Ma Provençe | Food | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper
Location: 2032 Murray Ave., Squirrel Hill. 412-521-2925
Hours: Mon.-Sat. 5-10 p.m.
Prices: Soup and appetizers $6-12; entrées $14-28
Fare: Southern French
Atmosphere: French village bistro
Liquor: Limited bar, wine and BYOB ($10 corkage)
Smoking: None permitted

While everyone else may sing the praises of Paris in the springtime, July is the month we are in a French state of mind. No, we don't observe Bastille Day. We observe the Tour de France, the only televised event, real or fictive, that makes Jason wish we shelled out for cable TV. Instead, we impose upon our friends who do. Then, with scenes of the French countryside wheeling through our minds at an average speed of 45 kilometers per hour, we crave French food and end up at Ma Provençe.

Adding yet another note to the international hit parade on Murray Avenue, Ma Provençe is authentically French in any number of ways. First and foremost, there is the food. Refined versions of peasant fare, such as charcuterie and coq au vin, mingle comfortably alongside crab cakes ascribed to Le Bec-Fin, Philadelphia's legendary haute cuisine mecca, and mushrooms Napolean.

The décor matches perfectly this mood of offhand sophistication. Various pieces of vintage furniture hold the restaurant's glassware and other service. The walls are painted in the same deep red and saffron yellow as the Provençal cloth draped over the long table, angled between the dining room and the kitchen, that functions as both bar and dessert table. White linen tablecloths are adorned simply with votive candles and extra votive holders doubling as bud vases. The place has the intimate feel of a house dressed up for a dinner party.

The first thing on the menu that caught Angelique's eye was cream of lentil soup with mussels, a dish which sounded unusual in a most intriguing way. The chewy skins of the pureed lentils were not strained out, adding hearty texture to an otherwise silken soup. Their flavor mingled with the rich dairy, chicken stock and a splash of white wine to create a mild but distinctive flavor that seemed to look forward to autumn. The seafood, however, was summer in a spoon. The occasional tough or gritty bite of the otherwise-tender mussels did not spoil the overall effect of this soup, which was to demonstrate that disparate ingredients, thoughtfully combined, can add up to much more than the sum of their parts.

Vol au vent aux escargots — a puff pastry "nest" with snails cooked in cream, anise seeds and Pernod — was a less successful combination, not because any individual part was poorly made, but because the whole lacked seasoning to enhance the dominant flavor of cream. A dash of salt at the table helped, but even the pastry tasted mostly like unsalted butter.

Charcuteries — a plate of patê, cured meats, and the miniature pickles called cornichons — will help make you feel like you are really in France. Paper-thin slices of peppery sausage and still-meaty pieces of prosciutto-like ham were delicious with or without their accompanying mustard and gribiche, a savory sort of egg salad.

The first of our entrées, the loin of lamb, Niçoise style, was pan-seared and served on a bed of steamed spinach, wild mushrooms and tomatoes in a garlic-white wine reduction. The velvety medallions of lamb required scarcely more chewing than the wilted vegetables accompanying them, and the meat's distinctive flavor played beautifully against the sauce, which balanced sweet and savory flavors with a mysterious note that was dry and bordering on, but not quite, bitter.

Coq au vin, whole chicken braised in wine, was prepared with a delicate game hen. Its skin was delicate, not rubbery, and its tender flesh stained crimson with the wine that defined its sauce without obscuring herbal and meaty tones. Sweet pearl onions, firm chunks of potato and rich, earthy mushroom caps tastily rounded out this satisfying one-pot meal.

Ma Provence evokes the feel of an excellent bistro in a provincial town. Without pretension, it pulls off a meal that is better than most trendy American restaurants aspire to be, all in an irresistible atmosphere of continental country charm.

Jason: 3.5 stars
Angelique: 3.5 stars