You find the new Bistro Provincia not in the ritzy part of Dana Point that has the luxe hotels, but rather off one of those side streets named after a lantern, next to a tiny neighborhood park that could function as Mayberry’s town square. There’s a quaint corner market on one end, a barber in the middle, and an Irish tavern on the other. And on this particular Saturday night, it’s so quiet it could’ve actually been Mayberry.
As you walk closer to the hostess podium, you notice you didn’t need the reservation you made a week ago. It’s 7 p.m., and the restaurant is barely half-full. But you tell the hostess your name anyway. As she chirps that she’s the one who answered your email to reserve a table, you realize she’s Veronica Diaz, half of the husband-and-wife team that owns the place.
Ms. Diaz leads you into the darkly lit restaurant and past a bar made up of large stones that evokes an underground wine cellar. On the wall, you see paintings with gauzy, Thomas Kinkade-esque scenes of Parisian cafés on cobblestone streets. As waiters in vest-and-tie combos flit about the room, a longhaired twentysomething plunks out a tune on an electric keyboard.
As you settle into your curlicue metal chair, your server arrives. He’s an energetic man in his late forties who is full of dad jokes.
“If you like my service, my name is Dana; if you don’t, my name is Kevin!” he says with wink.
You find him immediately charming. And when he mispronounces the “lumpia” he recommends as an appetizer, it’s so endearing you don’t have the heart to correct him. You order it anyway, knowing that it’s one of the dishes that makes Manny Diaz’s cooking “fusion.” At Bistro Provincia, you can have wok-sautéed rice noodles, chile relleno, duck confit and ravioli in the same sitting.
The lumpia are basically egg rolls. Chef Diaz halves the crispy, wrapped cylinders and serves them standing up in thick puddles of sauce that tastes like reduced Thai yellow curry. And although the menu advertises the lumpia as being filled with pulled Jidori chicken, you swear it’s crumbly ground beef.
When Dana comes back to ask how you liked them, you’re honest and say that they’re just okay. You admit you preferred the shrimp chile relleno appetizer. And it is better. Despite looking drab on the plate, this tomatillo-salsa-drenched lump of cheese-stuffed, deep-fried roasted poblano pepper is so bright on the palate it’s like eating sunshine.
Dana is pleased when you tell him, “I think I need a squeegee for the rest of this sauce!”
Soon, he brings out the soup of the day. You discover he’s split the serving into two cups, since there are two of you. You thank him for the gesture, and as it turns out, each half-cup is exactly the right portion for one person. The soup—a broccoli-and-coconut-curry blend—is perfect. It has just enough of the broccoli bits left whole so that it ends up resembling a less spicy version of moong dal, Indian lentil stew.
Later, when you move on to the entrées, Dana checks on you again. You tell him you’re enjoying the braised short rib Bordelaise better than the risotto. You don’t elaborate that you thought the risotto seemed more like a side dish. And you certainly don’t mention that you were already disappointed when you saw it served in an upright column from a ring-mold, which should disqualify it from being called a risotto. Plus, when you eat it, you find that it’s also bland and mushy and tastes mostly of the mashed butternut squash that makes up its bulk.
The braised short rib, on the other hand, you love. It’s the kind of beefy block that you tear off strand by strand and let melt in your mouth to savor the slow-cooked tenderness and the seeped-in flavors of red wine. The mac and cheese that Chef Diaz serves with the dish is also exemplary, with orecchiette subbing for macaroni and earthy roasted poblano chiles worked into the cheese sauce.
When he drops off the check, Dana takes the opportunity to repeat his earlier joke: “Remember, if you like the service, my name is Dana, but if you don’t, my name is Kevin!”
“Your name is Dana!” you exclaim.
After a pause, he slaps his knee and laughs so hard you realize that you, too, are capable of dad jokes.
Bistro Provincia, 34091 La Plaza, Dana Point, (949) 482-1011; bistroprovincia.com. Open Tues.-Thurs., 4-9 p.m.; Fri., 4-10 p.m.; Sat., 10 a.m.-2 p.m. & 5-10 p.m.; Sun., 10 a.m.-2 p.m. & 4-9 p.m. Entrées, $19-$40. Full bar.
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.