Main Course: Provenance

Back Bay’s seedling garden-to-kitchen restaurant has room to grow

Dodging distracted shoppers dashing into CVS and Ralphs, I locate the double farmhouse doors in the elbow of Eastbluff shopping center. Inside: Provenance, a bucolic world far from the madding suburban crowd. Bright blossoms, aromatic herbs, and greens of every hue burst from raised beds and wall planters that surround the patio.

Chef-owner-dreamer Cathy Pavlos brings fertile ground to the fallow venue once occupied by Sage Restaurant. The granddaughter of an a O.C. farmer, she relives her farm-to-fork childhood here, dialed up with a tricked-out kitchen and bar, a bespoke 1,300-square-foot garden, and seats for 90 diners.

Open since March, Provenance is an ambitious concept that, even now, is just beyond the seedling stage. Dishes often are assembled with just-clipped lettuces and site-grown squash blossoms, from beds that require constant fine-tuning.

Enter Kathryn Agresto of Santa Ana-based Native Soil Gardens, Provenance’s garden mastermind. Agresto’s work also is harvested at Park Ave in Stanton, and Studio at Montage Laguna Beach. At Provenance, she nurtures organic produce that ripens mere steps from the rinse basin. The garden plays such a key role that few diners ask to sit inside. Everyone wants a patio seat under the slatted red cedar eaves, where the scent of flourishing plants mixes with the faint breeze off the Back Bay.

Heeding the seasons means an ever-changing menu. I never saw the same carte twice in a month, except for a few favorites. Take the heirloom tomato salad with silky Di Stefano burrata, sure to stay as long as vines keep pumping out luscious fruit. Bits of red onion, torn basil, and kalamata olives, plus dribbles of green goddess dressing and syrupy balsamic reduction all complement, but also distract from the simplicity of this classic. Delicate tempura-fried zucchini blossoms stand up well to their herby ricotta filling. A scanty trickle of bright tomato coulis is a tease. Newport Wedge is a hearty salad with seductive ingredients, only to arrive so composed it must be eaten by its parts: spicy shrimp, crispy shallots, applewood bacon, shaved fennel, crumbled Gorgonzola, Little Gem lettuces, and scant buttermilk ranch dressing. This bodacious salad needs a huge bowl, sharp knife, more dressing, and a quick toss to reach its full yum quotient.

On each menu is a short vegetable-centric list titled “What’s in Season Now.” These eat like upgraded sides: grilled asparagus with pancetta; slow-cooked egg and horseradish-miso butter; roasted cauliflower with smoked mozzarella; baked artichokes with fava beans, herbs, and lemon. They get lost on the carte, and priced at $8 or so, don’t pair easily with the other dishes. Some menu engineering and more thoughtful pricing would ensure the darlings get star billing, and that diners readily sample them.

If you sidestep the salads, lunch here can be substantial. Spiced duck breast on buttery brioche toast spread with fig-and-date jam makes a crazy-rich, indulgent sandwich you won’t find anywhere else. Yet, I somehow found room to swipe a few (OK, several) bites of my tablemate’s ravishing turkey meatloaf sandwich. Yes, I wrote “ravishing” beside “turkey.” Juicy with vegetables and not a bit dry, the slab of meatloaf nestles next to Fiscalini cheddar, freshly sizzled bacon rashers, and a smear of aioli. Agrodolce cipollini onions, tomato relish, and sweet pepper jelly don’t get lost on OC Baking’s ciabatta roll. The house burger, with its secret grind of hand-cut beef and cloak of nutty Gruyere, is a handsome affair and as good as any $18 burger out there.

The dinner menu is thick with choices. Succulent Jidori chicken is pan-roasted with thyme, served with edamame, young carrots, blistered tomatoes, and garlic-chive-citrus butter. Certified Angus Beef rib-eye is just 6 ounces, the better to enjoy the accompanying hand-cut fries, sauteed wild mushrooms, broiled cherry tomatoes, crispy shallots, and three-mustard bearnaise. Kurobuta pork chop is cooked sous vide, glazed with molasses peri peri sauce, and accompanied by jalapeno mascarpone polenta and salsa verde. Roasted New Zealand lamb half-rack may be the menu’s simplest plate—it’s skillfully roasted, and served beside citrus asparagus risotto and a swirl of cilantro-macadamia pesto.

Lots of plancha-seared New Zealand sole leaves the kitchen, hinting this is a seafood-hungry neighborhood. But this mild fish is a tad boring, and too shy on the tasty yuzu-infused brown-butter sauce. My favorite is the whiskey-and-brown-sugar-cured wild salmon gravlax in a splendid Benedict with dilled Hollandaise and fried capers. It’s offered during Sunday’s “farm breakfast,” where I also enjoyed the best breakfast taco of the year, built with green chile-roasted Snake River Farms carnitas, scrambled eggs from cage-free hens, feta, pepitas, and radishes, all wrapped in a soft flour tortilla.

Consulting chef Edouard Vicqueneau is the ice cream artisan behind the memorable apple pie baked in cast iron and topped with Calvados ice cream, and goat’s milk mousse cake with peanut butter ice cream.

As Provenance nears its first autumn harvest, the inspiring shop still has a long way to grow. Menus need editing. Indoor tables could use some swagger. And we’re still eagerly awaiting the launch of chef’s- table feasts, served in the energetic kitchen. But every season brings something new, and this is the genius behind Newport’s “little farm kitchen that could.” By design, it will never stop growing.

Best Dishes
Tempura-fried squash blossoms, roasted cauliflower, or whatever appeals on the “What’s in Season Now” list; turkey meatloaf sandwich, house burger, Kurobuta pork chop, New Zealand lamb rack, house-cured gravlax Benedict, breakfast tacos, apple pie, goat’s milk mousse cake.

Price Range
Lunch, $5 to $17; dinner, $8 to $42; dessert, $5 to $17; Sunday breakfast, $8 to $17.

Good News
Free corkage. Happy hour, 2:30 to 6 weekdays throughout the restaurant.

Wine Dudes! What did our experts think of the Provenance wine program? Click here to find out.

Photograph by Priscilla Iezzi
This article originally appeared in the September 2014 issue.

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