I'm scheduled to speak to my fourth-grader's class next week about what I do for a living. Of course, I'm nervous--you can't bluff fourth graders. I'm supposed to discuss with the class how to describe a taste, using words besides "awesome," "gross," and "bummer." Yes, I face that problem weekly, but this means I have to think about it twice as hard, because a blank page is hard to face, but a blank face is harder. And 9-year-olds are natural skeptics.
It's complicated by knowing that what you taste depends so much on where you are when you taste it, not to mention who you're with. You'll probably always hate the food at the little cafe where your lover let you down easy. And regional restaurants set themselves an even more difficult goal than just producing tasty food. The particular dusty cedar of the Texas Hill Country, the slightly mildewed hot-pine smell of Louisiana woods, the sharp pinon sweetness of northern New Mexico air (let's leave out the ambient odor of places like Beaumont that, thank God, doesn't have a cuisine) seem necessary to round out the flavors of the food from those places. And the better a restaurant integrates its ambiance with its menu, the more potent the whole dining experience is.
Lavendou, a new restaurant from the owners of Chez Gerard, advertises itself as a Provencal bistro serving authentic foods from the south of France, an area that the proprietors are cleverly avoiding labeling with the trendy term "Mediterranean," even though it is. Perhaps they remember, as so many Carmen Miranda fans do, that Tunisian food is also Mediterranean, so the term has a certain comfortable but nearly dishonest vagueness. "Provençal," on the other hand, requires a commitment. If you say "Santa Fe," you'd better be showing some adobe; "Provence" is a region just as demandingly distinctive.
Just the name "Lavendou" shows you they're trying to live up to their own billing. And when you enter the place (in a strip center, of course--this is far North Dallas), there are sheaves of dried lavender and a long bowl of lavender buds, so your first whiff is that sweet, dry smell. Then that particular ochre-yellow that signals Provence is everywhere. Sunny Suleido-style sprigged tablecloths are overlaid with white and set with ochre and lavender ceramic vases, trays, and sugar bowls; arches of brick divide the space like a wine cave, and a tile-faced wood-burning oven is set into one wall.
Unfortunately, the French illusion was dispelled by irritatingly slow service at lunch and dinner--could we be anywhere but Dallas? When we arrived for lunch, the host was on the phone and did not break from his conversation even to smile and nod hello. (The call couldn't have been that important; Lavendou already has its liquor license.) But what can you expect from a guy who wears a double-breasted suit in broad daylight? French, of course. Another wait for water, for bread, finally for the food, though once it came, like lovemaking after a quarrel, it nearly made us forget the aggravation.
All the appetizers were characterized by clear flavors, straightforward presentation, no tricks. Mussels, upended, their mouths open like baby birds, the little pink tongues of meat coated in gentle cream scented with saffron. A thick slab of house-made duck terrine, coarse-textured, pink and gray, packed with nuts and bits of bitter-tinged olive, flecked with cool white fat. A crock of onion soup, the cheese oozing down the sides and sealing the deep-brown broth within, broth so concentrated and caramelized that its flavor still filled your mouth after its warmth had disappeared down your throat. A salad of delicate lettuces, each light leaf bathed in a sparkling vinaigrette, crowned with crumb-dusted goat cheese, jewelled with Nicoise olives (pitted--I love that touch) and endive spikes.
Entrees were not quite as pleasing. A companion requested beef tournedos cooked medium-well, so it was almost his own fault that it was not as juicy and flavorful as it should have been, and the sauce was so skimpy it made the meat's blandness more evident; as I've said before, no one makes french fries like the French and this was more proof. A special filet of sole was good, delicately flavored but firm-textured, with a spray of lemon to liven it. The roast chicken's skin was limp, not crisp, but the meat was moist and had enough flavor to stand up to the olive sauce.
But there are some dishes that spell "Provence," the authentic ones touted in the press releases, that still need some work. The salade Nicoise was a mountain of slivered red and green peppers, onion, green beans, and sugar snap peas, and olives over lettuce. Underneath the produce were some nice chunks of tuna, and quarters of hard-boiled egg made compass points on the plate; but in spite of the quantity of food, there was something insubstantial about this salad. Variation is fine--sugar snap peas aren't usual, potatoes are--but salade Nicoise is most often served composee, arranged on the plate rather than tossed, and I think it makes a better presentation and enforces a more pleasing proportion of ingredients. Both pizzas we tried--the classic pissaladiere at lunch, a chicken-gorgonzola pie at dinner--were disasters. Extrapolating from the restraint shown with the other appetizers and entrees, I expected the pissaladiere to be traditional--just caramelized onions, anchovies, olives, and herbs on a lighter-than-pizza crust. Instead, a stew of tomato and onion with some anchovy and basil and rounds of fresh Roma tomatoes and globs of goat cheese were heaped on a crust that had just given up in despair. The bare outside edges were crisp and brown, but under all that wet weight, the rest of the crust was not even cooked, and pulled away from the fork in glutinous strands of raw dough. The chef needs some practice with that wood-burning oven: The chicken-gorgonzola pizza had the same problem.
At dinner we were in less of a hurry, so the slow pace suited the conversation. But lunch is rarely such a leisurely meal and by the time we left, we were less than relaxed, and much of the conversation had turned to speculation about the conference the wait staff seemed to be having at the end of the room about why Monsieur Double-Breasted was so much busier carrying in packages than attending to the dining room, about how many people at tables around us were talking on their phones, and whether it was because they were rearranging their afternoon appointments since lunch had unexpectedly taken two hours. Why should you have to wait for soup? For salad, even? For water and the check?
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There are lots of nice touches at Lavendou, and I expect this will be a welcome addition to the North Dallas dining scene, though it's not quite a destination restaurant. We liked the wooden saltcellar and pepper mill on each table, the little pots of cold unsalted butter, the absence of tiramisu and the presence of apricot tart on the dessert menu. The "Chef's" menu--salad or soup, choice of entrees, and dessert for $9.75--is a great deal. But on our visits, each pleasure was countered with an irritant: inattentive service; a brief and unexciting as well as pricey wine list with too few French wines; not to mention again, uncooked pizza crust (which was--how can I say this most accurately?--gross).
Lavendou, 19009 Preston, Suite 200, (972) 248-1911. Open for lunch Monday - Friday, 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m.; for dinner, Monday-Thurday, 6 p.m.-10 p.m.;
Friday-Saturday, 6 p.m.-11 p.m.
Left Bank French Onion Soup $4.75
Steamed Mussels in White Wine, Cream, and Saffron $6.95
Crispy Warm Goat Cheese With Mixed Baby Greens $5.75
Tenderloin With Cracked Black Pepper $16.95
Rotisserie Chicken Pizza $7.85