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Le Provençal

Considering that restaurants featuring the cuisine of the Provence region of France are so rare in Las Vegas as to be nearly nonexistent — as in, one, and only one — why would a Strip resort include one among its offerings?

Well, numerous reasons spring to mind, but the smart money says that this was a way for those who opened Paris Las Vegas to slip in the Italian restaurant that’s de rigeur (along with a steakhouse) for resorts in this city, where — as across the country — steakhouses and Italian restaurants are the two leading dining-out genres.

Actually, it strikes me as a stroke of genius. (And let’s hope Harrah’s doesn’t screw it up, as they did the nearly adjacent Napoleon’s cigar bar when they converted it from a jazz to a … yawn … dueling-piano format. But I digress.)

Provence is the sun-blessed province on the Mediterranean coast that borders Italy, so it follows that Provençal food would border on Italian, and vice versa. Thus Le Provençal allowed the builders to perpetuate their theme, have that Italian element and — in what is only a bonus for the guest — actually introduce some of the flavors of Provence.

But enough history and geography; let’s get to the food. As might be expected, Le Provençal’s menu leans rather heavily to the more user-friendly traditional Italian side, but there’s enough variety here to keep things interesting. Stuffed clams nicoise ($11) honors the theme (Nice being in Provence) by introducing traditional nicoise flavors of tomatoes, black olives and garlic to tiny, oh-so-delicate littlenecks. The nicoise elements were introduced by way of a crumb topping on the clams, and there was rather a lot of it, but we still hold this dish in fond regard because the clams has been cooked so perfectly and were just as sweet and lovely as a good fresh clam should be.

We thought the bruschetta ($9) would be rather pedestrian — it is, after all, being done everywhere short of fast-food joints and maybe in a few of those — but in this rendition, Le Provençal elevated something that could be quite mundane. Again, the spirit of Provence was honored, but this time with a huge pile of lightly dressed, crisp mesclun heaped atop the hard-crusted crostini topped with goat cheese and a tapenade of sun-dried tomatoes.

This starter was so generous, in fact, and so possessed of a wealth of varied, balanced flavors and textures that it could’ve served quite nicely as a light meal. And here I’ll point out, in case you didn’t notice, Le Provençal’s prices, which by Strip standards really are quite reasonable.

Consider, for example, our entree of open lobster ravioli ($14). The concept of open ravioli is a tempting target — aren’t ravioli by definition closed? — but the dish transcended my initial skepticism. Two largish discs of al dente pasta sandwiched a filling of fennel and carrots and mascarpone cheese and, yes, lobster — even a few largish chunks — and made for quite a satisfying dish.

A little more uptown was the grilled veal T-bone ($26, and I had to double-check the price on that one) which was moist and flavorful, with a mushroom ragout and a lentil "sauce" that was likewise more of a ragout (but that’s a good thing) and some deftly browned potatoes.

Dessert? On the way in, we’d noted the buttery aroma emanating from the crepe station near the front of the restaurant, so crepes suzette ($8) it would be — as buttery as we expected, delicate and lovely, with large sections of firm oranges.

So I was going to suggest Le Provençal as a good before-or-after show-or-concert spot for locals (and savvy visitors) weary of overpriced Strip restaurants that haven’t earned their hype, but here’s something else: There’s a sort of show included with dinner. Our server and two of her colleagues got up twice during our dinner to sing their little hearts out, operatic-style (although the music was less classical than the style). It was something we had loved at the old Stefano’s at the Golden Nugget (which a subsequent owner screwed up) and we found it as delightful here as there.

So much so that we didn’t even mind when our waitress didn’t return to refill our glasses with our Valpolicella Classico Superiore Ripassa, Zenato ($42), a Venetian (Adriatic, not Mediterranean) wine we chose from a fairly interesting list.

No matter. Le Provençal, like its sister Le Village Buffet, is among the underhyped high spots on the Las Vegas dining map.

I just hope Harrah’s doesn’t screw it up.

Las Vegas Review-Journal reviews are done anonymously at Review-Journal expense. Contact Heidi Knapp Rinella at 383-0474 or e-mail her at hrinella@ reviewjournal.com.