WHY IT’S NOTEWORTHY
The mourning, false starts, and adjustments that ruled La Provence in the years after the death of founding Chris Kerageorgiou are over. Chris’s protege John Besh–now the owner of La Provence–has this uniquely pleasurable French country-style restaurant on an even keel again. Under chef Erik Loos the food is better now than at any time since the hurricane, and it’s easy to imagine that Chris is smiling down on it.
The menu thoroughly essays the rustic French food that the restaurant’s name suggests. The house pate, quail gumbo, lamb, duck, and the other food that Chris made brilliantly are still here, if in a more contemporary form. As it was in Chris’s day, the menu is ever in flux, shifting not only with the seasons but with the inventory of fresh vegetables and meats. The restaurant raises a large number of both, with a particular emphasis on Mangalitsa pigs, snorting around back of the restaurant. The dining room and kitchen staffs are young, but waitress “Just Joyce” Bates continues in her thirty-year role as mother hen, in between making great cocktails and writing poems for customers.
Chris Kerageorgiou–Greek-heritage native of the south of France–came to New Orleans in the 1960s after cooking around the world. After years as the maitre d’ at the Royal Orleans Hotel, he ignored all advice in 1972 and opened his own restaurant in the woods near Lacombe. The North Shore population was much smaller and less inclined to fine dining than it is now. Chris’s food was so good that La Provence drew avid eaters from both shores. After battling Katrina and a health problem that would kill him within a year, Chris sold the restaurant to his former sous chef, John Besh. Besh turned the expansive premises into a small farm, raising chickens, pigs, goats, vegetables, and herbs. He brought in a series of excellent chef-partners, each of whom cooked brilliantly. Problem was, regular customers were put off by the changes. In early 2009, Besh brought in Chef Erik Loos, who found the groove.
Besh performed an excellent and subtle renovation in 2006, adding a comfortable bar and opening up many interior walls to add spaciousness. A fireplace in the center of the main room is usually burning unless it would be crazy to do so. A large private dining room has a distinctly Provencal style. All of this is in the setting of an enclosing pine forest, still far enough away from development to feel rural.
»Warm goat cheese salad, roasted beets, arugula, Mangalitsa bacon
Butter lettuce salad
Heirloom and Creole tomato gazpacho, shrimp, cucumber, panzanella, fresh herbs
»Country style pâté of mangalitsa pork, cherries,stone ground mustard
»Spaghettini, crabmeat, heirloom tomatoes, fresh basil
Warm pizza of caramelized onions, olives
»Chef Chris’s quail gumbo
Shrimp and orecchiette pasta, heirloom tomato sauce, vegetables
»Crispy Gulf fish, crabmeat, sauce mousseline, tomato provençal
Swordfish piccata, polenta, capers, brown butter
»Soft-shell crab, jalapeño cheese grits, chanterelles, corn
»Slow-roasted Mangalitsa pork, pasta, chanterelles, roasted peaches
»Ravioli of slow cooked rabbit, stewed tomatoes, garlic roast eggplant
»Slow-roasted lacquered duckling, peaches, ratatouille
»Filet of beef tenderloin, marrow, porcini mushrooms, pommes dauphinois
»Slow-cooked baby lamb, squash, heirloom tomatoes, chanterelles
»Local peach crostada, whipped pastry cream, and blueberry sorbet
»Ile flottante, peaches and white chocolate
»Warm bread pudding, butter pecan whiskey sauce, vanilla ice cream
Milk chocolate and peanut butter “candy bar,” Caramel ice cream
Crème brûlée, red wine stewed berries
»Molten chocolate torte, caramel, roasted hazelnuts
Corn ice cream
Smoked Mangalitsa bacon, pecan crunch
FOR BEST RESULTS
At the bottom of the menu every day is a changing, three-course, country-style French dinner for $28. This is not merely a bargain, but a delightfully rustic repast. Try to keep from eating too much of the complimentary house pate before the real food comes. The best time to come here is late Sunday afternoon and early evening.
OPPORTUNITIES FOR IMPROVEMENT
It always seems to me that the menu needs two or three more appetizers and entrees. It would be nice to have Chris’s old merguez sausage back, if anyone knows the recipe.
FACTORS OTHER THAN FOOD
Up to three points, positive or negative, for these characteristics. Absence of points denotes average performance in the matter.
- Dining Environment +3
- Consistency +2
- Value +1
- Attitude +1
- Wine & Bar +2
- Hipness +1
- Local Color +3
- Live music some nights
- Courtyard dining
- Good for business meetings
- Early-evening specials
- Open Sunday lunch and dinner
- Open most holidays
- Open all afternoon
- Good for children
- Easy, nearby parking
- Reservations recommended
ANECDOTES AND ANALYSIS
Most restaurants that gain distinction do so by looking forward. La Provence is the New Orleans Menu’s Restaurant of the Year in 2009 because it looked backwards. After four talented chefs failed to catch on in the years since John Besh bought the restaurant, Besh took heed of what the customers had been saying all along. Namely, that the heritage of founder Chris Kerageorgiou was more distinguished than anything else that could be installed in that restaurant. So Besh hired young new chef Erick Loos, and between the two of them built a menu which Chris himself could have come up with–although it was far more creative than just a rehash of the old dishes. The reaction from the regulars was unequivocal: it’s about time! The mood brightened all around. Even Ms. Joyce seemed to be smiling more–and that’s a telling barometer. A new golden age is beginning at La Provence, which once more is a credible nominee for best restaurant on the North Shore.