By Kaitlin Steinberg
By Minh T Truong
By Molly Dunn
By Brooke Viggiano
By Kaitlin Steinberg
By Molly Dunn
By Molly Dunn
By Eating Our Words
Our entrées are finished, and I still have a little wine left. We're drinking a bottle of Paul Jaboulet's Crozes Hermitage, a sturdy red wine from the Northern Rhône. It's one of the very few interesting choices on the short wine list at Le Mistral, the new strip-center French restaurant out on Eldridge Parkway. I ask the waiter, a Oaxacan by the name of Victor, if there is any cheese available. Victor looks at me like I'm crazy and hands me the dessert menu. There is no cheese course, but there is crème brûlée. There is also Irish coffee, Keoke coffee and a special after-dinner drink called a Nutty Frenchman made with Armagnac, Bailey's Irish Cream and Frangelica. Welcome to French cuisine in les suburbs.
The restaurant's name comes from an infamous wind that blows across Provence. Le mistral comes from the north and typically lasts for three days at a time, occasionally reaching gale force. "When the mistral blows, it sets most people on edge or gives them migraines, maybe due to lack of sleep, caused by the howling noise it makes gusting up to 120 kilometers an hour on a Provençal tiled roof," writes sailing correspondent Michele Tommasi.
An unpleasant force of nature may seem like an odd name for a restaurant. But as fierce as le mistral may be, it also is much romanticized, especially by tourists, which makes the name unintentionally apt. The restaurant serves a romanticized version of French cuisine. Perhaps David Denis, the French chef who started the place, was eager to teach his customers about the wonders of real French cuisine -- and ended up heartbroken at the compromises he had to make. Or maybe the "nutty Frenchman" approach was what he had in mind all along.
1400 Eldridge Parkway
Houston, TX 77077
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Duck confit bruschetta: $7.95
Foie gras: $12.95
Soupe de poisson: $7.95
House salad: $5.95
Cassolette de poulet: $13.95
Sea bass: $18.95
Beef tenderloin with mushrooms: $23.95
Rack of lamb: $22.95
Paul Jaboulet Crozes Hermitage: $37
Christian Moreau Chablis: $35
The restaurant's walls are sponge-painted in a terra-cotta hue to create a faux rural plaster look. There are amateurish paintings of landscapes and rusty farm implements hanging here and there. Tonight the patrons are all white, mostly over 60, and dressed devil-may-care casual: ribbed turtlenecks, blazers without ties, freshly coiffed gray hair. These are probably adventurous eaters, as suburbanites go, but not a crowd that clamors for strong fromage.
Escargots, foie gras and coquilles St. Jacques are the clichés on the appetizer menu. Unfortunately, you can't even count on these safe old standbys. The escargots, baked in butter and garlic and covered in green herbs, are completely lacking in salt. You can position the shaker over one of them for as long as you like, but you can't get the salt to penetrate the cooked snail.
The sautéed foie gras has a sweetness problem. It's served with minced apples, shallots and currants reduced in port wine. Fruit is one of my favorite accompaniments to sautéed foie gras, but you need a fruit with some acidity to cut through the fat. I've had sautéed grapes, grilled pineapple and many others, and I liked them all. But the apple, currant and shallot mixture served here tastes like mincemeat pie filling, and overwhelms the tiny portion of liver.
A sweet topping of blueberry preserves works well in another appetizer, the duck confit bruschetta. This is the most unexpected appetizer on the menu and by far the best I tried. It's the kind of lovable half-French, half-Italian mutt that you often find along the French-Italian border. Bruschetta is, of course, the Italian appetizer of toasted bread slices with toppings. Here the topping is a duck confit, the French conserve made by stewing a leg quarter and sealing it in a crock with duck fat. The duck has a hearty poultry aroma and a wonderfully funky dark meat taste. The confit and blueberry preserve-topped toast slices are served on a bed of mixed greens. The crunchy bread, bitter greens, rich duck meat and sweet blueberry make a startling combination. Like many of France's great rural dishes, this is an exciting blend of strong, simple flavors. And it goes splendidly with the brash berry taste of the Syrah-based Crozes Hermitage.
But as much as I like the appetizer, it brings up another problem with Le Mistral's menu. I asked for a simple mixed salad. What I got were greens topped with blueberry balsamic dressing. I like blueberries, but this is too much of a good thing. I went back to the menu to look for an alternative. There are several entrée-sized salads topped with chicken breasts, potatoes and bacon, and so forth. But the only simple dinner salad on the menu comes with blueberry dressing. This seems a little strange. Was Sysco having a sale on blueberries or what?
A soupe de poisson, or fish soup, is served with croutons and rouille. The pungent saffron-flavored fish broth is well thickened and hearty. It reminds me of the egg yolk-thickened fish soup from the South of France called bourride. It is a custom to float slices of toast topped with rouille (red-pepper mayonnaise) in your bourride, and we enjoyed that traditional routine here. But on another visit, I sampled Le Mistral's bouillabaisse. It, too, was served with slices of toast and rouille. In fact, it tasted like the same soup with some pieces of fish, shrimp and scallops added. All fish soups do not have to taste the same.