The Brits are especially fond of Provence, as anyone who’s read Peter Mayle’s A Year in Provence realizes. They have also colonized Tuscany and are closing in fast on Umbria. It’s likely, for that matter, that the entire Midi, generally that region along the Mediterranean stretching from the Italian to Spanish borders, is in their sights. We’d better hurry.
Considering the state of the economy, the reluctance of many pseudo-San Antonians to darken downtown, and our love-hate relationship with French food in general, it’s probably a good idea to get to Le Midi, the restaurant, quickly, too. Your efforts will be generously rewarded.
Le Midi is the courageous downtown offspring of Jean-Francois Poujol’s suburban Soleil Bistro and Wine Bar. It occupies the space of a shuttered sushi bar that always seemed closed due to opaque window coverings. This will not be a problem with Le Midi; at night, the view both in and out at the corner of Navarro and Houston is totally transparent, and diners can enjoy the passing parade outside the window. Yes, it’s fascinating. Then the food begins to arrive, and all attention is immediately focused on the table, beginning with soupe au pistou.
The difference between Le Midi’s version and the classic made with white beans, a medley of vegetables, and pesto, is duck. The soup is very ducky, in fact. The use of both duck stock and shredded meat tends to diminish the effect of the pesto, but the tradeoff is well worth it; the flavors are generous, the mode more Carcassonne than Cannes.
We liked the frisée with croutons, bacon, and poached egg on an earlier visit, so this time we tried a salad special: roasted beet with blue cheese, onion, and tea-smoked quail. Black tea gave the partially boned bird a sharply smoky taste that played beautifully against the earthy beets and cheese. Hope for this to come around again.
We then headed directly (and unapologetically) to the rillettes de porc. (Le Midi sometimes has a rabbit version on offer.) Je ne regrette rien. The pork, pulled and preserved in its own fat, was mellow and lush and there were numerous accompaniments — an onion confit, frisée, and two mustards among them — to compare and contrast. (The house paté, also worth a try, comes with pickled onions and Marsala-marinated prunes.)
Escargots Bordelaise, another frank departure from the land of Cezanne and Daudet, are also an appetizer option, but we would steer you instead in the more southerly direction of tuna tartare with a tarragon-inflected salad. From the Pays d’Oc, the heart of le Midi, came an accompanying wine, the breezy and fruity Les Fontanelles Rosé; the other, admittedly, was Château Freynell, a crisp Bordeaux blanc.
Then it was on to snapper a la tapenade, a dish that embodied everything we had been looking for: a black-olive crust, a light tomato confit, braised fennel, and an orange-anis sauce. Yes. The sauce was whisper-light, and all the parts played well with others. Completely different yet equally of the south was the sliced magret, or breast of duck, cooked with a variety of olives de Provence, a lusty garlic confit, and meaty mushrooms, and served with a lustrous pan sauce over silky, puréed potatoes. Perfect, medium-rare duck breast is delicious however it’s prepared, so there was no shame in again splitting the wine ticket: 2005 Domaine de la Ferrandiere Pays d’Oc Cabernet and 2006 Goudichaud Bordeaux Superieur — both maybe a little pushy for the poisson (the olive crust helped, however), but both great with the duck.
In retropspect, the caramelized lemon tart with honey-whipped cream sounds the most Mediterranean of the desserts. Also in hindsight, serving temperature would likely have been less of an issue — for that’s what torpedoed the tarte au pruneaux d’Agen: too cold. The prunes are baked in a custard matrix, and both it and the crust were simply too stiff — though the Marsala coulis did its best to liven things up.
A good selection of cheeses, none of which is especially region-appropriate, is also available, but by this time just let the congenial staff bring you an Armagnac from the bar and relax into the soundtrack you have been hearing all along: Piaf protégé Charles Aznavour. Unrepentant Francophile that I am, I just happened to have Aznavour in my car’s CD player, so I was able to keep the Gallic glow going all the way home. •