IT WAS shaping up to be a pretty dismal Saturday evening. I’d identified three places worth reviewing and every one was full, even at seven o’clock on a cold, rainy November evening.
In desperation, we headed off to Leith to drown our sorrows at one of my favourite gastropubs.
Driving along past The Kitchin and Chop Chop, we spied a new sign. I’d never heard of Bistro Provence, so we stopped to investigate. It turned out that the new restaurant was on a site that is well known to local foodies because it was formerly home to an offshoot of Jean-Michel Gauffre’s La Garrigue, and before that Daniel’s Bistro, run for many years by the wonderful Alsacien restaurateur Daniel Wencker, before he decamped to his homeland after 37 years in Scotland.
Regular readers will know that I rarely visit somewhere without a recommendation, although the last time I simply stopped at an interesting-looking restaurant I’d spied from the roadside I was treated to a memorable meal at Osso in Peebles. I had the same feeling as I experienced at Osso when I began looking through the window at Bistro Provence and saw a typically Provencal menu which wouldn’t have been out of place in a restaurant in one of the little villages outside Nice, Toulon or Marseilles.
Despite the fact that at 7.30pm the place was completely empty, we decided to take a chance. Besides, it felt a little like an old friend because the smart conservatory looking out on to the docks and the entrance area are basically unchanged from their time under the previous two regimes, save for a lick of paint. That, though, is a good thing: I loved Daniel’s and was very sad to see it go, and continue to enjoy the original La Garrigue.
In many ways, however, little has changed. Bistro Provence is owned by a young Frenchman from Marseilles called Michael Fons along with his cricket-obsessed Leith born-and-bred chef Paul Malinen, formerly of L’Escargot and more recently of La Garrigue, where he was head chef for five-and-a-half years. The two met at La Garrigue, with Fons running the Leith branch for the past 18 months having previously worked at The Kitchin.
Despite the continuity – same decor, same front of house, same chef as La Garrigue – there have been changes and more are afoot. The front area of the restaurant will soon be converted into a wine bar (presumably with a view to attracting some of the government workers from the nearby Lubyanka, which provides a thriving lunchtime trade), but it’s the food that provides the most obvious point of difference. At La Garrigue the Catalan-inspired food was from the hilly Languedoc region, while Fons and Malinen have accentuated the Provencal aspects of their menu with traditional dishes from the coastal region (although in a nice gesture to Wencker, they also include the much-loved signature dish of Daniel’s Bistro, tarte flambée, on their all-day menu).
Our meal started with a wonderfully light aperitif called Le Provencale, which consists of a sparkling wine that is 100% chenin blanc which is then flavoured with raspberry and thyme. This was accompanied by an amuse bouche of gougères, which are best described as savoury choux pastry puffballs which are infused with comté cheese and which taste every bit as good as they sound.
Suitably impressed, we moved on to the starters. I decided to go for the fish soup with rouille and garlic croutons, and was confronted with a classic example of the traditional fish soup which took me straight back to the brew concocted by my French penfriend’s grandmother in their home town of Bayonne. There was no doubting the authenticity, and although I’d personally have liked it to have been a little thicker, Bea thought it was absolutely spot on.
There was absolutely no doubt as to the perfection of Bea’s starter of baked scallops served à la Provencale. The scallops were sliced and seared and served with a sauce vierge, a traditional citrus-based sauce popular in Provence which includes olive oil, lemon juice, chopped tomato and chopped basil. The end result was a dish which provided freshness and a feisty mélange of complementary flavours while allowing the taste of the scallop full rein. Merveilleux!
If that was good, my main course was equally impressive. Bea’s fillet of coley with Provencal peppers, braised fennel and turmeric butter sauce displayed the same freshness and zestiness which characterised her starter, but it was my confit pork belly with potato galette which stole the show. If scallops are ubiquitous, so too is pork belly, but this was an altogether different proposition, with dark, firm meat that had an almost shocking intensity, along with a thick apple and red wine reduction which had been applied to the meat and added another layer of taste. This was damned near perfect.
After a cheese course of Fougerus, Bleu D’Auvergne (the pick of the bunch), Valencay and Tonne De Savoie, we rounded off with pudding. Bea’s raspberry parfait was competent but unexceptional, although the accompanying lemon thyme macaroon brought a wide smile to her face, but my small slice of bitter chocolate tart with salted caramel sauce and ice cream was dense, full of complementary flavours and perfectly executed. The biggest issue was keeping Bea at bay: I have finally experienced irresistible food envy.
By the time we left the place was still fairly empty, with just three other couples arriving during our meal. But like us, they all seemed to be very impressed. Bistro Provence has only been open for six weeks, but on this sort of form there’s every chance that the place will become as much of an institution as both of its predecessors.
88 Commercial Street, Edinburgh EH6 6LX, (0131-344 4295, www.bistroprovence.co.uk)
Two courses £21 Three courses £26 Four course menu degustation £36