A Night in Provence

There is something inherently comforting about a Provence-style bistro. Bordered by Italy to the east and the Mediterranean to the south, Provence embodies an easygoing spontaneity. Food goes directly from garden to kitchen, and then, with a minimum of fuss, to table. And while the flavors are sometimes adventurous - lemon and orange peels enliven hearty winter stews; lavender, which grows wild in the hills, subtly scents custards and cakes - the heart of the thing is familiar: a steaming bowl of fish soup, a tender leg of lamb, a slice of apple tart.

The more basic, countrified life evoked by the food of Provence is, of course, an illusion. Before World War II, more than a third of France's population worked the land. Now agricultural workers represent just 6 percent of the work force, and even the once omnipresent kitchen garden is on the decline. But inside a good bistro, a simpler life still seems possible.

Perhaps that is why, in these soggy winter months, Provence-style bistros are springing up across West L.A. like morels in a dank Saint Remy wood.

Bistrot Provencal, which opened late last year in the same La Cienega space that used to house Fatty Arbuckles, is the latest venture of La Cachette owner and former L'Orangerie chef Jean Francois Meteigner. He's brought in chef Patrick Ponsaty from the Park Bistro in New York and interior designer Laurent Latour to create a Provence farmhouse dining experience.

The restaurant is divided into several rooms, with brightly colored tablecloths, dishware in florals and stripes, and warm yellow walls except for one that has been given over entirely to a slightly skewed farmhouse mural. Decorations are borderline kitsch - lots of dried flowers - and, at least for now, the clientele tends toward women in tailored suits, long-nailed manicures and shiny gold clip-on earrings.

Still, there's something comfortable about the place. The hostess is welcoming, if somewhat distracted. A waiter weaves between tightly packed tables balancing a loaded tray, but he never quits smiling. A cook wearing a baseball cap chats with diners as he slips whole snappers and striped bass into a massive brick pizza oven.

Things begin promisingly with a basket of good bread - herbed slices of focaccia, lightly toasted baguettes and brown bread - along with a ramekin of Nicoise olives in herbed oil. A sauceless pizza of spinach, pear and Gorgonzola is excellent. (It would make an ample midday meal when the bistro starts serving lunch on March 17.) On one evening, an appetizer special of baked snails was pleasantly tender, if overwhelmed by too much parsley and garlic, and the subtly sweet, slightly crunchy zucchini strips grilled alongside them were as good as vegetables get.

Less successful was a special of steamed asparagus, cooked perfectly but marred by bitter, charred bits of black olive. A promised infusion of truffle oil was undetectable. A frisee-and-romaine salad was brought down by overworked fried goat-cheese ravioli that seemed a lot like something from the frozen-food section at Trader Joe's.

As an entree, the garlic-crusted lamb chops with rosemary were fine, pink and tender. Striped bass - the fish of the day on one visit - was much praised by the waiter, and indeed the presentation was lovely. A whole fish arrived on a long oval platter atop a pool of fennel-infused fish stock. The first forkful, from the fish's belly, revealed the remains of a couple slices of lemon reduced to a custardlike mush. But except for a few forkfuls from directly over the lemon, the rest of the fish was bland. A braised lamb shank, served with tangy dried figs alongside apple-and-raisin polenta, was tender but not particularly flavorful. The prawns, monkfish, cod and scallops in a Provence-style saffron bouillabaisse were unremarkable, the clams gritty.

Among the desserts, the thin apple-cinnamon tart with vanilla ice cream stood out as did the lavender vanilla creme brulee, though its thick, caramelized crust seemed a bit much for such a slim portion. The hot-chocolate volcano with jasmine-tea sauce and orange segments was a hollowed-out cake round that, when punctured, didn't so much erupt as ooze a thick chocolate liquid, a sort of high-class Ho-Ho. And the warm poached Bartlett pear in black-currant wine sauce and ice cream was a good variation on a typical Provencal treat - although serving the hard-textured, slippery fruit in a martini glass made for rather graceless eating.

Bistrot Provencal is the kind of place you can't help but want to be good. Its prices are reasonable, its service unpretentious, its surroundings pleasant. Even the wine list exudes accessibility. There's nothing fancy, and nothing over $46. (We had a good Cote de Brouilly for $29.) All that's missing is consistently good food.

829 N. La Cienega Blvd., West Hollywood; (310) 360-9064. Open nightly for dinner 6-11:30 p.m. Appetizers $6-$9, pizza and pastas $11-$15.50, entrees $14.50-$18, desserts $5.25-$6.75. Full bar. Valet parking. AE, DC, Disc., MC, V.

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