Location: Bistro Provence
Date: November 14, 2007
Robb Walsh, who is quite possibly my favorite food journalist and who we Houstonians can proudly call one of our own, has a timely review of Bistro Provence up at the Houston Press. I say “timely,” because I just ate there for the third time two weeks ago. I had mixed emotions about my last visit, so I’m glad to see that a professional food critic has vindicated my feelings about the place, whether he knows it or not.
We took my Day Job boss to Bistro Provence for her ten-year anniversary with my company. Since there were six of us, I called the restaurant the day before our lunch to make sure that they could accomodate six people during their busy lunch rush. The person who answered the phone sounded harried and uninterested at the same time, even though I made sure to call around 3:30 pm (hoping to catch them in between the lunch and dinner rushes). He snootily told me that they don’t accept reservations, something of which I’m very well aware, and I told him so. He responded with, “Okay, then you know we don’t take reservations. Just show up and you’ll be seated.” And then abruptly hung up the phone.
The next day, the group of us showed up at 12:30. The parking lot was full, as always, but we were heartened by the fact that several tables outside on the popular patio area were empty. Inside the restaurant, several other tables were empty as well, but they were all two-tops: nothing large enough to accomodate our group. Every table seemed to be inhabited by — quite fittingly — actual French people enjoying their traditional long lunches with bottles of wine. The boss loved the quaintness and “authenticity” of the place, and she happily agreed to wait for a table.
…this was a bad idea.
We ended up waiting thirty-five minutes for a table, as we watched other two-tops come and go — any of which could have been pushed together to accomodate us. What’s more, we waited outside, standing, in the sun. One of the waitstaff offered us a chair, but no one wanted to take the one chair while the rest of the group stood. I kept imploring my companions to ditch the place: “Trust me, it’s good, but it’s not worth a half-hour wait at lunchtime!” But they held firm.
When we were finally seated, it was at a four-top. The six of us snuggled in and the waiter tried his best to call our cramped table “cozy,” as we rolled our eyes at each other. The meal from that point on was fine, however. Most of the lunch specials were already gone by the time we were seated — only the salmon and a pot pie were left on the chalkboard — so we ordered off the menu.
My goat cheese ravioli and skewered scallops were heavenly. What I love about Provençal cuisine is how easily it marries Mediterranean flavors and ingredients without regard to whether they’re French or Italian in their origins, so this dish was ideal for me. The scallops were like immaculate little down pillows in my mouth. I have a huge focus on texture when I eat — I’m known to have myriad “texture issues,” actually — so the way that something feels in my mouth is just as important to me as the way it tastes, smells and looks. Therefore, I’m going to go off on a scallop tangent for just a second…
The scallops that one generally purchases from a grocery store tend to have been soaked in water to increase their weight (and therefore their selling price…grrrrr). This means that when you, the enterprising amateur chef, go to sear your pillowy little scallops, you end up steaming them instead. This is because all of that aforementioned excess water leaches out of your scallops into the pan, which means that your scallops become stringy, tough and altogether unpleasant in the mouth. You can avoid this by either (1) purchasing truly fresh scallops that haven’t been presoaked in water or (2) making sure to pour any excess water off after searing the first side of your scallops. But seeing as how #2 is entirely too much effort for something that shouldn’t have to be done in the first place, I recommend buying them fresh whenever possible.
The scallops at Bistro Provence were clearly quite fresh, as was everything else. Two of my companions ordered pizzas, which were a bit too deep-dish and Americanized for my taste. They enjoyed them, however. Another companion’s duck stew was intoxicating; just the smell of it made you feel like you’d eaten something truly rich and needed to relax in a corner with a glass of wine to digest it before making any further attempts at moving. The stew itself was so good that I had to restrain myself from pushing her out of the way and horking it all down myself.
On the down side, I made an attempt to order the pâté as an appetizer. I asked the waiter if it came “country-style,” that is to say, “chunky.” I hate saying “chunky” or “with chunks” because both sound unappetizing to me in any context. He had no idea what I was talking about, so I asked again: “Is it country-style? You know, peasant-style?” Seeing that he was still baffled I finally asked, quietly, “Does it have…you know…chunks?”
“Oh, yes,” he proudly proclaimed.
“Ah, I see. In that case, I’ll pass for today.”
Again, see: texture issues above. I mean, I expected that in a Provençal restaurant it would have…chunks…eeeew…but I had to ask. There are some people who love their pâté chunky. I am, unfortunately, not one of them.
The only other negative to our visit was that at least half our dishes had what I like to call “garlic overload.” I love garlic as much as the next person. In fact, I will sit down and eat entire cloves of it, roasted. But some restaurants tend to have a heavy hand when it comes to adding garlic (CARRABBA’S, ARE YOU LISTENING?) and they come close to ruining an otherwise lovely dish. The olive oil dipping sauce that comes to every table was the first victim of garlic overload, to the point that only one of us ate it (and then stunk for three days afterwards). The pizzas were the other victims. I was lucky to escape on both counts.
Overall, I would highly recommend Bistro Provence with a few important caveats:
- Don’t bother trying to make reservations.
- Don’t be surprised by their lack of a defined “waiting area” with chairs; you’ve been warned.
- It really isn’t the place for large groups; go with a friend or two.
- Go when you have plenty of time to relax and enjoy the atmosphere and several courses; don’t go over lunch if you have to get back to work afterwards.
- Do have a glass of wine; French food is always so much better when complimented by a good glass of wine.
- Ignore the kitschy “French” decor; Robb Walsh was a bit more forgiving about this in his review, but I seriously can’t stand cheesy Van Gogh prints that look like they came out of the $5 bin at a college bookstore and I’ve about had it up to here with ceramic roosters on shelves and plates hung on walls — enough is enough, come up with a less overdone and less “France-by-way-of-a-Sugarland-housewife” decorating scheme, please.