Heaven’s Plate

Heaven's plate: Paradou's pressed sandwich of duck rilettes.Photo: Kenneth Chen

Patricia Wells would feel right at home at Paradou, the wine bar and café that materialized opposite Pastis two months ago. Wells – restaurant critic, cookbook author, and Francophile of the first order – has written often and fondly of its namesake, Le Bistro du Paradou, the table d’hôte restaurant located in the bucolic village of Le Paradou, Provence, a spot so charmed and charming (the word means “paradise” in the Provençal dialect) that it inspired self-described burned-out software executive Vadim Ponorovsky, a frequent customer, to name his New York restaurant after it.

But despite his homage to that celebrated kitchen, Ponorovsky’s Paradou is less Toujours Provence than Parisian bistro à vin (another Wellsian obsession). “We thought we had to stay true to Provence,” he says, “but that’s like saying we’re only going to sell things from Brooklyn.” Like the best bistros à vin, his spot is cozy, casual, and dedicated to serving wine-friendly food like ripe cheeses, charcuterie, open-faced sandwiches called tartines, and hearty plats du jour scrawled in chalk on the blackboard, often with matching wines included in the price. (Buyer, beware: Prices of the specials aren’t listed and sometimes exceed an Underground Gourmet’s budget, as we discovered after devouring a wintry – and delicious – $25 cassoulet.)

There’s a feeling of garlic-soaked bonhomie in the studio-size storefront, with its whitewashed brick walls and cramped tables made, like the bar, from French wine crates. The wine itself – all French, and served by the quarter- and half-liter as well as by the bottle – is stored on five ascending shelves, which makes for a conversation-stopping spectacle when the bartender has to pluck a top-shelf selection with a pole-like contraption equipped with pincers. In summer, a garden with a pétanque court provides extra seating, and behind that, in a delicious bit of Manhattan real-estate irony, lurks Hell (the lounge).

Unless you’ve been living in sandwich oblivion, Paradou’s petites tartines will strike you as a French version of bruschetta – toasted slices of Blue Ribbon Bakery baguettes smeared with pungent Provençal toppings like garlicky pistou and anchoïade (anchovies, olives, and shallots), as well as Gallic staples like foie gras terrine and sumptuous duck rillettes. Tartines come in a deceptively snack-size three-to-a-plate portion, but order more than one and you won’t have room for a sandwich grillé, Paradou’s take on the Italian pressed panino. Here Blue Ribbon’s ciabatta is stuffed with delicacies like hot smoked salmon with slender asparagus and lemon crème fraîche, or those rich rillettes with capers, roasted tomatoes, and shallots.

The sandwich fillings are also available in savory buckwheat crêpes, and both are served with mesclun salad – a necessary bit of greenery to counter rich combinations like trois fromages, salty jambon and Gruyère, and the disappointing andouille and manchego, handicapped by too little chopped andouille and too many lackluster button mushrooms. The entrée salads tend to be lusty affairs like the mound of greens enriched and fortified by bits of fourme d’Ambert cheese, crispy lardons, and crunchy pieces of pear that could use some more poaching. The crottin de Chavignol salad special is classic bistro à vin, a melted ball of tangy goat cheese over a thatch of mesclun riddled with hazelnuts and accompanied, as it is in France, by a glass of flinty Sancerre.

Streamlined dessert crêpes – spared from the street-fair fate of drowning in powdered sugar and whipped cream – come artfully filled with lemon and orange, cherries, or Roquefort and pear. Chestnut mousse achieves that precarious balance of being too rich to finish and too airy to stop trying. The espresso is strong and the coffee’s dark and hot, but they’re both eclipsed by standout hot chocolate, enriched by a cherry-and-red-wine reduction.

Not only has Ponorovsky brought his beloved Provence to the meatpacking district, but he encourages his customers to take a bit of that land home with them in a box of chocolates from Saint-Rémy-de-Provence. Chocolatier Joël Durand flavors his confections with home-grown rosemary and thyme, almond praline, bitter honey – even black olives. Not forbidden fruit, perhaps, but a perfectly suitable ingredient for this earthly Paradou.

Paradou 8 Little West 12th Street; 212-463-8345., Monday through Wednesday, 5 p.m. to midnight; Thursday to 1 a.m.; Friday and Saturday, noon to 1 a.m.; Sunday to 10 p.m. Tartines and sandwiches, $5 to $15; entrées, $20 to $25. D.C., M.C., V.

Heaven’s Plate