Monday, February 25, 2008

La Provence

It took two days of reflection to be able to say this, but here it goes: La Provence is the best restaurant in New Orleans. First off, New Orleans has received the blessings of the gods when it comes to dining establishments so choosing a best restaurant will necessarily implicate debate and scorn from others. But backing up La Provence as the best restaurant in New Orleans must be done and can be accomplished quite easily.

The "past is prologue" aspect of La Provence lends it some serious credibility. A restaurant out in the middle of nowhere (but fast becoming somewhere) begun by a Greek, French-trained immigrant. As a final dying act the proprietor turns the place over to his one time protege, John Besh. For the first few months, things are rocky at the fabled place in the woods. Then a French chef, who has lost his restaurant in the CBD, is brought in as executive chef (and becomes a partner). This French chef, Rene Bajeux, begins a self-professed Renaissance of why he became a chef. Fresh, premises raised ingredients, a reinvigorated chef, and a destination dining spot create ideal conditions for a diner. Great story; but it only gets us to the present.

La Provence requires planning. Located on Highway 190 near Lacombe, Louisiana, most diners from the Greater New Orleans Area regrettably will not be able to head over to La Provence at the drop of a hat. But this is a very good thing because the planning gives the diner(s) at a minimum a day (and more is recommended) to stew and simmer one's thoughts and prepare one's imaginative palate for the gustatory excursion ahead. Such dining anticipation puts pressure on the kitchen to perform, and they do.

Sidestepping the ubiquitous white stretch limo always parked out front, one walks into the hearth of an idealized French home. Walking to the bar area requires one to gaze and lope just past the front dining room. The resulting feeling is not unlike walking through a grocery store when one is starving. Everything looks good and you are ready to eat.

The menu runs the gamut of French classics and new looks at the same. Always a meal starts with homemade pate, usually an earthy chicken liver pate with buttery croutons. Recently, when we asked the waiter for a second helping of the pate, he instead brought out a dish of organic butter and rainbow sheened olive oil puree with red onion. Disappointment flew across our faces, until we dipped the homemade olive bread into the olive oil. Summer, that was the taste.

On the first visit, back in September the appetizer which blew everyone at the table away was the tomato and goat cheese gratin. Quite simply imagine the greatest topping on a pizza and that was the flavor. Fresh tomatoes, superb goat cheese, simply passed under the broiler with some fresh herbs sprinkled on top.

On our recent visit, the best appetizers ordered were the Foie Gras with a fig compote and the escargot. The foie gras arrived with that wonderful tripartite relationship of the crispy exterior, the tender interior, and the molten center. The escargot epitomized garlic, just on this side of overpowering. This dish was nothing more than the classic escargot dish, but prepared and plated more professionally. Quite frankly, this is why man eats snails.

The classic New Orleans oyster patty receives a stay of execution with a delicate and flaky puff pastry snaking across a rectangular plate. Underneath the top layer of pastry, oysters delicately poached in cream and herbsaint create a brilliant textural balance between the flaky pastry and the succulent oysters. The soups are excellent especially the crawfish bisque in a dark brown stock.

Duck, lamb, chicken and beef entrees are a good place to focus one's attention. Their was some apprehension by the orderer of the filet. Typical counterarguments were lobbied against her order such as "It's a filet, it will taste just like a filet from anywhere." I am sure there is a better filet out there, but I have never had it. An enormous filet basted with a truffle oil set atop a puree of red cabbage and served with Potatoes Dauphin. The flavors and textures flowed from the aroma of the truffle, to the tender beef, to the crisp and pillowy potatoes. Finally, a dish to take the filet from boring to enthralling.

Duck simply roasted with lavender is a holdover from the original prorietor's repertoire. Beyond crisp skin gives way to the tender, perfume fragrant meat of a duck. Simple, good, and hearty. Rabbit ordered in September arrived tough and hurried, the flavors not quite together. This most likely occurred because the wrong dish was brought out first, requiring the rabbit to be "911'ed".

The braised lamb perfected the essence of La Provence which I believe is contrast. The lamb begins with the deep hearty flavors of a traditional braise. Red wine, aromatics, and hearty stock soon give way to the grassy, fresh taste of lamb. The dish idealized the changing of the seasons occurring right now: winter giving way to spring. Coquelet au vin arrived with a brilliant presentation and taste to match; tender chicken in a sauce fortified by the bones of the bird set atop a perfectly executed gratin of potatoes.

Desserts move away, but not far, from the classics. Bread pudding, crepes suzette, lavender creme brulee, and a cheese plate (cheeses selected by St. James) gave opportunity for sharing, comparing, debating, and enjoying. Here was the only glitch. The dessert course took just a little to long to arrive. Especially considering the French Pressed coffee had been finished prior to dessert arriving. Although the delay was noted and taken care of by the wait staff before we raised our complaints.

Wine list is very affordable and hits all the major highlights. We drank a 2006 Saintsbury, Pinot Noir from Carneros. The temperature on the wine was perfect and went well with everyone's entrees.

Joyce, a longtime employee of La Provence, checked on us and upon learning of our hounds, brought us a few extra lamb bones for them. Perfect ending for us and a great reward for the hounds.

There is an overarching theme out there. And it is the delightful interplay of raising and exceeding expectations. You are in the middle of nowhere, yet right in the middle of France. You are comfortable, cozy, and content, yet trying new things, exploring new flavors, and revisiting old ones. Textures contrast but almost always in harmony. This is supposed to be simple, unpretentious French home-cooking food; yet the presentation, service, and execution transforms simple ingredients into a legendary eating establishment. You have traveled to get here, yet you feel like you are at home, but not your home as it feels more welcome than that. This restaurant returns to the roots of French country cooking, yet it shows off Louisiana flavors and products. La Provence is the best restaurant in New Orleans; yet, it is not in New Orleans. Content confusion, a mini-vacation to the South of France by going North of the lake, where am I, can I try your entree, do we have to go back...

I have a feeling in the next few months, La Provence will become hugely popular locally, regionally, nationally, and hopefully internationally. This will be a very difficult reservation to get.

As we wrapped up our most recent meal at around 9:30, groups were still arriving and walking through the warm rooms with the excited look of children on their face. They looked at our table and the enjoyment passed from one group to another, as we slipped into the night and they walked into the hearth.

Website with hours, directions, and such...Just go.

1 comment:

David C. Coons said...

My compliments on a thoughtful review of La Provence. I have never ventured over there. This probably comes from a built-in bias that us Southshore folks have which tells us that even the best NS restaurant couldn't be better than the best of Orleans parish. But you paint a vivid picture of a warm & authentic dining experience. Now if only I could get Ittmann's stretched Hummer...