SO VERY FRENCH

Boite of course: Homemade pistachio mousse at Jean Jacques and Leslie Bernat's Provence en Boite on Smith Street.
The Brooklyn Papers / Aaron Greenhood

Some restaurateurs start off with a "slow"
opening. They do little or no advertising, hoping that friends
and a few intrepid diners will spread the word. This way, kinks
can be worked out in the kitchen and among the waitstaff. By
the time a story or two about the place is published, luring
more diners to the eatery, whatever issues surfaced in the beginning
will be resolved.



Chef Jean Jacques Bernat and his manager/wife Leslie didn’t have
that luxury. Before they opened Provence en Boite on Smith Street
in June, the couple were proprietors of a popular French bistro
and patisserie of the same name in Bay Ridge. When they closed
shop in 2004, the neighborhood missed Bernat’s slow-cooked, classic
bistro fare and the kind of buttery pastry any self-respecting
French baker would be proud to proffer.



Before the couple opened its new location, word leaked that the
duo was about to re-establish their eatery, and, says Leslie,
"We were packed from day one and it hasn’t let up since."



Diners, who tried the bistro in its early days, ran into a few
problems. There were postings on Internet sites mentioning long
waits for tables, stressed-out waitstaff, and food taking longer
than it should to reach the table. But that was then. It’s been
more than three months since they’ve begun, and whatever issues
plagued the eatery in its early days appear to have gone poof!



On a recent Tuesday evening, the place was full and customers
stopped in to purchase pastry and bread at the glass counter.
While I wouldn’t say that dishes flew to the table, they did
arrive in a timely manner. The waitstaff seemed relaxed and friendly,
and – most important – the food is as good as it was in the former
location.



Some patrons may find the cafe formulaic in its adherence to
classic bistro touches: lace curtains and a pastry case filled
with huge, cloud-like meringues. However, it is truly authentic
in the Provencal, or country, style. When I visited the south
of France last summer, all the eateries looked identical to Provence
en Boite, right down to the paisley-printed tablecloths.



The decor may be a trifle contrived, but it is charming. And
where else would you feel comfortable spooning up "gratinee
a l’oignon," (rich onion soup with a crust of melted gruyere)
or "escargots a la Provencal" (snails sauteed in butter
with a garlic and red wine sauce)?



The small, focused menu contains few surprises, no disappointments
and many high points.



Bernat is fond of "foie gras" (goose liver) and finds
ways of balancing its unctuousness with acidity. He cuts the
richness of crispy seared liver by placing it over a thin slice
of sauteed green apple, then swirls a bit of blueberry sauce
around the plate. Creme fraiche in the sauce lends a touch of
acidity.



"Foie gras" makes another appearance in the "Le
Jean-Jacques," a "burger" for lack of a better
name. The idea for the dish came from a customer who raved to
Bernat about chef Daniel Boulud’s "DB" burger served
at DB Bistro Moderne in Manhattan. Boulud’s version is made with
shredded short ribs, foie gras and black truffles.



"It was a joke at first," says Bernat, whose original
spin-off was called the "JB" burger. After a few tries,
he devised the opulent, wildly delicious version of the original
that, at $25, is a relative bargain compared to Boulud’s $29
tab. Bernat begins with rib-eye, a deeply flavored, heavily marbled
cut of beef. He pats the meat loosely around a layer of foie
gras that melts as the burger grills, adding a buttery texture
to the center.



The ingredients he chooses to top it with are inspired. Beneath
the large patty is a mound of sweet caramelized red onions and
sauteed cherry tomatoes, both adding a bright note to the works
and even more juiciness. Warm sauerkraut and a slice of melting
Brie top the meat.



Yes, it’s a lot going on. But the cabbage cuts through the richness
and adds a needed sharp note while the cheese imparts a nutty,
creamy quality. It’s a large, messy, homely concoction that drips
juice onto freshly baked slices of brioche.



What it lacks in elegance though, it makes up in full force flavor.
It’s luscious. In keeping with tradition, frites are served.
Not the standard shoestring fries (I was slightly disappointed
by their appearance), but they’re still thin and very tasty.



"Lapin buissonniere" (rabbit braised in white wine)
is understated compared to the burger. The meat has the richness
of dark chicken with silkier flesh, and the wine’s sharpness
brightens the game. He serves the stew simply, as they do in
Provence, with a mound of buttery mashed potatoes, a few slow-cooked
pieces of leek and carrots and a splash of sauce.



A traditional "coquilles St-Jacques" (scallops served
in its shell with a cream and cheese sauce) gets a light spin
in Bernat’s kitchen. The mollusks are removed from the shells
and seared until their edges are crispy. Instead of a heavy mornay
sauce (made with cream and wine), he adds a touch of whisky to
the pan and swirls it with creme fraiche. The result is a thin,
silky puddle with a tart, boozy edge. He serves the seafood with
a tangle of sauteed Greenmarket vegetables that change daily.
A pile of crisp zucchini, oyster mushrooms and green beans made
a worthy partner to the main attraction.



One of the pleasures of dining at Provence en Boite is knowing
that at the conclusion of the meal you’ll be served a dessert
that won’t disappoint. Bernat is as good a pastry chef as he
is with the savory side of the menu. (He’s been on the faculty
of the culinary arts program at the New York College of Technology
on Jay Street for seven years.)



His tarts have crisp, buttery crusts and fillings that are light
and not overly sweet. His crepes are a master class in how to
do the dessert right. Order these thin, egg-y, silken pancakes
with Grand Marnier. The liqueur is heady; bittersweet chocolate
deepens the works; and orange zest adds texture and a bright
citrus note.



It’s too bad for the Bay Ridge community that Provence en Boite
has changed locales, but that’s what the F train is for.

 

Provence en Boite (263 Smith St. at
DeGraw Street in Carroll Gardens) accepts American Express, Diners
Club, MasterCard and Visa. Entrees: $16-$25. The restaurant is
open Tuesday through Sunday for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Closed Mondays. For reservations, call (718) 797-0707.


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