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Address: 137 MacDougal St., btwn. Prince & Spring Sts.
Phone: 212.475.7500
Cuisine: Provencal French
Vibe: Country charm
Scene: An unassuming romantic
Hours: Dinner, Mon – Sat, 5:30pm – 11:30pm.
Inside Scoop: May 1st, Sunday night dinner begins.  Come mid-May, lunch 7 days a week.
Don’t Miss Dish: Salt cod fritters
First Bite Impressions: Neighborhood gem
: Appetizers, $10; Entrees, $23.
Reservations: Reservations recommended.

In this freakishly fast-paced dining climate, restaurateurs often resort to convoluted fusion tactics & garish gimmicks to garner attention.  It’s easy for diners to get caught up in the rat race, too busy sampling the latest in foie gras powder or Italian-Japanese fusion to revisit our neighborhood favorites.  We take steadfast spots like Provence for granted.  And then one day, owner Jean Michael & his restaurant shutter after nearly twenty years.

But Marc Meyer and Vicki Freeman have graciously rescued Provence from near death, handsomely reviving the Soho institution.  With Cookshop & Five Points under the couple’s belt, Provence seems an unlikely next move, but this project was personal (the two were engaged there).

Provence returns to us with a much-needed facelift and its Mediterranean roots very much intact.  It’s true the waiters no longer greet you in French and there’s no rabbit paillard to be had, but the decor & fare are as inviting as ever.  Newly revived with sunny yellow accents, country french patterns, antique mirrors and original wood paneling, the space is perhaps better than new.

Marc Meyer has partnered up with chef Lynn McNeely (formerly of Barbuto) to implement a Provencal-inspired menu with a signature sprinkling of garlic, olives & onions.  Of course, seafood’s plentiful: provencal fish soup, grilled whole fish and a generous raw bar.  There’s also a regional dose of housemade pork sausage, lamb daube & rabbit rillettes.

Considering the current fashions of food, Provence’s simple & bright cuisine is a fantastical feat.  There is nothing particularly revelatory or even exceptional – Meyer & McNeely are in no way trying to reinvent the wheel – which is exactly what makes it so irresistible.  Take the salt cod fritters; crunchy puffs of luscious salt cod elevated to another plane by an addictive, garlicky aioli, which merits slathering on a French baguette once the fritters disappear from their basket.  The fallen goat cheese souffle, eggy & tart, was an admittedly more refined endeavor, but no doubt a pleasing one.  The appetizers seem to outshine the entrees, as was further proved by a supple tangle of sauteed calamari & octopus, playfully peppered with currants & pine nuts, all simmering in a currant-sweetened puddle of white wine, garlic & parsley.

The only blatant disappointments I stumbled upon was a deflated & salty chicken liver mousse and a bland halibut served in a watery, artichoke barigoule (stew), rendering its accompanying carrots & leeks mush.  But the pan-roasted cod embodied the consummate Provencal dish; a green olive-crowned codfish, flaky & moist, arrived in a pool of aigo boulido (boiled water), stocked with garlic, sage & bay leaves.

Though most of the desserts were slightly uninspired – just like the former Provence – it’s worth lingering over the delightful almond-specked meringue drizzled with a vanilla bean sauce.

Until we eat again,
Restaurant Girl
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