Provence is romanticized in the book series A Year in Provence by Peter Mayle. His vivid descriptions capture a region of turquoise skies, a blue sea, and the freshest of ingredients. It tells tales of a people who look to the land, its seasons, and its past for edible inspiration. The trinity of Provence cuisine consists of olives, wheat, and wine; it also boasts of prodigious amounts of olive oil and garlic. The people’s love for seafood is attributed to the Mediterranean that stretches just to its south.
In a small space just off to the side of Shangri-la Mall’s second floor sits a place that takes me away to Provence. Aptly named Cafe Provencal, in terms of restaurant years, it’s old, having been around some seven plus years. A whisper of its former self when it spanned two floors and was situated right above Dreyers Ice Cream, it’s now a single level of coziness and wrought-iron chairs embraced in hues of butter-yellow. There are tables good for solitary diners, when one isn’t in the mood to socialize, just as there are larger tables set up for groups. The waiters sport jaunty yellow suspenders on their navy blue uniforms, a delightful touch and indication of the youth of the restaurant’s owners.
Kathleen Joy Ong, Jacqueline (Jacq) Tan, and Bryan Chua, a sprightly trio not even in their 30s yet, have been friends since their college days at La Salle. A long way away from Computer Science, the course they all majored in, they find themselves running a restaurant because as Jacq puts it, “The opportunity was there and we would’ve banged our heads against a wall if we didn’t take it.” Taking over from the former owners three years ago, the group has retained Nick Anderson, their consultant, who is also the Executive Chef at the Manila Pavilion Hotel.
As we settle down, a Pissaladiere (P180) is slid onto our table. A Provencal pizza, this is a thin crust blanketed with caramelized onions and garlic. Hidden beneath the pie’s depths are anchovies and black olives that roll off like marbles if I’m not careful. Light and crunchy, it’s good enough for a meal for one along with a carafe of white wine. My Bin can’t resist ordering the French onion soup (P110). Just like the ones in France, Cafe Provencal’s version is substantial, its top a thick baguette dripping with grilled strips of cheese.
Tomatoes are another common ingredient in Provence and you can safely assume that any dish that has a la Provencale attached to its name will be prepared with garlic-seasoned tomatoes. I’m served the Italian Macho Tomato Soup (P125) glistening in its redness, it’s garnished with lashings of Parmesan and pesto. Now, I’m wary of almost all tomato soups – there’s a thin line that divides tomato soup and tomato sauce, with most local versions belonging to the latter. But this one at Cafe Provencal while not as thick as I’d like, is tasty enough. I ask for more bread to mop up the bowl.
A grilled salmon salad joins us next, a variation on the restaurant’s A Day in Nice (P195). Large darnes of this coral-colored fish rest invitingly on a bed of gleaming greens bathed in extra virgin olive oil while chunks of hard-boiled egg, olive halves, cherry tomatoes, and baby potatoes frolic around it. Anchovies rolled up into tiny curls add a salty zing to the medley. Hoping no one at the table is looking, I sneak the eggs and anchovies — my most favorite parts of the salad — onto my plate . Sloshed down with a glass of cold white wine, I’m really loving this meal.
At Cafe Provencal, drinking wine with the meal is encouraged. Wine is sold by the bottle or the glass. There’s even a poster outside the restaurant that details the merits of wine drinking and how to appreciate wine. “Filipinos have become more educated about wine so we encourage that by offering different wines for them to pair with their meal,” says Bryan, obviously the wine connoisseur of the group. He’s brought a nice red tonight and we toast as the next dish is served.
The menu has a special section devoted to Provencal Specials. One of these is the Roasted Garlic Chicken (P520), a dish mighty enough for two: an oven-roasted half chicken along with red wine gravy is accompanied by two heads of roasted garlic - squeeze their luscious paste onto some bread and finish it off with a forkful of oil-glazed fettuccine and baby potatoes redolent with thyme and rosemary. For variety, a bed of ratatouille is lain alongside, that Provencal staple of tomatoes, eggplants, zucchinis, and onions stewed with herbs and olive oil. The chicken is supremely moist, no small feat considering that chicken has both white and dark meat, each with respective cooking times. I alternate varying mouthfuls of chicken with either the pasta, the ratatouille or the garlic paste – tasting, discerning, enjoying.
Mediterranean cuisine is slowly catching on with Manila diners. A lot of familiar items can be found in Cafe Provencal’s menu like the fondue Bourguignonne (P990), tender cuts of meat cooked tableside in hot oil served with dips, fries, and a green salad. The steak au poivre (P450) is the peppercorn steak; the cheekily named Cordon Chicken and Bleu (P275), stuffed chicken cordon bleu with country ham and cheese flourished with fries and tarragon gravy is another; and the Cotelettes of Lamb (P575): lamb chops marinated in herbs, grilled, and plated with baby potatoes, ratatouille, and thyme gravy. I stop to admire the way the chops are propped against one another – I spear a piece and watch the house come tumbling down. Rich and meaty as only lamb can be, its unique flavor and texture is enhanced with the thick, thick sauce that I casually lick off my fingers. No, I’m never afraid to eat with my hands, as the case may be, and neither am I a slobbering goof, mind you.
A serving of Porto Fino (P215) — black olives, capers, anchovies, garlic, and olive oil gambol in one spicy pasta dish – truly, this is not a dish to eat on a date, but my god, how I enjoy it so! So pleasured am I with the food that the grilled snapper fillet (P450) with tomato cream and roasted vegetables just flies under my radar. I have one glorious bite and then I turn my attention back to the lamb chops and the pasta.
Being that this restaurant evokes the spirit of Provence, be that laid back and sultry, the wine flows as easily as the food. I’m having fun talking with Kathleen, Bryan, and especially Jacq, a self-confessed dessert lover like myself. We get along like bread and butter, and before we know it, dessert arrives. Ah, glory be!
Dessert is – how shall I say it – a bevy of butterflies, swans, and the occasional firefly (?). The pastry chef has a heyday caramelizing sugar to the large ball stage and then pulling the pliable sweet to his heart’s content into these delightful winged folk. Bryan says that depending on the chef’s whim, one or all of these garnishes will decorate a diner’s dessert. Apparently, judging from our plates, it looks like the chef is having a good day today. We spend a few minutes oohing over the sugar creations before I play the bully by crushing the swan’s wing with my teeth.
Since Jacq says that she adores cheesecake, I try that first. Decorated with a butterfly ascending a golden sugar vine, this is a baked cheesecake (P125) playfully finished with overlapping slices of strawberries imitating a flower in bloom. “We use croissants for our bread pudding,” (P220) Jacq pipes up suddenly. Give a dessert a scintillating name or describe what’s in it and I suddenly see it through more avid eyes. Wedges piled teepee-style, the bread pudding is smooth and not as spongy as regular bread puddings. If Jacq hadn’t mentioned that croissants were used, I probably would never have guessed, but there is something ineffably different and unique about this one. Chancing upon a singular chunk of Toblerone makes it all the more alluring.
The creme Brulee (P125) is a lake of custard protected by a sheet of hardened caramel … and a sugar swan posing tranquilly on it. I hate to disturb its peace but dessert is best enjoyed in the mouth. Although not as thick or as unctuous as I prefer my custards to be, I can’t help but admire how the caramelized sugar adds its own to the dessert. Truly, creme Brulee is nothing without its burnished top.
The mango crepe jubilee (P170) is Cafe Provencal’s runaway bestseller. Napped in a pool of homemade caramel, mango chunks hide under thin, sweet crepes. I cannot stop eating it and I almost have to fight off my own husband just for the remaining piece. Told you I won’t share my dessert.
2/F Shangri-la Mall,
Mandaluyong City, Manila
Special thanks to Kathleen Joy Ong, Jacq Tan, and Bryan Chua!