Provence

The husband-and-wife team behind Five Points and Cookshop honeymoons in France.

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Photograph: Talia Simhi

Time Out Ratings

<strong>Rating: </strong>3/5

Here’s a restaurant yarn with all the makings of a Hallmark movie of the week. Last November, Marc Meyer and Vicki Freeman, the husband-and-wife team behind Five Points and Cookshop, bought the very place they got engaged in roughly 15 years ago. I speak of the beloved (but tired) Soho warhorse Provence. For the past six months, the couple has been tweaking and renovating, trying to provide the lagging restaurant with its own storybook ending.

The duo has tastefully recalibrated the (now) rather romantic setting. Instead of using designers or architects, Meyer and Freeman enlisted two food stylists, Melissa Hamilton and Christopher Hirsheimer, to complete the face-lift. A marble bar has replaced the wooden one in the bustling front room, leather banquettes and exposed beams spiff up the secluded rear dining area, and dated trellises were removed from the enclosed garden. All in all, these little polishes make Provence more charming than ever.

Unfortunately, the adjustments to the kitchen weren’t quite so picture-perfect. Meyer turned heads at his previous restaurants with his devotion to Greenmarket-driven menus and fealty to “farm forward” sustainable purveyors. Even with this commitment to high quality ingredients, Provence produces uneven results.

But it is nice to see Satur Farms, Stone Church and other organic favorites return for a weclome encore. Sample them, unfiltered, from the raw bar, in the excellent Salumeria Biellese charcuterie selection and in the rotating list of five artisanal cheeses. Other appetizers win with their simplicity. A pissaladire pizza has a croissantlike crust, and each of the three classic toppings (olives, anchovies, caramelized onions) is marvelously potent. Firm mushrooms and sharp ramps supports a surreally rich goat cheese in a hearty gratin, another fine dish.

Barbuto veteran Lynn McNeely runs the kitchen—an inspired choice on paper, at least. He was lured back to New York from a stint in the actual Provence. Thus, I can’t much account for the weakness of the entres. The inexplicable bouillabaisse was essentially a giant slab of hake dominating two cowering scallops, a pair of mussels and a lonely shrimp. The puddle of bitter “stew” in which they wallowed was so shallow that it rendered the rouille-smothered croutons more or less useless. A pork-and-white-beans entre had similar proportion issues. Ordered after my waiter praised its house-made sausages, the dish emerged with two delicious-as-promised weenies the size of breakfast links, and two giant hunks of dry shoulder meat that I picked at until bored.

Dessert did little to improve the meal’s downward trajectory. A thick walnut torte lacked oomph, and while it’s hard not to like profiteroles when you can pour on hot chocolate sauce, I found myself spooning out the licorice ice cream (from the increasingly ubiquitous Il Laboratorio del Gelato) from the undistinguished pastry.

Provence does impress with two key pleasures: frites, which McNeely cuts thick, doses heavily with garlic and salt, and serves with the house mayonnaise; and wine. The team behind Cookshop’s excellent entirely organic list has put together a smallish all-French compendium, with lots of finds, including a bargain $32 Ctes du Ventoux. Many could happily live on these two things alone. People have fallen in love over less.

Provence, 38 MacDougal St between Prince and Houston Sts (212-475-7500). Subway: C, E to Spring St. Mon--Sat 5:30--11:30pm; Sun 5:30--10pm. Average main course: $24.

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