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VALLEY WEEKEND | RESTAURANT REVIEW

Thousand Oaks Gets a Touch Closer to France

New Cafe Provencal near Civic Arts Plaza is replete with good taste in food and decor, but strays somewhat from its namesake.

June 20, 1996|MAX JACOBSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

A narrow but winsome French restaurant called Cafe Provencal opened in the early spring, joining the parade of new-generation ethnic restaurants in Ventura County.

Since the restaurant is near the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza, it helps solve the thorny problem of where to dine for those driving in from the West Valley. The restaurant is located in a strip mall one block east of the arts complex.

It doesn't look like much from the parking lot, but inside, it's the image of southern France. Walls the color of Dijon mustard are hung with bucolic watercolor prints in rustic frames. The tables are covered by colorful French toiles, summery cloths in pastel patterns. The floor is terra cotta tile, the precise hue of a Provencal backyard patio.

The restaurant was opened by a newlywed couple from France, Florence and Serge Bonnet (she's from the Savoy region, he's from Marseille). These two leave the cooking to two chefs from Normandy and Switzerland, while they prowl the floor in the classic French manner, doing the Gallic equivalent of schmoozing, tending to individual needs and just plain charming the socks off their customers.

At the start you are plied with a salty black olive tapenade dip, inducing a powerful thirst. (A blackboard wine list helpfully suggests southern French wines such as roses from Bandol and various low-priced reds from the Co^tes du Rho^ne.)

It makes sense to order one or two appetizers here, but not more. That's because all entrees come with soup or salad, and a good number of the appetizers are composed largely of the very salad greens that you might be getting later anyway.

Take terrine maison, salade de chevre chaud and caviare d'aubergines, which are all served on beds of greens--and rather sparingly. The coarsely textured terrine is two slices of pork pa^te, the warm goat cheese and eggplant caviar both come as topping on three skinny toasts. They're pleasant, but better by far is cassolette d'escargots a la Provencale, wonderfully earthy snails (without shells, I'm pleased to note) served in a ceramic dish half full of melted butter with shallots, garlic, tomato and parsley.

A few of us made our dinners less repetitive by choosing soupe a l'oignon, the classic French onion soup. This one acquits itself proudly; it's served in a brown crock topped with gooey melted Gruyere cheese. Under that bubbly topping is a rich, beefy broth, laced with sweet, slightly caramelized sliced onions. It's very good, though not all that well suited to warm summer evenings in Thousand Oaks.

The entrees are mostly just fine, though one might wish this menu were a little more daring, and a little more true to the spirit of Provence. Loup grille au fenouil et pastis sounds like a dream--sea bass with fennel and the anise-flavored liqueur called pastis--and it's been wonderful when I've had it in France. But instead of fish smoked over fennel twigs and splashed with pastis, what you get here is a nice piece of fish in a mild, sweetish cream sauce.

*

Filets de perche a l'estragon turns out to be sand dabs in a light tarragon cream sauce--cream again, suggesting, well, Normandy or Switzerland rather than Provence. Gambas Lou Souleou is more in the Provencal spirit: sauteed shrimp with garlic, mushrooms, tomatoes and a touch of anisette.

I have no such complaints with the meat and poultry entrees. Jarret d'agneau aux flageolets is beautifully braised lamb shanks served with white beans in a mild red wine reduction. Onglet aux echalotes et tomates Provencale is an unreasonably tough flank steak in a reasonably authentic sauce of red wine, caramelized shallots and garlicky tomatoes.

Perhaps best of all is canard aux olives et epinards, half a crisply roasted duck in a well-balanced sauce of green and black olives, offset by exquisite leaves of wilted spinach.

For dessert, there are familiar suburban-French favorites, the best of which is a smooth, creamy chocolate creme bru^lee. The caramelized apple tart known as tarte Tatin is competently done. Moi, I'm sticking to espresso and dreaming about pastis, fields of lavender and a nice melon de Cavaillon. Thousand Oaks is closer to Provence now, but we're still not there.

DETAILS

Cafe Provencal

* WHERE: 2310 E. Thousand Oaks Blvd., Thousand Oaks. (805) 496-7121.

* WHEN: Lunch 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Monday-Friday; dinner 5-9 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 5-10 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Closed Sunday.

* HOW MUCH: Dinner for two, $24-$45.

* FYI: Parking lot. Beer and wine only.

* SUGGESTED DISHES: cassolette d'escargots a la Provencale, $6.25; soupe a l'oignon, $4.75; gambas Lou Souleou, $13.75; canard aux olives et epinards, $14.75; jarret d'agneau aux flageolets, $12.75.

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