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Restaurant Review : Provencia: Wait Until the Entree

November 11, 1994|MICHELLE HUNEVEN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

"Have fun, smile and relax. Remember this is your home." So reads No. 1 of the House Rules on the back of Provencia's bright yellow menu. Such mandatory, forced cheeriness pervades this young, promising West Hollywood restaurant now inhabiting the former Tutto Bene space. The staff all but swarms you. The air is thick with high hopes. Pasta of the day is said to be "created with love everyday."

It's a little much.

Take the crudites, huge chunks and slices of fresh vegetables in a plastic flowerpot. Whole stalks of celery. A quarter of a fat, 10-inch cucumber. Fist-sized broccoli florets. These are to be dipped in honey mustard dressing or an anchovy-flecked mayonnaise that, fish notwithstanding, tastes freshly decanted from the Best Foods jar. What to do with a huge, soft beefsteak-type tomato?

"Use your knives, cut it up," urges the waitress. "It's great."

It'd be more fun to throw it at something.

Provencia's owners have painted the dining room ceiling green, dressed the tables in blue and white checks, and filled almost every inch of wall and counter space with plates, pictures, posters, paintings, pots, pans, plants and all other clutter once common in old line French restaurants--one thinks of Le Petit Chateau, that bastion of anachronism and expense-account lunches, in North Hollywood.

The menu is small: 10 starters, 10 main courses, a couple of nightly specials, a handful of desserts.

The No. 1 rule for eating here seems to be: Starters stumble, main courses rule.

Onion soup is unpleasantly sweet and murky with dried herbs. The Provencia salad, with limp, heavily marinated string beans, mushrooms and endive resembles something out of a can. One finely ground liver pate is all right, but the other, hot dog pink and studded with olives, tastes as if it were made by someone who'd never actually seen or eaten real French pate.

No Franco-American restaurant is complete without escargots, and here at Provencia, the little black snails are served in an upright baked potato that looks like a Stonehenge souvenir, swims in butter and is topped with something like a parsley pesto enriched with hazelnuts.

Our waitress makes a pitch for the appetizer tarts. Puff pastry made in New Zealand is the secret, she says: The kind of butter used down under creates a different kind of puffiness. The goat cheese tart, however, is dreadful: too many toppings piled on and, yawn, too many herbs.

In fact, the only fully acceptable starter I taste is a plain plate of smoked salmon, served traditionally with capers and chopped onion.

The starters are not only disheartening, one can scarcely have a conversation: From managers to buspersons, the staff is so overzealous, their constant attentions form an ongoing interruption. Our bright-eyed waiter asks, "Is everything fabulous?"

We mutter into our undevoured food. I'm tempted to start biting.

To our general surprise, entrees could soothe any savage beast.

Spaghetti Bolognese, a pasta of the day, suffers not from a surfeit of love, but of salt. Otherwise, every entree is unexpectedly good: meats and vegetables expertly grilled, portions generous but not overwhelming, prices downright reasonable. Risotto is not as creamy and soupy as I like it, but the rice cooked with chewy pancetta and compellingly bitter radicchio is nevertheless quite delicious. A tasty rib-eye steak is served sliced; lamb chops have a good, crusty exterior; inside, they're tender and juicy. Half a plump, juicy chicken is cooked on the rotisserie until it acquires a caramelized stickiness and tempting golden hue. Fresh, moist striped bass is also long on smoky, grilled flavor.

There's a short, well-written wine list, and each bottle is just $16.

Amid more New Zealand puff pastry creations, creme caramel and white chocolate mousse, the only notable dessert is Neal's French Toast: four small egg-battered, cinnamon-encrusted bread slices, fried and served hot with ice cream and chocolate syrup, and, according to House Rule No. 2, it must be eaten with your fingers.

* Provencia, 945 N. Fairfax Ave., West Hollywood . (213) 654-4594 . Open Monday-Friday for lunch, Monday-Saturday for dinner. Beer and wine served. Major credit cards accepted. Dinner for two, food only $35-$60.

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