The focal point of Provenance, Cathy Pavlos' second restaurant, is the garden. If its raised planters and wall of potted herbs function akin to lobster tanks in a seafood joint, convincing customers what they're about to eat will be fresh, fresh, fresh, that's exactly the point. A section on the menu is dedicated to what you can actually order from it. Titled “What's In the Garden Now,” it's an impressive list of about a half-dozen elaborate side dishes that start with things invariably plucked from those plant beds. I saw more than one table order the taro root chips to munch on as a sort of appetizer with a side of avocado mash as its sort of guacamole. Never mind that taro usually takes about a year to mature and the restaurant opened barely a month ago. Let's just assume it was planned ahead.
You can, of course, order a salad. Provenance has exactly one: a clipped-lettuce plate that's kind of expensive at $10. But the salad is lovely—the kind that makes you appreciate lettuce not as filler or dressing delivery device, but as the main ingredient. The leaves, sculpted into a K2 of green, are dewy from a light misting of the vinaigrette, and when I ate it in concert with the roasted pecans, the separate Lincoln Log-like stack of candied butternut squash and the white asparagus, I succumbed to the power of suggestion and swore it actually does taste fresher, crisper, more vibrant.
It must be said that Provenance isn't the first, nor will it be the last, restaurant to have an on-site garden. David Slay's Il Garage, his Italian spinoff to Stanton's Park Ave., is built around a veritable farm; from where I sat, I could smell the manure and was buzzed by ladybugs. Even Rich Mead, who used to own Sage in the very spot where Provenance now stands, played with an on-site garden when he moved inland to open the now-defunct Canyon in Anaheim Hills.
But this is Eastbluff, after all, and Provenance and its garden seem a comfy fit to the leafy surroundings. Tucked away from the main thoroughfares, the neighborhood moves at a slower speed limit, and the worn-around-the-edges plaza that is its main shopping center seems immune to Fashion Island glitz. Provenance's customers seem to live nearby and skew to the Lawrence Welk generation—the parents and grandparents of those who power lunch at Fleming's or come out of Bloomingdale's with shopping bags by the armful. You get the feeling these folks are here because they like that Pavlos delivers a no-nonsense restaurant with metal chairs and mason jar mugs, as well as that her kitchen favors substance over style.
There's a rustic, braised veal short rib so rippled with fat I almost thought it was pork belly, the whole thing brown save for a fleck of fried basil. And the veal is still stuck to bone, covered in a slightly chunky demiglace with baby Yukon potatoes shaped like golf balls—a literal meat-and-potatoes dish you'd be wise to share with someone to spread the cholesterol and starch. Or, if you can afford it, there's a $93 Porterhouse for two that's carved off the bone, served with potatoes, drippings, and what Pavlos describes as “Grilled Veggies From the Garden” and “Sauces From the Kitchen.” Just as rustic is the apple pie dessert, which is actually a tarte tatin that your server will free from its cast-iron ramekin tableside, the confection billowing steamy cinnamon fumes and eaten hot with scoops of house-made Calvados ice cream I wished was sold by the bucket.
One of Provenance's best entrées is the New Zealand sole “on the Plancha,” and it's all about how fast it can be delivered from the broiler to your mouth. Served rocket-hot and with nothing more than a lemon wedge, a curl of crispy prosciutto, potatoes cooked against searing metal and spinach, it's easily one of best, most pleasurable fish dishes I've had all year. The white, lightly crusted fillet seems to defy the laws of thermodynamics; every forkful scalded, yet it was delicate and moist.
Equally excellent was the subtle, house-smoked trout, which was recently transferred from the entrées to the appetizer list because it's meant to be shared and eaten as though a dip with toast. What's most admirable about the dish isn't that it's splayed open, frosted with a lemon cream, and decorated as though it were cake with hearts of palm ribbons, roasted tomatoes, capers and artichokes, but that it comes with the head still attached—a startling presentation when you see it outside of a Chinese restaurant. But just as with the garden, Pavlos knows that, short of a trout pond, what better way is there to convince you her food is fresh, fresh, fresh?
Before becoming an award-winning restaurant critic for OC Weekly in 2007, Edwin Goei went by the alias “elmomonster” on his blog Monster Munching, in which he once wrote a whole review in haiku.