January 26, 1987 | Vintage Insatiable
Provence: A Couple of Swells

           What do you want in a bistro? Great potatoes, serious bread, snappy service, gentle tariffs. A savvy, good-looking clientele does dress up the place. And if it celebrates Provence or evokes a Tuscan trattoria…expect a comfort of garlic.

           The first tingle of anise on your tongue as you sip a shot glass of pastis transports you to France. With the smooth mash of garlicky potatoes and salt cod -- the brandade of Provence -- the illusion deepens. Then you are wreathed in the intoxicating sea aura of the kitchen’s magical soupe de poissons.

           There is nothing about the southernmost peninsula of MacDougal Street where it dead-ends at Prince to remind you of Aix or Avignon or Arles except the bouquet of scents at this homey little bistro, Michel Jean’s evocation of his boyhood countryside.

           The tiniest olives are slicked with oil and flecked with tendrils of dried thyme. If you are a friend, and brave, Michel may offer you a salty dab of poutargue or botarga -- sun-dried and smoked mullet roe -- on a buttered crouton, or grated over chickpeas. And to your thick, already soggy pissaladière of onion and anchovy he will add a dribble of fruity green olive oil. Then, if you are a neighborhood regular, an unabashed gourmand, or an especially conspicuous consumer, he may grace your table with a gift of his home-brewed vin de pêche -- a delightful cognac-and-peach-leaf potion that sits in a huge old jar on the bar, soon to be replaced by vin d’orange (till the peaches bloom again).

           Just glancing in through the handsome mullioned window, you sense a lively bustle. The crowd is mostly young downtown people dressed as if they hoped to be photographed by Details, in moussed fright locks and ragbag chic. Women who look like models and sound like brain surgeons or poets sit with long-haired men, not sixties diehards but freshly eccentric. Leather pants are tight and skirts are short.

           Provence keeps getting better. And prices stay temperate. Word has got around, so often there are standees, waiting good-naturedly at the bar with its perfect length of framed mirror. The back room is spare and unfinished, but up front, all is warm, walls paneled in dark ribbed wood, a splash of flowers.

           Michel, like the staff, is in jeans and shirtsleeves, tie tucked inside to save it from trailing into the pissaladière. With her perfectly sculpted body, his wife, Patricia, could be elevating a mere bathing suit to immortality on the cover of Sports Illustrated. Instead, she oversees a very professional flow. In even the best American restaurants, I often feel the staff is just acting. With Michel and Patricia, it’s very real, very French.

           Perhaps you recognize her…from the front desk at Le Club. And you know him at once, even minus the formal black tie of Le Cirque. A success all their own was always a dream. It seemed to have come true just after they married, when they bought a small inn five miles from his hometown of Salon-de-Provence, a tiny town with only a trickle of trade. “We were too young to retire,” says Michel. So they returned to New York.

           And now…Provence, where chef Dezso Szontagh -- after local hops and a brief sojourn in the Côte d’Azur kitchen of Roger Vergé -- is producing Michel’s Provençal memories as well as his own notions. And the prices are what they ought to be -- hors d’oeuvre mostly $5 or less, entrées $12 to $15. So even if you succumb to an exquisite salad or a melt of goat cheese on country bread or tartines of cognac-spiked Roquefort, you won’t need to pawn your watch to get home.

           Soups come in giant bowls -- a fragrant pistou with white beans afloat or that heady essence of the sea with garlicky rouille on croutons. There may be eggplant minced with a TNT of garlic, salty olive tapenade, or a sublime terrine of the same velvety eggplant layered with red peppers and spinach in anchovy vinaigrette. The onion pie is too mushy for me, and I don’t recommend coquilles Saint-Jacques with sun-dried tomatoes and ribbons of vegetable -- not when the brandade is on the menu, or perfect scallops in a Pernod-tinged bath.

           There are daily specials: poule-au-pot on Tuesday, pot-au-feu on Wednesday, choucroute garnie on Thursday, bouillabaisse on Friday, and couscous on Sunday.  Any day, try the bourride Sétoise -- squid, scallops, and chunks of firm white fish in an aioli-perfumed broth -- good roasted chicken with whole garlic cloves, a moist and tender rabbit paillard with mustard sauce, pan-roasted lamb on ratatouille, and duck confit when the house has it. The steak is okay (about what you’d expect in a bistro), and the pommes frites are excellent (just what you’d hoped for). If you’re in luck, you’ll also find a lemony fluff of couscous on your plate. There are wines from Provence, too. Especially pleasing in the context is a pale-red Chateau Vignelaure, just $16.

           What has Michel learned from his mentor at Le Cirque? Like Sirio Maccioni, he can sardine the room. He’s also borrowed the richer version of Le Cirque’s celestial crème brûlée. There are pleasing fruit tarts too (perhaps mirabelle plum), tarte Tatin, and a rich marquise that tastes like straight chocolate in coffee-dusted crème anglaise.

           I’ve yet to meet anyone who’s been to Provence just once. I can’t imagine a stronger recommendation.

Provence, 38 Macdougal Street

Cafe Fiorello