Haven't we just been a couple of Gallic gallants of late? We hopped from Chez Papa to Bistro 1689 (though the latter is scarcely a bistro or especially French), and last night we decided to check out La Provence, in the curious little cluster of eateries at the corner of Guerrero and 22nd. (Is that Mission or Noe Valley? It's I think technically in the Mission but has more of a Noe vibe, n'est-ce pas?)
This is a space we know well. For years it was Mangiafuoco, one of or favorite Italian restaurants, not least because it was mere blocks from where we lived. After Mangiafuoco's closure, it went through a few machinations of short-lived restaurants we never bothered to check out: Da Luisa, Fiamma and I think something else that lasted something like a month. When La Provence opened, we sat back and watched, waited to see whether it would be the latest casualty.
To our mild surprise, it stuck. La Provence has occupied that space for just over a year now, which we decided was long enough for them to work out whatever kinks they might have had. And so last night we made a brief excursion to the south of France.
Now, I like the whole Provençal thing. I like the warm colors, the aromas of lavender and garlic, the combination of French sophistication with Italian laissez-faire, so I'm somewhat inclined to be more forgiving to an establishment like this right off the bat. La Provence doesn't disappoint in that regard. It's painted in warm yellow, banquettes upholstered in canvas striped in ecru and tomato red. The place is peppered with cicadas - figurines and candle holders shaped like them, that is, not the actual bugs - and the music is occasionally interrupted with a cicada hum. The music is what DPaul and I call "Soundtrack to the World": the inoffensive mix of Buddha-Bar-Hotel-Costes-Saint-Germain-des-Pres-Cafe lounge that pervades restaurants and bars everywhere now. Jean de Florette was playing on a projection screen over the dining room, a young and then-handsome Gérard Dépardieu lording over us.
Lionel, the owner and host, is handsome, affable and gregarious. Stéphan, our server, must surely have been his son. A 7 pm seating, we were one of the only tables at first, but by the end of the evening the place was jamming.
We were made to feel very much at home. The staff -- what little there is -- is generally pleasant and genuine. Lionel commended us on ordering the bottle of Gigondas (an appellation I am particularly fond of, and which is a relative rarity on wine lists here); little did we know we ordered the last bottle ... more on that later.
For starters DPaul had the pissaladière, a fave for both of us, and I had the montagne de piquilios -- salt cod brandade stuffed in piquillo peppers, a dish more in the Spanish vein and one that always gets my attention. The name confused me at first -- piquillo pepper mountain? All was made clear when I was presented a dish with two tips of piquillo pepper, stuffed with brandade and perched upright, their alpine peaks pointing skyward and a curious potato chip with two perfect holes cut out forming a cloud-like layer across the slops; a mildly vinegary pepper coulis filled the valley, and a quenelle of "red pesto" -- a paste of sun-dried tomato and pine nuts -- hid beneath an almost impossibly thin, crisp slice of baguette. I moved mountains -- straight into my mouth. DPaul's pissaladière was a charming little disc of dough topped with caramelized onions and anchovy and delicate niçois olives, overall lending an assertive yet never overpowering flavor. OK, we're happy.
By now the restaurant is filling up, and the staff is struggling to keep apace of the business. The entire affair appears to operate with four people, all evidently related to each other, and only one in the kitchen. With the flood of orders coming in, the kitchen was scrambling to keep up. The net result is that we had a lengthy -- some might say European -- gap between our courses. On the bright side, it gave us the opportunity to enjoy our lovely Gigondas.
Because we had people seated on either side of us, we're beginning to hear glimmerings of conversation between the server and customers about being out of this or that -- the thisses and thats all being wine. Evidently, a shipment that was expected the previous day never happened, and suddenly they were left with a short supply of most of their wine. This on the Friday of a long weekend. I don't envy them the next few days.
At last, our entrées arrived, a lovely lapin roti au miel de lavande -- rabbit in lavender honey -- for DPaul and gigot d'agneau Saint-Tropez -- grilled lamb in rosemary-thyme jus -- for me. The plates arrived screaming hot (are you listening, Bistro 1689?), fragrant and glistening. The aroma of lavender was mouth-watering. Both dishes came with a parmesan polenta cake and some julienned vegetables. Both dishes were very good (that polenta cake alone was very good); my only complaint is that I would have liked to see some diversity in presentation and sides, but I think we may have ordered the two dishes that came with similar presentations. I nearly ordered the soupe de poissions Canabière, basically a bouillabaisse, but thought the Gigondas might overwhelm it, like cracking and egg with a mallet. Next time, no doubt.
After a fair amount more time considering our wine, we ordered the moelleux au chocolat for dessert along with some port -- which they were of course out of. Banyuls, too. No matter. The moelleux was fabulous -- a rich chocolate fondant cake in a pool of mint-basil cream with a small jumble of minced apricot on the side. Just note one thing: It takes a little longer to prepare than other desserts, which made our evening that much longer.
Somehow the understaffing, the lengthy gaps between courses and almost total outage of wine by the end of the evening would have set us on edge in any other restaurant. Yet so comfortable were we, so enjoyable our time, we found them utterly forgivable, mere trifles. How can you get worked up about such middling things when you're enjoying a balmy evening on the French Riviera, even if it is a foggy night in San Francisco?
1001 Guerrero Street (at 22nd)