Thursday, May 22, 2008

Cafe Provencal - restaurant review

We had plans to be in Thousand Oaks on a Saturday evening, so the husband was looking for a place nearby for us to have dinner and happened upon Cafe Provencal. The menu looked good, so we decided to give it a try.

The restaurant is a tiny little place in a mini-mall next to The Lakes mall which is next to the Civic Arts Plaza. The seating area is about the size of a boutique, with two additional tables outside the front door with a view of the plentiful parking for that mini-mall. We arrived a bit early for our reservation and were seated promptly.

The decor of the restaurant was fairly interesting. They had white-linen-covered tables, and the waiters were dressed as you might expect in a fancier restaurant, but they also had a piece of paper taped to a wall at the back of the restaurant that advertised their Monday wine specials. A sort of billowing canopy covered the ceiling, softening the lights, but there was also a disco ball (yes, that kind) in the middle of the ceiling. There was a vase with a flower on the table, and there was a candle as well, but I was surprised and amused to see that it was one of the electric kind made to look and flicker like a real candle. I understand the appeal of flameless candles, and I have one myself, but I did find it odd in a nice restaurant like that. Oh, and yes, they had salt and pepper on the table, but at last they were the tiny cute kind.

After we had perused the menu for a while, the server came by to take our order. I decided to start with the escargots (cooked in garlic, butter and parsley). I've never actually had escargot before, though I've had their relatives, so I was interested in trying it, especially in a French restaurant. From what I understand, what most people object to is its texture, which I knew wouldn't be a problem for me. The husband decided to start with the sweetbreads, something we've both liked since the first time we tried it several years ago. As an entree, I decided on the poached salmon with leek, fennel carrot, anis, clam, mussel and shrimp, and the husband decided to try the bison with a bourbon sauce. I had thought about trying the bison, but I've tried new meats (elk, for instance) at new restaurants, and while they haven't been bad experiences, I haven't been completely enamoured, so I've decided that if I'm going to try a new meat, I'm going to stick to doing so at restaurants that I know well. The entrees each came with soup of the day or house salad, and we both decided to upgrade to the onion soup.

We were brought bread, but instead of it being in a basket, it was actually wrapped in what would have otherwise looked like a square potholder tied a bit closed. I'd never seen that before, so I thought it was interesting. We were also brought olive tapenade with little crostini, and the tapenade was delicious.

Our appetizers were brought shortly thereafter. My escargots was brought in a plate (similiar to the one pictured here, but it didn't have the long handle) with little compartments for each one, and the butter was still bubbling hot on the plate. With the garlic flavoring, there wasn't much other flavor to the escargot itself. I enjoyed the dish, but it's probably not something I would order again because it wasn't that interesting to me. The husband's serving of sweetbreads was more generously portioned than he had expected, but he did enjoy it. I had a taste of some of it, and it had really good flavor and was very tender.

After we were done with our appetizers, we were then brought our onion soups, coincidentally enough in the same kind of earthenware crocks that we'd had minestrone soup in the night before at another restaurant. The broth and onions were very flavorful, and the soup was also plentiful in cheese.

After having some bread and some tapenade and the appetizer and soup, I wasn't very hungry by the time my salmon arrived. I realized then that I should have foregone the appetizer and had the house salad instead of the filling onion soup - I think I'm just not used to soup or salad being included in nicer restaurants like that. I liked the salmon ok, but I think I prefer salmon to be somewhat crispy instead of being poached. I also had not realized until I had a taste of the salmon that I had actually had salmon the night before for dinner. I enjoyed the various seafoods in the dish, so knowing they wouldn't really keep, I finished those and had a bit of the salmon and then decided to just take the rest with me. The husband had also run into the same problem - though he enjoyed the bison, and it was cooked perfectly at medium, he wasn't able to finish his entree and took the rest to go as well.

To go on a slight tangent, it had been a very hot afternoon, so we had been looking forward to cooling off a bit during dinner. That turned out not to work very well. The longer we sat in the restaurant, the warmer we got, which of course wasn't helped by the hot appetizers and onion soup that we had. At one point, the overhead lights were turned off, making the restaurant fairly dark and causing all the patrons to wonder what was happening. A man (who we later deduced was the proprietor) asked over a loudspeaker if we had all noticed how warm it had gotten. We all said yes. He said he could think of only two solutions - either turn the lights off or we all take our clothes off, which elicited a lot of laughter. He then announced that two people at separate tables were celebrating graduations and then a sort of disco multi-light was turned on for a while. Eventually, that was turned off and the regular lights turned back on. I'm not sure if the air conditioning wasn't working or at least wasn't working well enough to combat the heat outside, but I at least give the staff credit for continually keeping people's water glasses filled.

Even though we weren't able to finish our entrees, a nice cool glass of sorbet sounded good, so we shared that for dessert. It was mostly lemon with a small scoop of raspberry on top, both of which I enjoyed. The husband is not a fan of raspberry, so he just had some of the lemon.

We had finished our dessert, which was mostly gone, and then we sat and waited. And waited. And waited. The large party at the tables next to us left, and we sat and watched as our server helped to clear the table and completely re-set it. All the while, we sat there, obviously done with our dinner. Luckily, we had time to spare before needing to be at our show for the night, so the 20 minute wait while all that happened didn't make us late, but I was fairly annoyed at having to wait while he did all that work with the adjacent tables before offering us our check. I'm not saying he ignored us on purpose - but given that we were at the next table, it wouldn't have been that hard for him to notice us just sitting there for that long, our dessert finished. And it wasn't like there were people waiting for those tables, but even if there were, it wouldn't have taken 30 seconds to at least give us our checks before he finished helping with the tables. I also noted that a nearby party had their table crumbed before dessert, but we didn't - even though we had the same server. The server was polite, so I'm not sure what the deal was with the lapses at the end of our meal, but he finally brought our check, and we were able to settle out and leave.

The restaurant has apparently been there for about 11 years, and they seem to have gotten many rave reviews, and while I generally enjoyed my meal there, the few lapses in service and particularly the problems with regard to the temperature make it unlikely that I'd return if I were in the area, given the plethora of other restaurants available.

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