Monday, March 27, 2006

Provence- Yawn, Etcetera

"Bon soir," the coatcheck girl greeted us. How nice! I thought-- someone actually using French in a French restaurant. But after that, it became obvious that Provence lacked a certain je ne sais quoi. You'd never find a restaurant like Provence in France: the food is way too fussy (Red Leaf, Duck Confit, Toasted Almonds, Brie and Raspberry Vinaigrette salad?). The French are, if anything, excellent editors and know that less is more. Provence is an ambitious restaurant, but I fear they have bitten off more than they can chew (pardon the pun).

We went to Provence on a Friday, to celebrate an accomplishment of mine. I got all dressed up, and--honest!--I was ready for some fine dining. I had hopes for Provence.

But both my husband and I were disappointed, at first in small ways, and then, upon reviewing our experience, as a whole. First of all, for an upscale restaurant, diners don't seem to have enough elbow room, especially where we were seated, up on the platform area. (There were some nice banquettes below, which seemed reserved for larger parties-- if you insist on going, even after you've read my review, you might want to ask for a quieter table if you want a romantic-- or even simply coherent--evening here). The volume was bearable but fairly high, and we were quite close to the neighboring tables, so the overall effect was that we were on stage taking part in a show. This can be enjoyable when the show is, say, Paris nightlife, but when you're in Stuyvesant Plaza-- I don't think so. In an upscale restaurant, the interior should be interesting but ultimately should put the focus on the food. By the end of the evening, we knew all about our neighbors' new business plans. (And, in case you're reading, no, we don't think you'll do well with your dog grooming place in Troy. You need to do more research, both on dog services and on Troy).

Provence is in Stuyvesant Plaza, the upscale outdoor shopping strip mall on Western Avenue; and let me not be the one to judge a restaurant by its location. After all, Karavalli is in the most unassuming strip mall in Latham. But Provence's location is reflected in the dining experience, both with the offerings and in terms of expense. We spent a little more than $100 for two salads, entrees, one glass of wine, and one dessert, including tip.

The space is pleasant and large, and there were plenty of people there. A pianist played unobtrusively. There are faux wood beams on the ceiling, and a nice chandelier in the center of the main room. The menu is lovely, with plenty of Continental/Fusion appetizers like Seared Tuna Sashimi and Smoked Salmon with Asian Slaw and Soy Ginger Sauce or Assiette de Charcuterie (assortment of patés and gourmet cold cuts), or Tart á la Forestiere (Potato, Wild Mushroom and cheese tart). They also have Butternut Squash and Sage Cream soup or Provençal Seafood Chowder.

Both of us ordered the Endive et Betterave Roti (Roasted Beet and Endive Salad with Toasted Pistachios, Pears, and Mustard Vinaigrette-- phew-- again with the long titles!) and the greens were lovely, but the beets were cut into cubes and served with a creamy dressing, which had the effect of making them look rather unappetizing. More thought overall could have gone into this salad (where were the endives of the title? I saw maybe three leaves).

The main dish offerings are prodigious, with everything from Fennel Seed Crusted Tuna on Gorgonzola Soft Polenta (etc.) to Steak Frites, Venison, Roasted Rack of Lamb, and Hommard á La Portugaise (Lobster, Shrimp and Chorizo Sausage in Charred Tomato and Roasted Fennel.. etc. sauce on linguini). They seem to have only one vegetarian entrée, which is Julienne Roasted Vegetables over Fettucine (etc.). On such a large menu, this is a real flaw.

I ordered the grilled trout, which bills itself as, in French, Truite Grillée au Champignon Sauvage, and translates, oddly, as Grilled Trout Filet and Citrus Caper Buerre Blanc with Exotic Mushroom and Roasted Red Pepper Risotto-- take your pick.* The trout was good, (watch out for some bones, though) but not the best I've had (I've had better at Emperor's Chinese on Wolf Road). It tasted a bit overfed and was a rather large specimen. The risotto that came with it was quite good. My husband got the Filet de Boeuf au Roquefort, which he said was too fatty, and not worth the $25.95.

For dessert I ordered the Lemon tart (I refuse to type out the long name!), which had an oddly deflated puff-pastry type shell. The filling was good, but needed to be offset by a more traditional shortcrust. The wait service was high quality while we were there, although, again, the noise was an issue: another waiter had a protracted conversation with our neighbors, and we now also know a lot about popular views on real estate.

The verdict is: overpriced, and too fussy. I doubt it will change, because it's too popular the way it is.

*It's one thing to have fussy, long names for your dishes, and quite another to insist on them both in French and English. And, yet another issue when the two do not match up. I've been wondering if the long titles are a way to force hapless reviewers like me to spend precious word counts on the inflated hype. Fortunately, this is a blog, and I don't have a word count. But, on principle, I'm refusing to type them all in. So there.


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winelover said...

One note: Provence is not a fine dining establishment. It has no white linens and the staff are not adorned in black and white. Yes, that would be quite disappointing. Instead it is Albany's version of New York style dining (for the record, it is part of the dining experience to be seated within earshot of other diners, even within elbow bumping closemenss). In NYC, people do not generally listen to other people's table conversations, they are too busy carrying on their own.

Provence's appeal stems from its versatility and flexability. Depending on the mood you are in and the money you want to spend, you can have the Roasted Chicken for 12.95 or the Filet Mignon for 25.95. Their prices are comprable with Fridays, which is across the plaza or even less expensive than Delmonico's.....and really the food quality does not compare.

Perhaps you were a bit harsh. You had a difficult time with the lengthy names of the menu items, well they are exactly as described.....Provence is a great place for a glass of wine or a good meal, whatever you want to spend. Your reaction seems to be abrasive when in hindsight, can you name another restaurant that works at maintaining authenticity, quality product, elegant ambience and affordable prices in the Capital Region?