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Madame gasped, pursed her lips, dashed over to the reservation chart and, with a sigh of resignation, motioned us over to a slightly better two-top in the center of the room. She cast the evil eye in my direction until, halfway through the meal, she saw that I was jotting notes into a little pad. Suddenly she became, as they say in English, my best friend.
Our waitress was the hostess' exact opposite: chatty and convivial from the minute she set down a basket of crusty, warm bread and a china ramekin of butter. The bread was lovely on its own or spread with a thick chunk of the pâté maison, a savory and surprisingly rich terrine of beef, lean pork and chicken liver that's elegant in its simplicity ("and very much in the style of Brittany," Quillec admits).
That was the dinner where I spooned up every last drop from a steaming crock of onion soup, its sweet caramelized onions in a lusty dark broth hidden under a thick blanket of bread and melted Gruyère. My friend Bob was just as enthralled with his salad of spicy arugula, crunchy walnuts, pungent Roquefort and roasted peppers splashed with a citrus vinaigrette. In fact, he loved the creamy blue cheese so passionately that he had it again for dinner, ordering a grilled filet that arrived tender and sizzling under an intoxicating sheath of melted Roquefort and butter.
Those dishes may have been perfect, but Quillec has been tinkering with the roast duck since the restaurant opened. At first he served it with a piquant nicoise olive sauce -- I loved it, but the restaurant's most frequent patrons (over-fifty, well-off, WASPy) found it a shade too salty. Now the crispy slices of duck are draped in a slightly sweet raspberry vinegar sauce; alas, Quillec says that's going away, too.
On another visit, with Bob and Carol along, we got a better table (Madame wasn't working that night), a less chatty but highly attentive server and enough slices of bread for dipping into the garlic butter sauce that had already drowned five meaty snails. Before we could get too full, our server whisked away the tray and replaced it with salads for Bob and Carol and, for me, an intensely flavored lobster bisque splashed with Armagnac and thinned with cream. The soup had been made from the heads and hulls of lobsters, cooked into a lush stock with brandy until it was the color of melted butterscotch, then served with croutons.
For dinner, Bob chose an appetizer: that pile of minced beef tenderloin mixed with shallots, capers and onion known as steak tartare. He hoarded every bit for himself. I was equally greedy with my coq au vin, a succulent chicken breast slathered in a russet-colored sauce made from red wine, butter and a smoky stock flavored with bacon. (The dish is native to Burgundy, not Provence.) And the garlic-phobic Carol found refuge in a poached salmon draped in a buttery sorrel sauce.
It was all heavenly, but not as transcendent as the desserts, which came in a vast assortment for such a small restaurant. I saluted the flaky profiteroles, filled with ice cream and slathered in bittersweet chocolate, and the silken dish of crème brûlée. But Café Provence's freshly made sorbet is the answer to all the world's problems. One night it was coconut, brought out in five little scoops surrounded by lots of fresh raspberries and blueberries. It was a sweet way to be patriotic and to celebrate Kansas City's French heritage at the same time.