menu; round, crunchy cod fritters with a sidecar of garlicky aïoli; and pots of smooth, faintly chewy duck and pork rillettes you can spread on slices of raisin bread, with mustard, pickles, and prunes soaked in armagnac. There is also a quote by the great bard of Provence, Frédéric Mistral, on the menu, and if you visit the men’s room, you’ll find the walls papered with pages from The Three Musketeers.
You can get snails at the new Provence (they’re skewered, en brochette, and dusted with bread crumbs and garlic), though they look a little measly without their shells. Onion soup might make an appearance in colder weather, but for now, chef Lynn McNeely (formerly of Barbuto) produces a decent mussel bisque spiked with Pernod, and a cool asparagus soup flavored with a little too much garlic. My persnickety Francophile friends seemed to enjoy their calamari (scattered with pine nuts and sweetened with currants), but my imposing helping of merguez sausage didn’t quite cohere with the couscous and goat cheese upon which it was placed. A few of the larger seafood dishes didn’t quite work either. My wife insisted her grilled prawns were underdone (they were), and the massive, un-Mediterranean sea scallops I sampled were oversalted. The equally massive grilled porgy (which requires elaborate deboning) isn’t bad, though, and neither is the halibut, which is accompanied by a nice mound of fava-bean purée.
Is this the kind of highly particular, highly flavored cooking you so enjoyed on your most recent vacation to Marseille? Of course it’s not. But if you have a taste for pesto, you might find that the earthy, garlic-heavy version at Provence goes nicely with a helping of crisp pan-fried gnocchi. The kitchen makes its own pork sausage in fat, round patties and serves it with hunks of braised pork shoulder and a mass of pork-flavored white beans. Because this is a neighborhood joint in New York City, the kitchen also produces a standard-issue hanger steak (touched, in pseudo-Provençal style, with garlic butter) and a standard-issue chicken breast, flavored with more garlic and partly obscured by mounds of broccoli rabe. Because this is also supposed to be the south of France, there’s a respectable facsimile of beef daube on the menu (cooked with citrus and anise and poured over a buttery potato purée), and instead of lamb chops you can order a superior faux-Mediterranean lamb cutlet tossed in Parmesan bread crumbs and served with fresh peas and mint.