French for Beginners
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 asle 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.
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.
Our two entrées, a rack of lamb and a grilled beef tenderloin, were brought to the table at the same time. The lamb was rosy, perfectly roasted and spectacularly presented with the bones of the chops intertwined. But the beef tenderloin with pesto butter and crispy wild mushrooms was a disappointment. The meat was squishy, and the domestic mushrooms were neither crispy nor wild. Both meat courses were served with a mélange of roasted potatoes, green beans and snow peas.
The potatoes tasted like they were roasted a long time ago and reheated recently. But it was the redundancy thing that really bothered me. There's nothing unusual about seeing the same soup bases, salad dressings and side orders used in several dishes in economy-minded American restaurants. But this one-size-fits-all approach to dining seems very un-French. Vegetables are so carefully paired with proper accompaniments in France, I think this practice of dumping the same potato-veggie mix on every plate would be against Napoleonic law. And I'm nearly certain that serving blueberries in two consecutive courses would warrant corporal punishment. But alas, Eldridge Parkway is a long way from France.
Along with the bouillabaisse, I sampled grilled sea bass and cassolette de poulet on my second visit to Le Mistral. A cassolette is an individual-sized baking dish, and poulet means chicken -- so when you cut to the chase, you're talking good old-fashioned chicken potpie. The beautifully decorated high-rise pastry crust is much fancier than the one that comes on the Swanson's frozen version, but the seasonings in the cream sauce inside aren't much more exciting. It's intriguing that the potpie is served with a side of rice pilaf, which you're supposed to stir into the sauce, but the rice doesn't help the blandness. The chicken potpie at the Daily Review Cafe is miles ahead of this one.
The grilled sea bass is moist and cooked just right. But the sauce causes a long debate on the subject of whether olives and tarragon are a good combination. The friend who ordered the dish thinks not, and he points out that the menu says that the fish is served with fresh-braised fennel and a white wine olive sauce. He calls the waiter over to identify the green leaves on his plate. The waiter says it is indeed tarragon. I think this is a silly debate, since tarragon and fennel both taste like licorice, but then again I can't say I'm wild about licorice and olives with fish either. But we can't really judge the aroma of the dish because the chef has stuck a gratuitous sprig of rosemary upright in the middle of the food. So now the dish smells like licorice, olives, Christmas trees and fish.
I started the meal with the salt-free escargots, and a friend got a bowl of vegetable soup. The soup was a hearty sort of lentil and onion potage that tasted lovely on a cold winter night. An inexpensive Christian Moreau Chablis was our choice of wine. Tasting a French Chablis is a good way to remind yourself of how wide a range of flavors the chardonnay grape really has. Chablis is north of Burgundy, so the grapes grown there don't have a chance to ripen fully. The wine is so acidic, it makes you pucker. And while the stark, lemony flavors aren't that great when you drink the wine alone, they are wonderful with food, especially with fish in rich sauces. The Chablis was one of two interesting white wines on the list. The rest were remarkably boring.
The Chablis and my bouillabaisse make a splendid dinner, even though I've already been there and done that with the rouille croutons. There is lots of fish in the soup, and the scallops are especially plump and flavorful when I fish them out of the saffrony fish broth. A crisp green salad with something besides blueberry dressing might have been nice, but you can't have everything.
If I lived off the Eldridge Parkway exit, I'd probably go hang out at Le Mistral all the time. Compared to many of the other restaurants in that neighborhood, the place is pretty damn exciting. But for those of us who don't live that far out, Le Mistral holds little appeal. There are some terrific dishes and some decent wines to be had here. But it's an awfully long drive for what amounts to a French restaurant on training wheels.
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