My New Year’s resolution was to divorce my French lovers: le buerre, baguette, and beouf (butter, bread, and beef), but by mid-March, I found myself craving the taste of all things Parisian. Sacrebleu!!!
So, when I was walking along Smith Street — a long-established Italian-American neighborhood in Carroll Gardens — and noticed a bright yellow awning announcing Provence-en-boite, I couldn’t help myself. Like a love-sick puppy, I ventured in.
It was like bumping into an ex-lover, totally unexpected and surprising. The space was inviting, intimate, and felt like an authentic French bistro, with all the trappings of bakery and booze. The shelves were lined with magnums of Champagne, Pernod Ricard bottles, and the display case was filled with mouthwatering selections of cakes and croissants. A corner stand was filled with an interesting potpourri of small articles for sale; kitchenware, candy, herbs, and coloring books — all things that would make expats nostalgic for La France.
While I perused the menu trying to choose between the sumptuous croque monsieur and the delicate crêpes Florentine, I heard a sweet voice behind me.
“Bonjour maman. J’ai faim. Qu’est-ce que je peux manger?” It belonged to the owner’s teenage son, a smaller version of the hunky French footballer, Zidane, obviously returning from a game of his own; his red T-shirt grubby, his brown blond hair tussled, politely addressing his mother.
The restaurant was starting to fill up with locals. Some ordered coffee in French, greeting the chef and his wife with two kisses. They seemed like regulars, many very familiar with the menu and the family. Soon Jean-Jacques Bernat, the chef-owner walked over to me and we started to chat. His wife joined us and so did their son. In French fashion, lunch took almost two-hours and covered politics, the neighborhood, food, Bastille Day celebrations, and of course, real estate.
We could have been in Paris, except we were in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn.
Carroll Gardens was settled by Irish Americans around the 1800s. In 1846, Richard Butt created the concept of designing “front gardens” for the brownstones and set the houses back 30-40 feet to give the feeling of a large front garden — quite unusual for Brooklyn homes back then.
Today, the Carroll Gardens Historic District extends from President Street to the north, Third Place to the south, Hoyt Street to the east and Smith Street to the west, and to this day, still showcases a fine collection of brownstones. In its most recent ethnic succession, the neighborhood has seen a wave of French immigration which probably accounts for the largest Bastille Day block party in New York, spearheaded by the many French expats living in the area.
In 2005, when P.S. 58 started offering a dual language program, many of them relocated to Carroll Gardens chasing every immigrant parent’s dream — to make their children bilingual. So it isn’t surprising that with the appeal of the beautiful brownstones and tree-lined streets, the small stores and boutiques, and the romantic cafes like Bar Tabac and Marquet Patisserie, that the neighborhood has become home to about 20,000 French New Yorkers.
Every July 14th, the French and their New York friends don their red, whites, and blues and join in the festivities that includes too much cheese, plenty of pastis and an 80-team pétanque (very similar to bocce) tournament on a giant sand filled court.
For the rest of us, quelle chance! A Paris state of mind is just a metro ticket ride away!