500 Steamboat Road, Greenwich, CT
Provence, like Tuscany, has gone commercial, its aesthetic and gastronomic bounties distilled into a brand marketed on Main Street awnings in most every American township. Usually, the words “bistro” and “café” are the extent of the authenticity. Not so at Greenwich’s L’Escale. It’s a bit luxe, naturellement, but serves as memorable a mussels marinier or aioli as you’ll find anywhere along the Cote D’Azur. You won’t be looking at fields of lavender, but grab a window table or a chair on the whitewashed terrace and a meandering inlet plays to similar entrancing effect. (L’Escale means port of call.) The restaurant, as well as the adjoining hotel, is the triumphant result of extensive renovation and painstaking detail, from its centuries’-old limestone floors to its carved zinc bar, terrace latticework, massive stone hearth and whimsical wire-and-newspaper chandeliers, all brought from France by Provencal designers.
The food does it all proud. Chef Brian Young, late of Hastings’ Harvest on Hudson, worked as chef de cuisine at midtown’s Le Bernardin and trained at Paris’ Cordon Bleu, and his cooking is a masterly balance of surefire technique and hi-def flavor. Garlic reigns, as it should, in a spicy corn- and avocado-garnished gazpacho, in the silky aoli accompaniment to a crunchy tangle of fried calamari and thread-like baby fish, and in the broth of perfectly steamed mussels, served, by the way, with pommes frites worthy of addiction status. Black olives are everywhere: baked into wonderful bread; scattered among rosy slabs of grilled tuna, anchovies, boiled egg and a gardenful of vibrant vegetables in a light lemon-dressed Nicoise salad; crusted on a smoked salmon appetizer alongside toasted brioche and crème fraiche.
These days, crab cakes have joined that clichéd triumvirate with sesame-seared tuna and molten chocolate cake, and L’Escale’s version vies for originality by grilling them “a la plancha,” on a specialized Spanish griddle. Nice try, but I detected more filler than crab. A bed of warm citrus-scented arugula salad is a winner though; in fact, all L’Escale’s greens are stellar, epitomized by the lemon-rosemary dressed romaine and “ruccola” salad spiked with Asiago shavings.
And now for the carnivore alert: prime your chops for the boneless quail, pan seared to mahogany bliss; by the way, you’ll need them to penetrate the accompanying fried montasio cheese cubes. The one other lapse: a chicken paillard impressive in well-pounded girth only. An entree special of braised short ribs seems a summer anomaly, but the concentrated swoon of rich meat and red wine glaze obliterated that frivolous notion. Beneath its lacquered veneer, duckling breast is succulent and mild, buttressed by grilled pineapple oozing sweetness and the anise hint of basil mashed potatoes.
Young learned his seafood lessons well at the peerless Le Bernardin, his roasted red snapper the incontrovertible evidence. Paired with a crisp Sancerre, one of about 25 wines available by the glass on the predominantly French list, the robust filet and its tomato, squash and Spanish onion Crayola scales are squall of flavor to rival the mistral.
Could dessert to be as fine? Happily, an unqualified yes. The flourless chocolate cake is, mercifully, not molten, just airy and Valrhona-rich, the mint of its ice cream at laser intensity. The apple tart is straight out of grandmaman’s kitchen, its caramelized fruit cradled in ethereal puff pastry. And then there is summer itself, embodied in the custard, genoise sponge and mousseline whimsy of a raspberry trifle. I can barely make room for the meringue petit fours, but I manage.
Image credit: L’Escale