Wednesday, November 01, 2006

JOHN CHUCKMAN RESTAURANT REVIEW: PROVINCE, OGUNQUIT, MAINE


Review of an outstanding restaurant written for The Maine Sunday Telegram when I served as restaurant reviewer there. Menu, prices, and possibly other information are now out of date.


RESTAURANT REVIEW: PROVINCE, OGUNQUIT, MAINE

John Chuckman

Just the name Provence conjures images of lavender-laden fields, sun-drenched orchards, and red roof-tiled villages where shopkeepers leave little notes on their doors at noon about being back from the Café Zozo in two hours. The approach to our Provence, despite a handsome apple tree in the front garden and a trim sign picturing lavender, is not like this, for this charming white frame building is very much a part of its environment, the pristine New England of Ogunquit.

But enter the restaurant and images of a village in France return. There is a small bar in one corner from which wine, café au lait, and cappuccino are dispensed to waiters or anyone who wishes to sit there. A few comfortable armchairs near the center of the room recall the lobby of a pleasant, small hotel. There is an intimate table by a front corner window where a young couple was eating. A hostess, clearly French from the first notes of her voice, keeps track of guests and reservations at her lectern. It is all done with a comfortable blend of simplicity and elegance.

We came early, and, on being advised it would be a few minutes for our table, we were about to go for a walk when the very pleasant woman who runs the bar approached and offered us wine or drinks while we waited in the armchairs. Now, who, dear reader, would refuse an offer like that?

We were soon comfortably sipping glasses of Chateau Sergant, Lalande de Pomerol, 1996 ($7.50) and Pinot Grigio, Maso Poli, 1998 ($5.75), enjoying the relaxed atmosphere and studying the menu. The chairs are in front of a fireplace which must be delightful in the late fall.
In a few minutes we were shown into the dining room, a more dimly lit room which feels very much like a small provincial French restaurant with its wide-planked pine floor, hanging soft overhead lights, cotton-print tablecloths in various patterns and colors, candles in glass holders, lace window curtains, little collections of porcelain pitchers and metal fighting cocks on sills and shelves, and a stone fireplace. Low folding screens, painted with cotton print insets, separate the two rows of tables that are away from the walls.

Waiters wear long white aprons, a proud, dignified symbol we see too infrequently today.
The room is fairly small, a fact that raised my culinary hopes since cooking for small rooms best allows a kitchen to excel. The room was delightfully full of people clearly having a good time. Yet we didn't feel crowded at all - an intimate, cozy and friendly atmosphere prevails. And, as I observed over the evening, the room is efficiently kept full. The way the staff briskly achieved this while extending a high level of friendly and informed service displayed an uncommon degree of professionalism in Provence's management.

The choice of appetizers includes items as diverse and delicious-sounding as roast quail flesh stuffed with cherries and a bowl of mussels, shrimp, scallop, and fish in fresh fennel broth. We had escargots with steamed summer vegetables in garlic mayonnaise ($9) and grilled sea scallops with truffle vinaigrette ($12).

The escargots were delicious under their rich dollop of lemony, garlic-infused mayonnaise (aïoli) with several vegetables including cauliflower, red sweet pepper, slices of fennel, and yellow garden beans. The sea scallops were magnificent - plump, lightly sautéed, and drizzled with a savory vinaigrette including a very fine grating of carrot which was wonderfully suitable.
Next we enjoyed a salad of baby greens ($5) and the soup of the day ($6), a chilled velouté with fresh herbs. The salad was a simple mix of fresh greens, tossed in a honey and lime dressing (as is more typically the case in Europe, the dressing being an integral part of the salad, a choice of other dressings is not offered) - simple, yes, but so deftly done. The dressing is balanced between tart and sweet elements, imparting a pleasantly astringent taste to the greens - perfectly refreshing.

A velouté is made with stock added to white sauce. Flavored and served hot or cold, it makes a good soup. The underlying white sauce at Provence has been properly simmered so there is no hint of starchiness, allowing it to provide a creamy base for the chicken stock heavily laced with herbs - delicious and most suitable for a summer evening.

It is so pleasant to find a restaurant where each course is as tasty as its enticing description on the menu - sadly, a situation much less common than it should be. Enjoying one good thing, anticipating the next with assurance that it, too, will be enjoyable, is surely part of an excellent meal. So it is at Provence.

And what entrees we had to look forward to - a cumin-flavored braised lamb shank ($20) and pan-roasted duck breast in ginger-orange sauce ($26).

The lamb shank was beautifully cooked, with the Arabian-Night fragrance of cumin, and served with a delicious couscous including pine nuts and raisins, drizzled reduction from the pan, and roasted tomatoes on top.

The slices of duck came spread over a layer of dark orange-brown sauce, pungent with the scent of zest and ginger, and accompanied by a selection of the same steamed vegetables served with the escargots. The flesh was moist and delectable, the sauce tangy and rich. Indeed, after I had taken my last swipe with bread, the hostess stopped, touching my shoulder, and laughingly asked if a small spot left on my otherwise clean plate perhaps indicated I had not enjoyed it. I responded by promptly applying another crust to the plate. Yes, reader, it was that good.

We finished our meal with a pot de crème au citron ($7) and nougat glacé ($7). As its name suggests, the crème au citron is a lemony custard, actually it is a wonderfully lemony custard, full of the sharp flavor of lemon and lemon zest, served with a dollop of whipped cream.
The nougat, recommended by our waiter as his favorite, is a wedge of frozen meringue packed with nuts and plumped, dried fruits. It is very rich and tasty.

I have only one criticism of Provence's food, one that several other very good restaurants I've reviewed share, and that is the bread. It is baguette, decent enough, but without the character of true baguette with its wonderfully crisp and chewy crust. (For readers and restaurants, I'll just mention that Maine does have a source for a satisfyingly authentic baguette. Standard Bakery in Portland uses traditional methods and a genuine French oven to produce it.)

Our bill came to $135.36. As we stepped into the night, the window on the porch glowed with soft light and the cheery view of people happily gathered around tables.

The evening was so inviting, we walked down the street towards the water. Ogunquit is a place we had only visited briefly in the day, but it is an enchanting fairyland at night with trees and parts of gardens artfully lighted, the warm light of shop windows and restaurants, and tourists out happily strolling. Perkins Cove, an extremely picturesque spot, is a short walk away.

98 Provence
104 Shore Road, Ogunquit
646-9898
www.98provence.com
Food: 4 1/2
Atmosphere: 4 1/2
Service: 4 1/2
Dinner hours: 5:30 - 9:00 PM Wednesday through Monday
Closed Tuesday
Lunch hours: none
(Note: Provence closes mid-December to April)
All major credit cards
Price range: entrees $18 - $30 with some priced daily
Provence has a table d'hôte offering at $32
Vegetarian dishes: none
Reservations: strongly recommended
Bar: full
Wheelchair access: throughout (a portable ramp is used for front stair)
Truly excellent, authentic French cuisine in a charming, comfortable environment

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