Brasserie La Provence – Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)

Brasserie La Provence
Brasserie La Provence

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.

Salade Provencale
Salade Provencale

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.

French baguette slices and real butter
French baguette slices and real butter

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.

Pate de Foie
Pate de Foie

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.

Moules Frites
Moules Frites

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.

Croque Madame
Croque Madame

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.

Eggs Benedict
Eggs Benedict

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.

Desserts are decadent at Brasserie La Provence
Desserts are decadent at Brasserie La Provence

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, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 14 June 2009
1st VISIT:  19 July 2008
COST: $$$
BEST BET: Croque Madame, Moules Frites, Salade Provencale

10 thoughts on “Brasserie La Provence – Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)

  1. We have always been fans of La Provence, but the change in ownership and chef has definitely caused a deterioration in the quality of the food across the menu. From the quality of the ingredients to the quality of the cooking. So sad to say, we have stopped going. I would like to see Gil re-review this restaurant. I will see if the reviews, here and elsewhere, get better. We would love to be back as regulars.

  2. Just a Heads-up: Despite listing being open on Sundays from 10:30am–9pm, only Soups n Salads available mid afternoon, so off to Saggio’s to make my gas worthwhile!!!

  3. Had dinner last eve at Brasserie La Provence.
    First return since the change in ownership.
    Happy to say the food remains very very good.
    I was able to get a pate fix, now I’m ready for some fine fois gras. (it’s now being added to the Blade’s Bistro new seasonal menu).
    The service at La Provence was timely and attentive.
    If you are looking for terrific cassoulet, look no further.
    My son’s girl friend had lamb shanks that left me envious.
    It was a nice way to spend an evening feeling like one had made a quick trip to Provence.
    A little waft of lavender was all that was missing.
    Provence remains a very good choice for us when it comes to fine dining.

  4. Waiting tables can be a very grueling, thankless job. As someone who has done it, and wasn’t any good at it, I can tell you that, for sure. I can also tell you that waiting tables made me a much more patient-and-understanding restaurant patron. When something goes awry, I will often wonder if the waiter or chef is simply having a bad day. That, coupled with the fact that I’m not an overly assertive person, has landed me finishing many a meal that either wasn’t up to par or wasn’t up to specification. So, as you can imagine, this is a difficult review for me to write.

    I’ve dined at La Provence several times, and the food has always been very nice. Last night I ordered the pan-seared rainbow trout, and found it to be perfectly cooked, full of fresh thyme, and well-balanced in flavour.

    The service, however, left something to be desired, and I hate to say this, but: it always does. Last night was half-priced wine night. My dining companion and I had no intention of ordering wine, and this seemed to disappoint our waiter, who asked if we were going to be ordering wine a time or two after the initial, “No, thank you.” This was a little annoying, and made me feel uncomfortable. Whether we were trying to save money or in AA was none of this guy’s business. We were, after all, still ordering _food_. The kicker came after the salad, when the main course arrived. My fork had been taken away with my salad plate, and so I politely asked the waiter for another one. The waiter said he’d be right back, and immediately went to another table to take a wine order. He then went off to the wine cellar and proceeded to serve the other patrons wine. My dining companion and I tried to make eye contact with he and another waiter several times, but to no avail. We felt ignored. I ate my fish with a spoon, because I didn’t want it to get cold. Finally, after we had finished, the waiter returned to take our plates. This was the first time he had checked in with us since he’d brought our main course. Making no comment other than “Can I clear this for you?”, I took the opportunity to tell him that dinner was excellent, but it would have been much better with a _fork_. The waiter quickly apologized, and then asked if we wanted to order dessert. We asked for the check, which arrived some time later.

    I’m trying to decide whether or not to call the restaurant and ask to speak with the manager. Something which, I suppose, I ought to have done last night. I don’t want to be _offered_ anything. It would have been nice if the waiter had asked if we’d like to be _comped_ dessert, but getting something for free isn’t what this is about. We were paying customers, and should have been treated as such. The restaurant had a nice, little dinner crowd, but it was, by no means slammed. We should have been checked on, or at least acknowledged. I wonder if we would have been, had we ordered wine.

  5. I’ve been here a couple times so far and really like this restaurant. I like the atmosphere– it’s a more casual romantic place. You don’t feel out of place whether you’re dressed up or down. The service has been impeccable every single time. I’ve gotten the steak frites twice and it had been right on both times. I wasn’t too impressed with the truffle fries though– I liked them better plain with the sea salt on them. Their spinach quiche was absolutely amazing and had great flavor. This is quickly becoming one of my favorite places.

  6. I like this restaurant–especially at dinner. The food is fresh, and the prices are reasonable for French food.

  7. I took my husband here on his birthday, because he loves their Moules Frites. I had the Pate Foie appetizer, which was very good, and then ordered the Burger made with Angus Beef. Unfortunately it was served medium well instead of the medium rare that I had ordered. I didn’t send it back, but should have. So they comped us the Vanilla Creme Brulee dessert, instead. I didn’t finish the burger…it was dry. But everything else was good.

  8. I went here with the wife and kid and we had one of the best meals we ever had in Albuquerque. Lots of familys in there that day and it is casual. Prices were very resonable for the nob hill/ university area. We shared tha pate as an appatizer ( see pic above) and daughter had the Croque Madame, while the wife and i had crepes. Hers was spinach and mushroom mine was seafood. We also split some desert ( see cake in pic above). Total bill for 3, with appitizer, desserts, three entrees, and ice tea was like $60 something.

  9. At lunch the Bistro Burger was as good a burger as I’ve had in Albuquerque burger joints all the way to Santa Fe.
    And the “frites” which tasted of truffles and parmesan cheese were as good a French Fry as I’ve had either in the good old USA or in France.
    My wife and son had terrific dishes as well.

    At dinner the chef made a foray across the border into Italy with his version of risotto, the foray failed and he was driven back to France.
    That disappointing excursion aside the food was excellent from a terrific pate to a simple salad.
    All four of us at dinner were very happy with the service, the food and the wine list.
    We’ll all go back.

  10. My wife and I went here for lunch and everything looked great and the prices were very reasonable, so we ordered 4 entrees. They set up a little table next to ours and they were filled with food. It was all very good, we didn’t even get a to-go box. We will be back.

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