No visitor to Provence can forget the bright red tomatoes, pungent olive oil, creamy goat cheese, lustrous purple wines, or herbs that flourish hedge-like along the roads and on every fallow patch of land. The light and fresh cuisine built on these raw materials stands in sharp contrast to the heavier food found elsewhere in France, and to eat there once is to want to eat there always. But returning to New York, you discover that none of our French bistros or restaurants can quite satisfy that craving, even though you don’t have to look very far to find soupe au pistou, ratatouille, salade Niçoise, and—heaven help us—bouillabaisse.
Now Fada jumps into the breech, a new Williamsburg haunt that skews the food in a Provençal direction, in addition to mounting such bistro standards as salade frisee avec lardons, coq au vin, soupe à l’oignon, and a great steak frites ($15), deploying a thin sirloin hash-marked from the grill and sided with enough gleaming fries to share around the table. The decor is refreshingly simple—a few prints and a street sign or two—in contrast to the New York habit of plastering bistros with kitsch to distract you from the mediocre food. At Fada (“crazy” in the Provençal dialect), clouds of cigarette smoke rising over the dim dining room coupled with the pungent smell of garlic and herbs make it possible to imagine yourself in a roughneck café on the Marseilles waterfront.
You might want to begin your meal in the French style with an aperitif of anisey Pastis ($4) diluted to milky whiteness with a splash of water, or Lillet, a commingling of herbs and dry white wine that primes the palate with its bitter edge. Named after the bustling city of Nice, which boasts one of the finest greenmarkets in France, salade Niçoise ($11) makes a fine shared appetizer for two. This mound of mesclun, potatoes, sliced egg, and seared fresh tuna is dressed with a mustard vinaigrette of just the right consistency. Even more impressive is a calamari salad ($6) of soft rings coated with tapenade and piled high on a pavement of potatoes, with the pooled olive oil serving as an additional appetizer once bread is applied.
Were it summer, you’d probably choose aioli garni ($14) as your main course, an assortment of perfectly cooked vegetables, a handful of snails, two big lumps of boiled cod, and a limpid cloud of aioli, the intense garlic mayonnaise that purists insist must be beaten by hand (“Not garlicky enough,” one friend snorted). But since winter is upon us, cassoulet ($15) is more in order, a crock-baked floe of white beans flavored with sausage and a leg-thigh quarter of duck confit. Nothing better to wash it down than a bottle of Fitou ($25), a red wine of the Midi little known outside France, with a big flavor reminiscent of much pricier Italian barbaresco. Summer, I’d go for the Côte de Provence rose, whose pink lightness accords well with the vegetable-intensive menu.
Finally, there’s bouillabaisse. Offering it Tuesday night ($28), Fada is one of the rare stateside places that serves this tour de force correctly: a first course of deliciously dense Pernod-laced soup sided with rouille-smeared croutons (put the croutons into the soup, and eat them as they disintegrate), followed by a generous plate of seafood that contributed to the broth—squid, mussels, baby clams, and various hunks of white-fleshed fish. This delicious serial bouillabaisse doesn’t quite match the Marseilles original. But nothing does, and it’s lots cheaper than a plane ticket.