The French have long cultivated the idea–some would say myth–that their cuisine is the very best in the world. This self-aggrandizing hype has been carefully and condescendingly orchestrated for centuries.
Even Alice B. Toklas, the American writer far ahead of her time (in 1954, she published a literary memoir with a recipe for “hashish fudge”) was caught up in the myth. Toklas wrote “The French approach to food is characteristic; they bring to their consideration of the table the same appreciation, respect, intelligence and lively interest that they have for the other arts, for painting, for literature, and for the theatre.”
Where other nations prepare and serve food, the French festoon the tables with cuisine. Where cultural mores in America take a relaxed approach toward table manners, the French insist upon prim, proper and prudish etiquette at any repast.
Where Americans practically inhale their food, barely stopping to taste it, the French savor their food. They actually focus on it and give themselves time to enjoy each and every morsel.
Where our blood pressure elevates if we’re forced to wait more than two minutes at our fast food drive-ups, the French set a time and place for eating. They actually eat food sitting at a café or at the family table, not in front of the television. Where an American meal seems like a sprint, a French meal is a marathon.
Where Americans swill beer with the same attack mentality with which we approach food, the French enjoy wine with their meals, taking the time to savor its nuanced flavors, color and body.
While many Americans don’t seem to care that the food at their favorite corporate chains (the abhorrent Chili’s comes to mind) is shipped frozen then heated to order, no French brasserie would ever consider serving dehydrated, frozen food.
Many Americans believe French cuisine has connotations of unapproachable, haughty and expensive. You have to wonder if that’s because it’s so antithetical to the American dining experience which I’ve contrasted here. Maybe it just sounds snooty because it’s so hard to pronounce any of it.
While I personally do not subscribe to the notion of French cuisine’s superiority, I have long appreciated both the cuisine and the experience of a French meal, especially the digestion-friendly pace and the freshness of its ingredients.
For freshness of ingredients, there is no region in France more renown than the Provence region in southern France. The cuisine raised in this verdant, sun-drenched region has earned the nickname “la cuisine du soleil” or “the cuisine of the sun” a tribute to freshness and quality. Is it any wonder French cafés associate their freshest cuisine with this food-lover’s paradise?
Albuquerque, New Mexico is an ocean and several time zones separated from the Provence region, but that didn’t stop local restaurant impresario Steve Paternoster from naming his Nob Hill restaurant for France’s most fecund culinary region. It’s an ambitious challenge, but one for which the restaurant throws down the gauntlet on its Web site: “We invite you to come experience a little touch of Provence. With food to delight your palate, service to relax your stay and wine straight from France all designed to create a little piece of French countryside in Albuquerque.”
La Brasserie Provence is situated on a well-trafficked corner at the western extreme of Nob Hill. Previous occupants of the venerable space include an ice cream shop and Stella Blue’s, a live music joint. The venue has been transformed into what might actually pass as a European eatery.
The ambience is laid back and welcoming–no pretensions here. A “wine cave” off the main dining room is the closest thing the restaurant comes to any xenophobe’s conception of French condescension.
The menu is a veritable compendium of French cuisine. Fortunately each menu item is described in English directly below its title. Unfortunately, there is no corresponding number next to each menu item for those of us who are a bit linguistically challenged.
Even culinary xenophobes, however, will find something familiar even if they can’t pronounce it. French cuisine has inculcated itself into the American culture to the point where most of us will recognize specific entrees if not their French nom d’ cuisine.
Thanks to the explosion of the Food Network’s popularity, most of us have now heard of mussels, crepes and quiche and many of us have been grossed out at the notion that snails could be consumed by humans. Thanks to Julia Child, our comprehension of French cuisine now includes more than French fries (which are actually a Belgique) and French toast (pain perdu).
An excellent way to start a meal at the Brasserie La Provencale is with something that best celebrates and demonstrates the touted freshness of ingredients for which the Provencale region is renown. The menu features several creative salads that get things started off well.
Though it’s highly unlikely the ingredients comprising the Salade Provencale actually come from anywhere near France, they are fresh, crisp and delicious: fresh caramelized apples and pears with honey candied walnuts served over baby greens with a warm cider vinaigrette.
The caramelized apples and pears might evoke memories of a great apple pie while the greens deliver on the promise of freshness. This is a terrific salad and a great way to start a meal. You can easily imagine yourself consuming it at a sidewalk café in Avignon.
Pate de Foie, black truffle mousse pate served at the Brasserie with assorted accompaniments, is one of those delicacies many French restaurants offer, but not all do well. Done well, the pate has a rich, almost luxurious and unctuous flavor. At the Brasserie, it is sliced thinly and spreads well, but there isn’t much of it. What there is, is quite good, served with an intensely flavored coarse grain mustard, delicate and delicious cornichons (French gherkins) and a salad.
It would be hard to imagine better French bread than the sliced baguettes served at the Brasserie. The baguettes are baked by Albuquerque’s famous French Riviera Bakery. Each slice is hard-crusted on the outside and soft and tender on the inside, perfect canvasses for the real butter (albeit served cold) served with the bread.
That makes it the perfect bread for sopping up the wonderful broth served with the restaurant’s Moules Frites. Moules are Bouchot mussels steamed with white wine, garlic and thyme. Frites are French fries served with parmesan truffle fries. These fries are available as an appetizer and are one of several items on the menu I characterize as “must have.” For the most part, French fries in Albuquerque are slightly more than edible; these are terrific.
Bouchot mussels are harvested from huge wooden piles driven into the seabed for them to grow on. Their unique habitat allows them to grow underwater at high tide but also exposes them to sea sun and air. The unique habitat and production methods also mean a unique flavor and plump, tender orange meat. Bouchot mussels are sweeter and not as briny as other mussels and have become my favorite mollusk. The fleshy deliciousness of the mussels is complemented by its white wine, garlic and thyme home.
Ordering mussels is like ordering an entree with soup accompaniment and there’s no soup more meant for bread than the broth served with mussels. Mussels and frites go together like the winning tandem on Dancing With The Stars. We rarely finish the fries served with any entree, but polish these babies off with gusto.
During many a sojourn to France, my favorite cafe offering was the Croque-Monsiur, a hot ham and cheese (generally Gruyere) grilled sandwich made with sourdough bread. As such it was a thrill to see a variation of this terrific sandwich on the menu at the Brasserie. The Croque-Madame is served with Bechamel sauce and an egg over easy on top. This is an extraordinarily rich sandwich that explodes with flavor. The runnier the egg, the better for this sandwich, but the key is melting the Gruyere cheese to the point at which it is just slightly oily. La Provence serves the perfect Croque-Madame.
Alas, one brunch entree which falls decidedly short of perfection at the Brasserie are its version of Eggs Benedict. It’s fairly standard–poached eggs on an English muffin bed topped with Hollandaise sauce–with crab instead of ham. What should be a fairly moist breakfast entree (despite the English muffin) is somewhat desiccated with only a parsimonious amount of crab. In New Mexico, the best eggs Benedict include green chile, something many self-respecting French might consider absurd or heretical, but it’s a flavor combination that just works. It’s also a flavor combination you won’t see at this Nob Hill Brasserie which very much holds true to Provence restaurant traditions.
Dessert options include a very rich and very chocolaty cake made with a thick Oreo crust, chocolate mousse, chocolate ganache and bits of cheesecake. It’s half the altitude of Sandia Peak and is topped with shaved almonds. If anything, it’s almost too much of a good thing–or several good things. Chocolate lovers will revel in the rich sweetness even as they ping off the walls later.
The Brasserie La Provence just might convince you that French cuisine is, if not the best cuisine in the world, a cuisine you can thoroughly enjoy at a relaxed un-American pace.
Brasserie La Provence
3001 Central NE
Albuquerque, NM 87106
LATEST VISIT: 14 June 2009
1st VISIT: 19 July 2008
# OF VISITS: 2
BEST BET: Croque Madame, Moules Frites, Salade Provencale