Airline tickets have skyrocketed, the exchange rate is enough to induce chest pains, and life is more than a little unstable these days. No time to go tooling off to the South of France, regardless of how enticing that sounds. But when the craving for daube and olives and eggplant comes over us, heading for Café Provencal is just the thing to do. Given the mostly fine weather this September, we’ve been able to eat outside, rather than in the roomy, darkish interior so nice when the weather turns colder.
Café Provencal, in its first location in Clayton, was one of the first restarants in town to institute a menu-wide prix fixe option. Currently at dinner, it’s $30 for 3 courses, $34 for 4, with some supplements for an entree or two, although everything is also priced a la carte.
Eddie Neill, who’s had restaurants around town for 20 years or so, has a very French appreciation for using what’s in season, so a tomato salad had good summer tomatoes, red and ripe, some red onion, a few leaves of very tender greens, and some capers, the whole thing lightly dressed in a nicely tart vinaigrette. The menu isn’t a strict constructionist take on French, as shown by the Caesar salad, classic with its anchovy rich dressing and fresh, crisp croutons that put to shame those rock-hard dice still showing up at too many other restaurants. And the Mediterranean trio turned into a quintet, showing off the olive spread known as tapenade, along with some particularly tasty sweet red pepper slather, some goat cheese, small black picholine olives and an eggplant dip that was surprisingly bland and earned the bottom ranking.. Crostades of house-dried bread slices came alongside, although it’s hard for us to pass up the warm part-whole-wheat house bread with its salty top crust, the kind of bread that makes a carboholic of almost anyone.
Escolar arrived with a roquefort-based sauce, light enough that the vigorous flavor of the cheese didn’t overwhelm the fish, which is relatively mild. Alongside came excellent potatoes, smashed lightly with a little garlic and just a hint of rosemary, and we’re sure more than a touch of cream, absolutely mouth-watering. The carrots, green beans and broccoli were still colorful, but not undercooked, either.
We mentioned daube earlier. It’s the traditional Provencal beef stew, thick and richly flavored, often done by marinating the meat overnight before beginning the slow barely-simmering cooking. Done right, it’s thunderously good. (Even done poorly, it can charm.) It’s nearly always on the menu at Café Provencal, arriving on this visit with the same sides discussed above. We don’t usually disagree on food, but this time was the exception. The daube had scorched, and it affected the flavor. Joe didn’t mind it; Ann deducted theoretical points because of execution and the flavor results. He says the burnt-ness, which was fairly mild, added another flavor note; she says it interferes with what it’s meant to taste like. But the meat was tender and tasty, the winy, dense sauce a gorgeous burgundy-brown, and it all disappeared.
One of our favorite desserts showed up on the menu. Profiteroles (pro-FEE-ter-rolls) are shells like those used for cream puffs, but filled with ice cream and served with a (preferably warm) sauce, usually chocolate, but caramel is seen once in a great while from particularly daring kitchens. The best profiteroles are not filled in advance and kept in the freezer, but filled at the last minute, so the pastry doesn’t get soggy, and that’s just what we got, a single tennis-ball sized puff with warm fudge sauce. It’s a great combination of textures and temperatures and tastes, more than worthwhile.
The wine list here is, no surprise, all French and Neill’s list is good, and at reasonable prices; the by-the-glass list is satisfactory. We’re always glad to explore it. Service is quick and professional, and while the Mediterranean is not just across the highway, one can almost imagine an ocean breeze.
427 S. Kirkwood Rd., Kirkwood
Lunch Tues-Fri., Dinner Tues.-Sat.
Credit cards: All major
Wheelchair access: Good