Once upon a time, Boston had small plates. Then came upscale regional Italian, the “urban brasseries,” the hyper-local and seasonal menus, and then what feels like an interminable flood of comfort food.
And then, finally, a new trend starts to emerge from the sea of mac and cheese: Judging by this winter’s additions to the restaurant scene, it seems Provençal cuisine might be the city’s next big thing. Bistro du Midi, which opened last month in the tony Heritage on the Garden building, is named for the Midi region in southern France, and chef Robert Sisca plays up the seafood, fresh herbs, olives, and vegetables signature to the area’s cuisine. After a lovely dinner of pan-fried halibut with chickpeas and golden raisins capped off with a dessert of rosé-poached pears, we thought, yes. After months of eating pork belly and braised short ribs, this light, fresh stuff is just what we need.
Then we got wind that Barbara Lynch’s new Fort Point fine-dining restaurant is named for a city on the French-Italian border, Menton, and that it will have a strong Provençal bent. (She’s currently aiming for a February opening.) And in March, two of Ken Oringer’s team members, chef Chris Chung and GM Christian Touche of Clio and Uni, will be leaving their posts to open Aka Bistro, a combination Provençal bistro and Japanese sashimi bar in Lincoln.
Why all the sudden interest in Provence? It may just be coincidence, as Lynch has always combined French and Italian techniques and flavors, and a Provençal-themed restaurant is a natural way to marry the two cuisines. Touche says Aka’s menu will be based on the stuff he grew up eating in southern France. “I didn’t pay too much attention to trends,” he said by phone yesterday. “I grew up with this cuisine, so it came easy to me. The recipes come from my great-grandmother, via my mother,” he says. Aka’s dining room will emphasize southern French dishes like daube of beef, bouillabaisse, and classic desserts like crème brulée and île flottante, along with some bistro favorites like steak frites and frisée au lardons thrown in. (A separate upscale sushi bar will focus on Chung’s upscale sashimi offerings.)
Still, Touche admits that in this economy—and given our current obsession with comfort fare—the timing just might be right for Provençal cuisine. “People think of ‘French’ food and they think it’s heavy, rich, and expensive,” he says. “Provençal,” on the other hand, can have many meanings, including French-Italian fusion, rustic-style preparations, or just a restaurant with a more approachable price point and mood. “Provence represents a lot of things,” he says, “like sun, vacation, and warmth.”
Which is something we could all use right about now.