Provence en Boite: Smith St.
First of all, a semi-disclosure: we were long standing customers at their Bay Ridge location and went into this dinner wanting to love it. No other connection.
We got there at 7:30pm (Friday eve) and only a couple of tables were taken. I was worried about the lack of business but, when we left at 9:30pm, the place was packed. It's now fully a/c'ed and the ceiling fans circulate the cool air well (previous poster's complaint). The servers are young and clearly being trained. Earnest & bright, but mistakes were made (minor). The owner (wife) was waitressing and going table to table to make sure all was well and giving them pointers away from the tables. The chef/owner (husband) was also in and out of the kitchen, stopping at tables to talk along the way.
The bread was okay (same as that served at Boullabaisse on Union: long, thin, dense, chewy, with flavor), served with sweet cream butter. The asparagus soup ordered by two of the four of us was excellent, but wasn't the "potato/leek soup, served warm" that had been described by the waitress as the "soup du jour" (that's the "minor" mistake I was referring to). Lucky both diners didn't mind the unannounced change. A dinner salad was fine. My seafood salad with whipped homemade mayo was excellent. Lots of seafood (peeled shrimp, mussels, crab meat...) over greens with a great mayo and light dressing. At $8.50 a very good deal. My boullabaisse was the same as what they served when in Bay Ridge: that is, a notch or two non-traditional. Anise and some curry in the broth. Very good, with abundant seafood and flavor. My wife's duck with berries (raspberries?) was also excellent. One friend had mussels and fries (cream sauce, not my favorite, but very good fries) and the other had a very nice salmon dish. We drank only one bottle of a good French rose and some ice tea.
For dessert, the owner picked out 3 pastries for us to share. An "opera cake", a vanilla eclair and a peach/pistachio tart. All were quite good. I'm not a dessert person but I think they were close to or on par with Marquet (which we love and who did our wedding cake over 20 years ago). Different style. He doesnt go for delicate (Marquet does, in my opinion); much heavier approach.
At any rate, we had a very nice meal and we'll be going back. Total cost was just under $100/couple (can be done for less if you dont eat as much as we do). For us, easily better than almost all of the other French places in the area (Jolie, Quercy, Bacchus, Pit Stop, Patois, Tabac). As a frame of reference, we like Boullabaisse as much. Since the owners live in the neighborhood and havent had a place for several years, we actually spoke to Jean-Jacques about other places in the neighborhood and found that he's friendly with Neil at Boullabaisse, goes to Pit Stop for food/petanque with his family, and loves Saul and Savoia. We told him to try Chestnut.
This restaurant was very dissapointing, probably the least inspired French cuisine I've had in this area of the city. The decor is too country, the service too "casual." The steak frites was gray and not as good as I could cook at home. The escargots was bland and fishy tasting, so much so that I thought of the slugs that roam my garden at night (and that I kill with salt.) The dessert was cold and pretty bland. I would never go here again. (I went once for brunch and it was equally disspointing.)
I also had a negative experience here. The waiters were attentive but the food was just boring and not executed very well. The steak frites I ordered was tepid and about a third fat. When I ordered a pear-pistachio tart, it was pulled straight from the display case, plopped on a plate, and placed, cold as a rock, on my table. I asked to have it warmed and someone popped it into a microwave for 20 seconds. I could tell it would have been good had it actually been warm.
I ate there with a friend two weeks ago, and found the food to be mediocre, at best. On the recommendation of the waitress (who also advised that, as she didn't eat meat, this was just what was most popular), we ordered the lamb chops and the duck. Two of my lamb chops were gamy, and the other two were tasteless, while the sauce was just sweet and did nothing to enhance the lamb. My friend ordered the duck, which was passable, but, but dry, and, as Peter noted above, mostly flavorless as well. We had a strawberry tart for dessert, which was just ok. Based on this experience, I'd rank the food below every other "French" place in the area, which isn't saying much.
In addition, the music was cheesy Euro-pop (Gypsy Kings, etc. -- why can't these places play decent French music -- Gainsbourg, Autour de Lucie, Tiersen, etc.?) and the decor was in the touristy kitsch vein, so, based on the ambience alone, even if the food improves, I'll never make another trip there.
So my friend and I ate there Saturday night and it was... rough.
We got there about 8:45 and it was nearly full -- only 2 or 3 empty tables -- all for parties of 2. The wife graciously greeted us and said it would just one moment while they reset the tables.
We requested the one in the corner by the window -- big mistake -- it was the furthest from the beaten track.
Within a minute or two the table was set though this fact was overlooked by the wife. I caught her eye and nodded towards the table and she grabbed a few menus and led us there.
We sat down and looked at the menu. We knew what we wanted within 30 seconds (we'd seen the menu in the window and had a movie to catch in 70 minutes). Our order was taken by the wife -- I don't recall how long it took for her to take it but it didn't seem overly long.
Then things headed down hill.
She left our table and we had no water and no bread. Everyone else had a charming stoppered bottle of water. Of course this happens the one night that I'm unquenchingly thirsty (had been outside all day) and starving.
We then waited for what seemed like much too long a period (though I won't put a time on it). While waiting, two other servers constantly visited the tables all around us. One of them was friends with the couple next to us and spent a lot of time chatting them up. Never once did anyone ever make eye contact with us and the wife never came back. I guess we were assigned to the wife but since she's not a regular server we fell through the cracks.
Eventually I caught someone's eye across the room and a server came over immediately. I explained we need water and bread and she brought it immediately.
Our entrees came (no starters -- we had that movie to catch and I was wary of how long it would take due to the negative comments about service here.)
My companion's steak frites was perfectly good but nothing to get too excited over, though I will say that frite themselves were on the excellent end of cosmic frite continuum. (Also, it had a round of herbed butter on top that was oddly unmelted. Either the butter was frozen or the steak wasn't very hot. Even at the end of the meal it was only half-melted. Very odd, yes? Or is that a culinary trick I don't know -- freeze the butter so it doesn't melt?)
My entree was the duck breast, ordered medium rare, with berry sauce with mixed vegetables. The vegetables? A very pretty mix of haricot vert, red pepper, maybe squash and a few mushrooms. Unfortunately it had zero salt and therefore zero flavor.
The sauce on the duck? A flavorless watery purple sauce with 2 boysenberries sitting in it.
The duck? A series of thickly sliced tough, dark grey-brown slabs of meat. Medium rare as requested? Not close. I hacked off a few bites and found it devoid of flavor. (I really could have used a steak knife, too.)
After thinking it over for a minute I did something I've never done. I decided to send my entree back to the kitchen. I asked for medium rare. This was past well-done.
No surprise, it took some time to get someone's attention. Again, it was one of the other waitstaff, not the woman who seated us or took our order. I explained the situation nicely and she VERY nicely took it back.
Faster than I would have thought possible a fresh plate came out with another round of duck which was... pretty much the exact same dark grey-brown color.
To their credit, maybe one of the 6 slices, when cut in half, when first served, showed maybe a millimeter of pinkish... for a moment or two. Then the heat of the surrounding duck and the plate cooked that through, too.
Resigned to eat well-done tasteless duck, I polished off most the plate. I had to use my companion's steak knife to cut it. My regular knife just couldn't hack it (pun intended).
When the same waitress who wasn't our waitress cleared our plates she asked how it was. I politely told her it was no better and she grimaced and apologized.
We then ordered a chocolate crepe for dessert -- it was lovely.
Someone brought our check when we waved them down. We paid. The wife, after seating us and taking our order, never sought us out again.
Having read about their place in Bay Ridge, and how authentic their pastries are, I really wanted to like this place. I have to say though, it was probably in the bottom 5% of entrees I've ever had in New York City. (I won't say the worst ever, but it was the worst in memory.)
I'll go back one more time if I read good things here and I bet they'll do a much better brunch than dinner.
Has anyone else had experiences like mine? Has anyone else had great experiences? Can anyone explain why medium-rare duck was grey-brown through and so tough I need a steak knife?
P.S. They really should spend the $$ to re-work that street-facing window. Sitting up against that wall of glass, with all the hustle and bustle of the street visible but utterly silent is a very odd and isolating experience -- like eating in a fish-bowl. It needs to be a series of french doors that open up like Bar Tabac has.
Peter in the Heights
As always, nice report Steve. You paint a picture of a very promising restaurant that's still in the process ironing out kinks in service and cuisine. That's a real contrast with some of the opening weekend posts we saw awhile back. New restaurants are almost never at the top of their game in their first month operation. I always discount the initial negative reports.