A Night at Provence

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Every year, whether I'm teaching elementary school or college English, I ask the same question on the first day of class: Do you read? And every year I see only one or two hesitant hands go up, half-acknowledging that reading a book or newspaper might be just as legitimate a pastime as playing a video game or surfing the Net.

I can't imagine not reading. But then, I always suspected I was abnormally voracious. As a child I quickly became used to the fact that other kids didn't walk home from school with their heads stuck in a paperback or sit in a closet with a book during family parties because written words were so much more entertaining than relatives' small talk. I even made decisions based on the fact that I was a bookworm: I wouldn't ever get married, for instance, because my husband wouldn't want me to read all the time. (I've since changed my mind.)

So while the raised hand or two out of twenty-five saddens me, it doesn't shock me. Instead, I'm surprised by the opposite -- the times I have the good fortune to meet other readers. One such lucky occurrence took place over dinner the other night. Friends of my friend Julian, all members of a recently formed book club, accompanied me when I went to review Provence Grill, the restaurant that appeared in the former Greenwich Village space on South Miami Avenue. To my great delight, our dinner conversation touched not only on the moldy classics we'd all read in high school, but also on the novels we were absorbing now and those we planned to dig into in the future.

Of course, the book we should have been discussing as we consumed all manner of French country delights was Peter Mayle's A Year in Provence. But for some reason that memoir about the author's move with his wife from overcrowded London to spacious Provence never came up. Perhaps that was because what came to the table captured our attention more neatly than literature. As Mayle writes, "A companionable near-silence descended on the restaurant as the food received its due attention."

Located on the Mediterranean (just across the border from neighboring Italy and north of the French Riviera), Provence is known for its cured foodstuffs -- strongly flavored olives, goat cheeses, and anchovies, as well as its terrines, sausages, and pátes. Much of the fresh fare, light in the almost perfect summertime (think fish soups such as bouillabaisse spiced with aioli) and heavy in the mistral-chilled winter (think meat stews such as pebronata spiked with peppers), is garlicky and takes advantage of the region's abundant produce and livestock.

The three-month-old Provence Grill, with its goldenrod-color walls and sunflower-pattern tablecloths, is certainly reminiscent of that sunny region. Choose to sit on one of the two wraparound porches -- more than 75 of the restaurant's 150 seats are in the open air -- and you can easily pretend the nearest beach is Nice. Or chat inside with proprietors (and brothers) Eric and Jerome Cormouls-Houles, who hail not exactly from Provence but from nearby Montpellier. The pair wants to make people "less scared of French food," Eric told me over the phone. So don't expect executive chef Walter Dilibero (formerly chef-owner of La Piazzetta on Key Biscayne and chef at Margutta on South Beach) to threaten diners with heavy fare inappropriate to South Florida -- no wintry pebronata or boeuf en daube (meat braised in herbs and red wine) here. But do watch for the homemade pate, gigantic fresh salads, and delicately wrought shellfish dishes.

The pate maison changes weekly, so you may wish to inquire about the flavor before ordering. We got a deliciously smooth chicken liver-portobello mushroom combination, a wedge placed on a bed of romaine and surrounded by slices of tomato and toasted French bread. The traditional garnishes -- cornichons (tiny pickles cured in vinegar) and salty black olives -- cut down on the pate's richness. Vegetable terrines (tomato, for example) will be offered occasionally as specials as well, so those who aren't liver fans should ask if they're available.

French onion soup is lightened by the use of chicken stock in addition to beef in the flavorful, not overly seasoned broth. Any artery-friendly benefits, however, are negated by the wealth of Gruyere that sags into the crock. The stringy cheese, combined with the soft shredded onions, made this soup more like a fondue -- a little too rich. The cheese was also burned in a couple of places, a problem that, I'm told, will be corrected when the kitchen starts using one large piece of bread for the crouton rather than two smaller pieces.

Lentil soup was also overly thick; the stuff was dense enough to serve as a side dish. Still, the lentils were perfectly cooked, with a terrific flavor accented by hunks of sweet carrots. Accompanied by the fresh French bread served at the beginning of the meal, a crock of this could satisfy a modest appetite.

Large appetites could be sated by the enormous salads. I'd suggest sharing one as an appetizer, in particular the mesclun topped with goat cheese and bacon. Here the lettuces were dressed in a pleasantly light vinaigrette, with the salty cured bacon creating textural diversion. Warm goat cheese was smeared generously on four flat croutons, tangy delights to temper all those greens. We also happily devoured a smoked duck salad, a pile of mesclun dressed with a slightly sweet raspberry vinaigrette and garnished with orange slices and tomatoes. Slices of duck breast, rosy in color and rimmed by a layer of fat that was easily peeled off, were both succulent and subtle, a testimony to the art of smoking.

Friture de calamars, fried squid, might not seem at first to be French, but Provence is very much influenced by its neighbor to the east. At the Grill they do Italy one better. Encased in a crisp, light batter, these squid rings and legs were tender enough to be mistaken for pasta. A chunky marinara sauce rife with basil was good enough to rival that dished up by the Italian restaurants in this budding downtown dining area. As an added treat, seasonal vegetables arebattered and thrown in with the squid; in our terra cotta serving dish, we got nuggets of zucchini and thin-sliced summer squash.

The squid appeared again in one of the four pasta choices, along with clams, mussels, and shrimp atop a huge mound of linguine. Each morsel of seafood was supple and aromatic. A light, garlicky tomato sauce was mixed in with the long noodles and seafood juices to create a filling -- and fulfilling -- main course.

A dolphin entree, a special on the evening we visited, was not as successful. The white wine-lemon sauce was far too buttery, as if to make up for the fact that the fish was not terribly fresh. Next time I'd consider the sauteed snapper with tomatoes, olives, and capers, or the grilled salmon on a bed of leeks. In any event, the side dishes that accompanied all fish and meat main courses were of no help: A grilled tomato was limp and dull, while green beans were overcooked and practically attacked by too much garlic. Two long roasted potato wedges did their best to counteract the beans but wound up absorbing their garlicky juice. Provence Grill can do better here.

Grilled lamb chops, four of them, were a hefty size and cooked a pleasing medium-rare. Barely dusted with herbes de Provence, the chops were juicy but could have used a bit more flavor than that provided by the traditional mix of thyme, rosemary, sage, fennel, and mint. Flank steak, on the other hand, was practically bursting with flavor. Sliced and fanned on the plate, the medium-rare beef was tickled with a brown shallot sauce, vibrant and savory.

Appetizers were big; main courses too. But desserts quite literally took the cake. Delicious though it was, a wonderful chocolate mousse served in a broad, flat terra cotta bowl was nearly unfinishable. Profiteroles, a house specialty, turned out to be three pastries stuffed with vanilla ice cream and laced with bittersweet chocolate sauce. Dynamite.

We could relate to Peter Mayle and his wife: After one of their first meals in Provence, the couple "walked home pushing [their] stomachs before [them], oblivious to the cold, incapable of speech, and slept like the dead." We didn't have the cold to deal with, but the drive home certainly was quiet. As Eric Cormouls-Houles says, Provence Grill's French food may not be something to be scared of, but it's certainly wise to schedule a nap after eating it.

Provence Grill
1001 S Miami Ave; 373-1940. Lunch Monday -- Friday from 11:30 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. Dinner nightly from 6:00 to 10:30 p.m.

Pate maison
Smoked duck salad
Linguine with seafood
Flank steak with shallot sauce

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