By Joanna O’Leary
Baby, it’s cold outside. Okay, maybe not by Yankee-transplant standards, but cold for Houston. In chilly times such as these you can cling to your partner for warmth; however, at some point I guarantee you’ll both get hungry. So to quell your shivers and soothe your stomach, head to Bistro Provence near the I-10 Energy Corridor for some hearty cold-weather French comfort food.
In operation since 1998, Bistro Provence is run by second-generation owner Genevieve Guy and has consistently been one of the most popular French restaurants in Houston. Even on a weekday night, the cozy dining room is usually comfortably crowded with diverse patrons ranging from elegant septuagenarian couples in matching silk cravats to more rough-around-the-edges pairs of youngsters comparing Instagram posts. All were drawn to the bistro on a blustery December evening for specialties par excellence made to order by executive chef Cedric Vernin.
Perhaps the most gastronomically famous region of France, Provence boasts a warm, dry Mediterranean climate that is perfect for the cultivation and production of world-class wines. Its proximity to the water means that seafood and crustaceans figure prominently in much of its cuisine. The restaurant’s menu naturally reflects this fact, while incorporating other classic French recipes involving produce and proteins from the region.
First, understand that no truly excellent dining experience can be had at Bistro Provence if you are in a rush. Their food is to be savored, so nestle in and begin your meal with a glass of leggy red wine (ask your server for a recommendation) and a seasonally appropriate appetizer. A house favorite is the escargot, the edible helix pomatia species of land snails. Bistro Provence prepares their escargot in traditional rustic fashion using Guy’s grandfather’s recipe that involves dressing them in a garlic and parsley butter sauce, then baking them in a wood oven until they are warm and supple. A half-dozen come ensconced in their own individual wells filled with more herbal butter, which is best sopped up with loaf pieces from the complimentary breadbasket. “Our escargots have been on the menu since we opened, and will probably never leave,” notes Guy. “My mom makes about a million dozen for Christmas, but it is never enough.”
If oceanic fare is more your fancy, opt for the soupe de poisson “marseillaise,” the iconic Provençal fish stew so-named for its origins in the port city of Marseille. As a boullabaisse, this luscious soup comprises ample chunks of multiple types of flaky fish floating in long-simmered fragrant broth flavored with leeks and onions. (Again, the accompanying bread proves wonderfully useful for soaking up every last drop of this lovely piscine liquid.)
Both of the aforementioned starters can of course be consumed in toto solo; however, for a more communal, intimate supper, request some extra spoons and forks for sharing your soup and snails. These extra utensils will prove handy when you move on to your entrées, not only because the portion sizes are ample, but also because the moans of satisfaction arising involuntarily from all members of your party will lead everyone to want to sample their neighbor’s dinner. Which dishes might inspire such collective order-envy? First, the magret de canard, thick slices of duck breast and leg confit served with a mound of pillowy sautéed potatoes. Roasted with honey and lavender, the tender slices of fowl have a slightly sweet botanical flavor that wonderfully balances the fattier juices of the duck meat. “Duck magret was a dish that my father-in-law Georges Guy put on the menu when he owned the Bistro,” says Guy. “When we bought the restaurant, we decided to make the menu and the dishes even more Provençal—and what is more Provençal than lavender? The lavender duck magret has become a top seller during the fall and winter.”
In competition with the magret de canard, with regards to show-stopping taste and presentation, is the côte de veau brillat savarin. Yes, it is worth stumbling over the name when you order, for this impressive bone-in veal chop arrives splayed in slices to showcase its glistening sanguine interior. Compounding the intensely decadent savory notes is a thick wild mushroom and Cognac sauce liberally draped over the calf flesh.
Shared (or stolen) bites of the aforementioned comfort classics, plus another round (or two) of wine, and it won’t matter that it’s still cold outside because you’ll be warm, glowing, and satiated inside Bistro Provence.
13616 Memorial Drive
Joanna O’Leary is a freelance food and travel writer based in Houston, TX. Her exploits are chronicled on www.brideyoleary.com.