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A Place For Provence

I can't say I'm surprised the Florida Motor Vehicle Department rejected my suggestion to change state license plate tags to read "Land Of Mediocre Bakeries"; it is, after all, a lot of letters to fit on a plate. In retrospect maybe it would be more appropriate as a motto for...
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I can't say I'm surprised the Florida Motor Vehicle Department rejected my suggestion to change state license plate tags to read "Land Of Mediocre Bakeries"; it is, after all, a lot of letters to fit on a plate. In retrospect maybe it would be more appropriate as a motto for the official Miami-Dade County Tourist Guide. Not that Miami and the Beach don't have some good ethnic bakeries (I've got my own favorite Cuban, Argentine, and Spanish spots), but neither has very many of the Parisienne-style pâtisseries so common in Europe and other American cities, where locals lounge over bowls of steamy cappuccinos and get freshly baked croissant crumbs all over their morning newspapers. Where gussied-up tarts and pastries don't just look pretty, but have scrumptious substance as well. Where breads contain real country crusts that crack like Old World bones. South Beach has one such spot, and that's La Provence French Bakery.

If there were more such places, perhaps the line at Provence's counter wouldn't run as long on Sunday mornings. Maybe you could even get there at 10:00 a.m. and snag one of the forty or so indoor seats, or secure one of five outdoor tables. Provence has become quite a hit since its inception five years ago, and there's little question about the secret to its success: quality. Whether it be breads, breakfast pastries, cakes, salads, or sandwiches, the ingredients are honest, the preparations sound.

If I had to choose a second factor to Provence's success, it would be the visual accessibility, from both store and street, to the usually hidden area where the baked goods get prepared. Diners, and those waiting for take-out, are privy to subtly captivating sights of bakers kneading and rolling dough, removing golden brown loaves of bread from the oven, creating little puffs of flour clouds that come to settle on their already white-dusted shoes. These and other visuals are somehow soothing to even early-morning risers bereft of their first sip of coffee, which here gets served in oversized cups, like soup bowls, something I'm admittedly partial to. The cappuccino looks pretty much like the latté, the foam being rather wispy, but provides a firmer coffee flavor -- the latté whispers "caffeine" so quietly you can hardly hear it. An espresso from Belgium comes in little demitasse cups, of course, and will provide instant gratification to those who prefer their caffeine taken in druglike doses.

Individual servings of quiche cost just $2.95 apiece. We tried a Lorraine, the dough moist and buttery, a sparse application of Gruyère cheese, sautéed onion, and diced ham serving to accent, not overpower, the light, custardy eggs. Sandwiches, too, tended to satisfy in a simple way. Fillings, whether of turkey, ham, or tomato and mozzarella, are thinly layered and garnished with only lettuce. The tunafish salad, made fresh that day with a tiny dice of celery and onion, came sandwiched in a terrific rustic baguette. Chicken salad was even better, succulent cubes of poached breast bound with just the proper amount of mayonnaise and the same tiny dice of vegetable, sandwiched this time in a ridged, darkly browned white bread. Most sandwiches are $4.95 or $5.95; smaller ones, on little rolls, go for $1.95 and up.

Baguettes, with that intangible baked-in-Europe flavor, are among the tastiest in town, but if you like a real crunchy crust order the thinner variety. Rustic baguettes, the floury ones that possess sourdough-looking crusts, are likewise top-notch, as are the chewy grain and hearty farmer breads.

Lined up for display are log-shaped éclairs glistening with fondant icing; airy, grease-free beignets; Parisian brioche, looking like puffy toques; and on and on. One of the cases is stocked with dessert pastries so pretty and delicate that I couldn't get my mind off Audrey Hepburn. The raspberry tart is topped with fifteen or so perfect red berries that are reason enough to shell out $3.25, and also features a textbook pastry cream and pâte brisée. Another bright dessert would be the gorgeously caramelized rectangle of tarte aux pommes, thinly sliced apples with a gossamer layer of vanilla custard and crisp, golden crust.

I wasn't overly impressed with Provence's croissant, though it was sure better than those omnipresent mass-produced types. The buttery pastry was softly pleasing, but it lacked the dark, crackly texture of the real deal. I much preferred the delectable almond croissant, puff pastry puffed with almond paste and chocolate, coated in nuts, powdered with confectioners' sugar, and astonishingly delicious. Pain au chocolates were also good -- these are not, as most believe, a French invention, but were originally a specialty of Vienna. Come to think of it, "Land Without Much In The Way Of Viennese Pastries" has a nice ring to it too.

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