Brasserie: noun; F, lit., brewery, fr. MF brasser to brew (1890s). A type of informal restaurant or café, originating in France, serving simple, hearty meals.
A close friend recently graduated from massage school. Much to my delight, during her year of coursework, she would often share what she had learned that day in class-massaging in between thumb and forefinger stimulates liver and stomach function, gently pressing the big toe can ground you, the heart chakra is located on the ball of the foot, honey is a natural antimicrobial that can be used to clean wounds. One intriguing and juicy bit of knowledge I recall quite clearly was the nerve endings in the tongue are tied directly to the pelvic region. When students expressed confusion, the professor slyly responded, "Well, you tell me. Where do you feel it when someone French kisses you?" Ah, the French. How can we not summon adoration for a culture so committed to exquisite experiences of the palate? And the French, long since linked with amorous yearnings must certainly delight in such fanfare. Would you argue with someone's assumption that your geographic association enhances your sexual appeal? To that end, Albuquerque is now home to its first authentic brasserie. Having never been to France, I wasn't sure what partner and general manager Marc Maurin-Adam (who, not coincidentally, is from Provence) meant by this assertion of authenticity. His thickly accented explanation sounded similar to the definition given at the beginning of the article-relaxed setting, fresh and simple everyday French cuisine. "Someone is just as likely to come in for a cup of coffee and a croissant in the morning," he says, "as they are for a glass of red wine and a steak for dinner."
I didn't truly get it until my second time dining there with two girlfriends on a bustling Friday night for a birthday celebration. The gentlemen seated next to us had been in three times already that week (once for breakfast, twice for lunch), and a short while later we ran into the mother of one of my friends as she left the restaurant. Then I understood. Metaphorically, it's like the kitchen of the neighborhood-the place where everyone gravitates for warmth, gossip, a cup of coffee, to see what's cookin'-despite other fancier rooms in the house. The brasserie is the social hub of the neighborhood-affordable, with a vibrant, welcoming atmosphere.
Officially open for business since last October, Brasserie La Provence is a labor of love, with the emphasis on labor for Marc Maurin-Adam. "I did all the work myself-put in the floor, redid the woodwork, rebuilt the bar, painted everything." Anybody who'd ever been in when it was Stella Blue knows the place was, speaking euphemistically, in pretty rough shape. Now transformed, the décor is bright, simple ivory cotton and lace curtains, pictures of various provincial and Provencal scenes. Small café tables line one long bench to the right as you enter and past the mahogany bar, down the ramp, there is a wine cave and the back opens to another section of about twelve tables. You also pass the teeny, tiny kitchen where not so small Executive Chef Mark Curran resides. "It's a good thing Samantha (the sous chef) is a slight woman, because otherwise we'd have some problems," he tells me as I poke my head through the service window to check out the immaculate mise en place. The Brasserie is busy on the Thursday after New Year's, which in my recollection of the service industry is when most folks, tired from all the holiday festivities, stayed at home. Most tables turned at least once during the course of our meal. Already Curran is worried about the upcoming spring season and cooking for those inclined to either of La Provence's patio sections. He notes that he and Samantha are going to have to tighten up their routine given the patio space almost doubles the potential amount of covers.
Curran is a recent arrival from Vail, where he was the Executive Chef for four years at what he refers to as "a pulsating beast called Larkspur"- 250-plus seats, 100 waiters, five sous chefs. When Steve Paternoster, owner of Scalo, ate dinner there one night and came back to compliment the meal, he wound up offering Curran the executive chef position at La Provence. Eventually, the position extended to include Scalo, and most recently, Paternoster's other new acquisition-the St. Francis Hotel restaurant (formerly The Club and Artist's Pub). (Continued on page 28)
I scan the food menu-items such as Quiche Lorraine ($6), Sweet Crèpes ($6.50) for breakfast; lunch and dinner have the same offerings such as Salad Niçoise ($9.95), Moules Frites($9.75), Croque Madame($6.50). The Steak Frites is the most expensive item at $12.50. (To note: as all menu items, spare one, contain a meat of some stripe, it probably won't be a suitable vegetarian destination.) A well-bundled couple sits down next to us and the woman declares, "Well, here we are in France!" The predominately French wine list was put together by Michael Cooperman, Wine Director at Scalo, and offers inexpensive wines by the glass and bottle along with gratifying regional descriptions. We start with the Soupe a l'Oignon Gratinée and Soupe au Pistou to warm the cockles of our heart, paired with a Cremant d'Alsace Brut Blanc de Blanc, which my dining companion, new to sparkling wines, proclaims tastes like skin. If by skin he means slightly rich with green appley tartness and a clean finish, I concur. The soups turn out to be a gauge for the three courses to come straightforward, well-prepared, well-seasoned, well-portioned food. For example, the beef tenderloin is cooked perfectly medium rare (on the rare side, that is) the sauces, cognac-green peppercorn and Bordelaise, are distinct and appropriately spooned. The already good frites are made special by a bit of truffle oil, parmesan and chopped parsley. The Salade Niçoise is a shining star.
I am a girl who enjoys dessert, and I like it when portions have been as such that I can look forward to it rather than think, "I can't eat another bite!" This holds true for La Provence. I did want a dessert wine with our array of sweet splendor but to no avail. Luckily, there was another champagne available by the glass-Perrier-Jouet Grand Brut-delightful with Crème Brulée and the particularly fabulous Croustaillant au Chocolat.
This being the Valentine's issue and all, I must say it would be difficult to find a more suitable destination for the "L" word-whether that be with your love, lust, liaison, lifelong lusciousness.... The commercial hustle of Valentine's Day leads us to believe romance is dictated by the external-the redness and number of roses, the creaminess of the crème brulee, the skitterskat light from a willowy candle. You can dine with romantic intention at La Provence, and it would obligingly provide you and yours with a romantic experience. I daresay, though, that wise lovers know the true romantic eye is one that sees anew something familiar. Like perhaps a simple glass of Cremant which now has a sultry taste of skin. Put that on your tongue and tell me where you feel it.
Brasserie La Provence is located at 3001 Central Avenue NE in the heart of Albuquerque's Nob Hill area. Open for breakfast and lunch, 8am to 3pm Tuesday through Saturday and dinner from 5pm to 10pm (until 11pm on Friday and Saturday). Sunday Brunch beginning in early February. 505.254.7644.