Driving forty miles to visit a greater New Orleans area restaurant that owes little of its culinary inspiration, ambience or sense of place to the city itself is perhaps a quirky endeavor for a visitor, yet in the case of La Provence, such a side trip borders on the irresistible.
The place itself feels like it would be more at home on a French roadside than its setting on a stick-straight stretch of wooded highway connecting two bedroom communities containing few features that might separate them from any other American suburb.
La Provence is now in its second generation, which is a story in itself. Opened well over a quarter century ago by chef Chris Keragiorgious, it was taken over upon his death by a young Marine veteran who had worked as one Keragiorgious’ apprentices after returning home from the Gulf War, and whose reputation would ultimately eclipse that of his mentor.
That young executive chef and now owner is John Besh, a local boy from neighboring Slidell, whose career track seems to run in eerie parallel with that of Emeril Lagasse. Besh’s first restaurant, August in the Central Business District of New Orleans, skyrocketed to success and was soon followed by a string of new restaurants. A superb cookbook followed, as did a cable network program, and questions have arisen whether Besh’s attention will become diluted by being spread across too many projects.
One of the intriguing aspects of Besh’s rise in culinary circles, particularly in New Orleans, is that while Lagasse seems to be content replicating his flagship restaurant’s success with minimal variations, Besh seems to be nudging the envelope of venue diversity. Consider that at this writing, Besh is running his freestanding flagship restaurant (August), a casino chophouse (Besh Steak), an Alsace-influenced hotel restaurant (Lüke) and its counterpart (also named Lüke) in San Antonio, another hotel restaurant with a rustic Italian motif (Domenica), and a burger/meatloaf/comfort food outlet in the National World War II Museum (The American Sector) as well as La Provence.
Along the way, Besh has been a staunch advocate of combining native Louisiana foodstuffs with French-inspired techniques to produce a localized bistro cuisine, probably a holdover from his days as an apprentice for Keragiorgious, who along with Pierre Lacoste were among the earliest champions of the culinary hybrid. Today, of course, it seems that almost every restaurant that covers its tables in white broadcloth describes itself as “Old World cuisine with Local Flair.” But to Besh’s everlasting credit, he carries the notion far past le cliché nouveau and puts it into committed practice, particularly at La Provence.
Ever since its earliest days as Keragiorgious’ backcountry atelier, a central feature of La Provence has been its herb garden, which guarantees not only freshness but also local authenticity. After taking the reins at La Provence, Besh installed his own Berkshire hog farm, where the hogs are bred and fed organic scraps from the kitchens of his restaurants, before being slaughtered and processed in Besh’s on-premises smokehouse. Every part of the hog is used somewhere in Besh’s growing empire, from feet being slow-cooked to create the pieds de conchon at Lüke, skin for cracklings used at August to the livers being used in the ramekins of pâté that grace every table inside neighboring La Provence.
Such devotion to centuries-old cooking techniques and hair-splitting attention to detail are no doubt contributors to Besh’s increasing cachet in national culinary circles, but when viewing La Provence as a whole instead of a corporate component, I find something re-assuring in the fact that such persnickety steps are never mentioned. One of the pure joys of La Provence, at least for The Sensible One and me, is its lack of fussiness or Gallic posturing. The wait staff doesn’t ooze blatantly fake chumminess and the everyday chef de cuisine remains anonymous instead of being the reigning centerpiece in a cult of personality. La Provence is a study in understatement and that in itself is a refreshing departure from the hyper self-consciousness that seems to swirl around so many restaurants these days.
When I first pull into the restaurant’s parking lot, my internal clock readjusts itself to a gentler pace and in the seconds it takes to walk through the trellised archway and the small front door, my frame of mind has become that of an unhurried sightseer on holiday in a sunlit corner of France. There is a cozy waiting room inside with comfortable furniture and French magazines to thumb though, a pleasant enough place for a short wait and perhaps an aperitif to stimulate the appetite before being led to your table.
There are a couple of small dining rooms on either side of a crackling, whitewashed fireplace in the main restaurant. The ceilings are low and the yellow ochre walls remain mostly unadorned. Arched openings along the walls afford you with a view of a large barroom with another fireplace, a grand piano and little furniture on the Oriental rugs, leading me to believe the room sees more use for wedding receptions and private parties. French doors open onto a patio and fountain. Overall, the room has the air of a large villa that has been transformed into a small inn.
Though the main business at La Provence is dinner served Wednesday through Sunday evenings, The Sensible One and I are partial to Sunday brunch, particularly on drab, drizzly days that can only be warmed by a fireplace, robust fare and a bottle of steadfast Burgundy. In fact, on numerous trips over the past decade, we have planned our New Orleans arrival to follow on the heels of a dawdling brunch Provençal.
The food is unfussy French in the finest sense of both words. On a recent visit, The Sensible One started with a roasted chestnut ravioli finished with brown butter, sage and crispy ham, followed by jumbo Louisiana shrimp and butternut squash risotto with Meyer lemon and sage. Her decision was quick compared to mine, as I agonized over choices including Bouillabaisse, swordfish picatta, blue crab bisque, quail gumbo and a “pissaladière” (a warm pizza of onions, anchovies and olives). I finally decided to keep with close to home roots by ordering the Creole turtle soup, followed by a traditional Louisiana slow-cooked cochon du lait, which included braised shoulder, crisp belly and seared tenderloin served with haricorts verts and oven-roasted tomatoes. There’s no reason to try and string superlatives; it was all, in a word, superb, as was the apple tart we shared for dessert.
Were it only for the dissimilarities in the restaurants he creates, Besh would be a chef/entrepreneur worth keeping an eye on, but he brings a lot more to the party. Still in his mid-forties and blessed with frat boy good looks, a shaggy mop of hair and an engaging enthusiasm, Besh is a natural for television. Indeed, several years ago he finished a hair’s-breadth second to Michael Symon on the Food Network’s Next Iron Chef series, and in 2010 launched a series of his own, Inedible to Incredible on The Learning Channel. Far more telegenic and less inclined to hijack center stage at the expense of his guests than Emeril Lagasse, whose early career Besh seems to almost channel, many industry insiders seem to believe that the future is as much in front of Besh as it is behind Lagasse.
If Besh continues to grow into a national personality to the point his commitments put more pressure on his time and attention than his New Orleans activities require, it will be a great loss to one of America’s premier cities’ culinary landscapes.
To realize how much of a loss that would be, one only has to drive forty miles from downtown New Orleans to savor the near miracles that occur when home-grown ingredients meet a reverence for time-honored cooking principles under the watchful eyes of John Besh. One need go no further than La Provence.
25020 Highway 190
Big Branch, Louisiana
(Approximately 41 miles from the intersection of
Canal Street, Royal Street and St. Charles Avenue)
Dinner served Wednesday through Sunday evenings
Bruch served Sunday
Reservations are recommended and credit cards are honored
Telephone: (985) 626-7662