South of France, South of Houston

When I arrived at Provence recently on a clear, warm evening, the doors of the restaurant had been thrown open to the street and its window boxes overflowed with pansies. The room was filled with a voluble, spirited crowd, and since my table wasn’t ready, I climbed onto the last empty stool at the bar. In front of me on the marble counter was an absinthe drip, a glass samovar-like container with little spigots, filled with ice and water.

“Absinthe drinkers would pour the water into their glass over a sugar cube placed on a slotted spoon,” said the bartender, a young American sporting a raspberry-sorbet-colored shirt, long sideburns and a short, trimmed beard. “We use it for Pernod. But Americans don’t drink much of that. Out of 50 million cases made each year, we consume only 50,000.”

I said I’d prefer a glass of Provençal rosé. “Something dry and crisp?” he inquired.


He poured me a glass of L’Alycastre, a wine from the island of Porquerolles. “It’s real cheap as well,” he added.

It cost $7. Now that’s the sort of bartender I like. He could have tried to sell me the Clos Bernarde for $16.

Provence has been a neighborhood fixture in Soho for 20 years. I had my wedding dinner here (and no, I can’t remember a single thing I ate). On Easter Sunday, lunch with friends (bouillabaisse, roast lamb and several bottles of red wine) became a family ritual. The restaurant had an authentic tattiness and rustic charm. But it was never one of my favorite places. I’d come in expecting to be greeted with southern friendliness; instead, I often found Parisian grumpiness, with supercilious French waiters and mediocre food. Last Easter, we didn’t bother.

Now, Provence has new owners: Vicki Freeman and chef Marc Meyer, of Five Points in Noho and Cookshop in Chelsea, bought the lease in the fall. They went into partnership with chef Lynn McNeely from Barbuto (who recently spent five months cooking in the South of France) and a general manager who goes by the wonderful name of Aibhinn Wilson O’Keeffe.

Christopher Hirsheimer and Melissa Hamilton have cleverly made over the restaurant, retaining its original wood paneling and beams. The ceilings are hung with cast-iron chandeliers, the banquettes covered with striped red-maroon-and-white Pierre Deux cushions, and the walls decorated with immense antique mirrors. A middle room, which used to be a dead area, is now beautifully lit and romantic. In the back, a covered garden is decked with flowers. The awful cramped bathrooms have been redone, their walls papered with pages from Les Misérables and Candide, lest you need something to read.

The change is noticeable from the moment you walk in—not because the décor is radically altered, but because of the friendliness of the staff. One evening when I arrived to meet a friend, we were mistakenly seated at different tables. I finally spotted her across the room, her nose in a book. It was only a short wait, but when the manager, a dark-haired Irish beauty, realized what had happened, she insisted on sending us a round of drinks.

The all-French wine list focuses on lesser-known Provençal producers and appellations. There are close to 90 wines, including several Bandols, and the prices are extremely reasonable. Over a dozen wines, mostly from the region, are also available by the glass.

“Just one bite tells me the food here is transformed,” said my companion, who used to bring her family to our Easter lunches, during which the children would devour platters of French fries and not much else. She’d tasted the salt cod fritters. They were crunchy and soft, served with a spicy aioli that was so good we spread it on the bread, too. The goat-cheese soufflé was light and pleasantly tangy, accompanied by a small salad of wild arugula.

Mr. McNeely’s emphasis is on local seasonal food prepared with a distinct Provençal accent. There is pistou, pissaladière, rillettes (made with duck and Armagnac prunes on walnut toast, a taste of which elicited cries of rapture from the table one night), beef daube, a generous raw bar with very fresh oysters, and a cheese platter. A juicy hanger steak comes with potato gratin and a rich red-wine anchovy sauce; sautéed calamari and baby octopus are tossed with pine nuts, currants and parsley. Fish stew, in a dense broth the color of a Provençal roof tile, gets a fiery rouille. Ravioli are filled with wild nettles and garnished with snails, walnuts, and lots of parsley and garlic.

I liked the new Provence so much that my husband took me and a couple of friends to dinner here for my birthday. We sat at a banquette at the front, looking out onto the street, drinking red Sancerre. We ate crisp soft-shell crabs encased in a delicate batter, merguez with couscous, halibut on a bed of artichokes barigoule, and house-made pork sausage with white beans and sauce vert. For dessert, we shared a plate of profiteroles slathered with chocolate sauce, and a bottle of champagne.

Our French waitress was delightful. The mood was warm and friendly. My husband remarked that in a restaurant such as Balthazar, despite its beautiful re-creation of an authentic brasserie, he doesn’t feel for a minute as if he were in France. “But here,” he said, “there’s something about the atmosphere that makes me feel I’m in Provence.” South of France, South of Houston