Carla Meyer

Dining review: La Provence's aspirations exceed its kitchen's ability

Blair Anthony Robertson
Blair Anthony Robertson

The name of the restaurant is French: La Provence. The friendly greeting on the phone is in French: "Bonjour."

Much of the menu is French, with English translations that seem to be as much for the servers as they are for the customers.

The food? Not so good in any language.

Housed in an expansive room with an eye-catching fireplace, a cozy little bar, an appealing patio and plenty of tables inside and out, La Provence oozes countrified refinement. Still, it is a sad example of a restaurant that aspires to be one thing but fails to commit, overlooks too many details and has yet to master the fundamentals.

The result is a place that looks impressive but doesn't go beyond appearances to work as a decent restaurant experience – where the food is evocative and delicious, the service engaging and knowledgeable, and where the feel of the place says something meaningful about where it is and what it is.

The main dishes at La Provence range in price from $19 for the hanger steak with French fries to $33 for a 12-ounce New York strip with a chanterelle mushroom sauce. For the Sacramento dining scene, this is the big leagues with an abundance of heavy hitters.

Compared to my recent meals at other casual-to-upscale restaurants including The Waterboy, Grange, Lounge ON20 and Hawks, and my enduring memories of fine meals at Taste in Plymouth and Boulevard Bistro in Elk Grove, this Roseville destination restaurant is about as bad as it gets.

I can't think of a place that does less with more.

The only thing that impressed us was the wine. The list focuses on California and France, with plenty of reasonably priced bottles along with pricier options. The wine suggestions from our servers were less impressive, if not halfhearted. Fortunately, the house wines are a good bet – the Côtes du Rhone (red) and the Vouvray Savion (white), both $9 by the glass, elevated our hopes that the rest of dinner would be of similar caliber.

After two visits for dinner featuring basic meat and seafood dishes that were overcooked and underseasoned, a dessert that was nearly inedible and service that contained little to no charm, attentiveness or insights into the menu and wine list, we lowered our sights and tackled brunch.

Our thinking: Maybe Sunday mornings are the time to give this not-so-French joint a look-see.

The answer was clear before the plate of "galettes de pomme dulce" – sweet potato pancakes with maple butter – hit the table. They were plump but so raw and gooey in the middle that I began to wonder if "stomachache" sounded better en Français. The galettes smelled delicious. So did the toasted pecans. But the cooking was not even close.

Some of the assortment of breads placed on the table were simply stale. The miniature croissant was fresh, but that dreamy, buttery flakiness and rich, familiar flavor wasn't there. I've had better from Costco.

I love omelets. I love smoked salmon. I love the way the French make classic omelets, with a hot pan, a little bit of clarified butter and two forks held by a skilled artisan who tends to the pan until the eggs are fluffy and bright and tender.

I didn't find it here. In contrast to the galettes, my "omelette saumon fumé" was overcooked, then smothered in Hollandaise. The smoked salmon was as tough as jerky.

These kinds of clumsy shortcomings wouldn't pass muster even at middlebrow restaurants. The only thing consistent about La Provence is its persistent inconsistency. To send food like this out of the kitchen and into the dining room suggests three things: an absence of oversight, a lack of awareness of even minimal standards and little respect for the patrons.

Still, we persisted with brunch, recalling that not too far away in Granite Bay we had had a skillfully cooked brunch at Bistro La Petite France. We also wondered why nothing about the overall excellence of the nearby Hawks Restaurant seemed to sink in here.

Would our next dish be undercooked like the galettes or overcooked like our steak and fish from a week earlier? When the eggs Benedict arrived, we spotted our answer next to a small puddle of water on the plate. The egg whites were a watery, gooey, glop of gloom that no Hollandaise could resuscitate.

So, no, it's not a destination for brunch.

Dinner? It's hit or miss. The steak is fair. The risotto is edible, bordering on OK. So is the sea bass (served whole) if your preference is for doing all your own seasoning at the table. The braised lamb shank may have been the best meal we had, tender and and properly seasoned, suggesting that a modicum of patience and skill is somewhere to be found in the kitchen. I just know it won't be a lasting memory, like, say, the lamb at Boulevard Bistro.

For dessert, the crème brûlée was nicely done, with that appealing textural contrast of the creamy center and the crunchy outer layer. But the profiteroles were a nightmare at night's end – dry and tough, a cream-puff pastry that should not have been served to any paying customer.

I won't belabor the point. There are so many elevated dining experiences in the area these days that I wonder how La Provence thinks it will compete.

The room looks like something special. The greeting is friendly. The wine is more than worthwhile. After that, the only benefit here for discerning diners is to know that when they've eaten at La Provence, they have, indeed, hit bottom.


110 Diamond Creek, Roseville

(916) 789-2002

Hours: Lunch 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Tuesday to Saturday, dinner 4-9 p.m. Tuesday to Thursday, 4-10 p.m. Friday and Saturday, brunch 9:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. Sunday.

Full bar? Yes.

Vegetarian friendly? Yes.

Takeout? Yes.

Overall: 1 1/2 stars (subpar)

In the highly competitive category of casual to upscale fine dining, this restaurant has been pushed to the bottom tier thanks to cooking that is too often substandard, resulting in a dining experience that is lackluster and unrefined.

Food: 1 star (poor)

Rarely have we encountered cooking that is so inconsistent, ranging from decent to dismal.

Service: 1 1/2 stars (subpar)

Who would we get next time? Someone who understood the menu but didn't really care about being personable? Or someone who was cheerful but knew little about the basics of fine service?

Ambience: 3 stars (good)

Kudos to the builder and decorator. It looks and feels like an upscale French country restaurant nestled on a good piece of land in Roseville. Nice details, especially the high ceilings and exposed wood beams. Lovely patio, appealing fireplace.

Value: 1 1/2 stars (subpar)

Beyond the room and the nice values we found on the wine list, there's little to like about what you get for what you spend.