Helen Schwab

Aix en Provence: A little more than French

Mild onion soup.
Mild onion soup. HELEN SCHWAB

The food: Let’s do this first, so the nervous don’t stumble and sticklers don’t lose their minds: It’s pronounced “eks awhn proh-vawhns” – as long as you say the “awhn” as if you’re saying “long” without the l and g. (And yes, its namesake, a pricy little university town in southern France, is hyphenated. This is not.) And while we’re getting down the details: The emphasis here is on the Mediterranean, not just France, culinarily speaking.

So in addition to classics like cassoulet and onion soup, you’ll find tagliatelle, and sardines with pimenton, and tagines, from Italy, and Spain, and northern Africa. The menu is short and simple at present, with an off-menu item or two, such as the charcuterie plate offered on our visit: housemade chicken liver mousse, prosciutto di Parma with radish and chile oil, saucisson sec (a French dry-cured sausage) and what a chalkboard called Iberico loin of pork: Pretty and generous.

Cassoulet (a dish once described by Serious Eats as “Southern French Beanee-Weenees”!) arrives here arranged rather than dished up: duck leg confit carefully topped with breadcrumbs (rather than the crumbs having settled into a big crusty topping) and more lardons than beautifully textured beans. You might assume from that presentation that the place is shooting for more upscale than bistro, but staffers told us (twice!) the cassoulet had won second place in a South End chili cookoff. So the tone is evolving. Rabbit chasseur (half a rabbit, so you get ribs, loin, leg, with sunchokes in the mix); monkfish with farro; and steak frites done with bavette (flap, like skirt) are among other options.

Co-owner Patrick Garrivier, whose parents had a little house in Aix-en-Provence, says “I call this good peasant food: The stuff I grew up on.” Look for the addition of bouillabaisse this weekend, and in future a monkfish Basquaise, and “we may dip into Greek area later on.” Chef is Nicholas Tarnate, who’s been at Wooden Vine and Lumiere.

The decor: Depictions of sunflowers evoke Provence, but the rest of the interior tends to the neutral (no yellow/blue inundation here): creamy walls, wood furniture, some framed scenes, candlelight and glowing bulbs. Tables are a bit tight for easy movement, but on our visit, several diners worked their way around the small room greeting friends, and didn’t seem to mind.

The service: Quiet and competent, ours was attentive, too. We listened as another helped a table through wine selection (and graciously removed the water glass into which a diner had dumped the wine she didn’t care for). The management experience of co-owners Garrivier (most recently at Lumiere, which he thinks of as more high end) and Bryan St. Clair (Rooster’s) shows most here.

The details: Dinner Monday-Saturday; first plates about $9-$17, mains $18-$32; 545 Providence Road; 704-332-1886; www.aixenprovenceclt.com/.

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