Sunday, July 20, 2008
Le Mistral has moved up by moving next door
Le Mistral is a Provençal restaurant in far West Houston. Chef David Denis's cuisine has made this one of my favorite restaurants for many years. Yet it had long been held back by its small, quaint space in a strip center.
Recently, the restaurant moved into a much larger new space next door. Now it looks and feels like a world-class restaurant. The new interior has high ceilings and dramatic modern design. Warm Mediterranean colors offset any coldness resulting from the modernism. The dining room has ten more dining tables, and the bar is much larger.
More importantly the kitchen is five times larger. Now Chef David Denis and his team have enough room and equipment that they make everything from scratch. The spotlessly white kitchen even includes a glassed-in room for a chef's table.
The new space dramatically improves Le Mistral's wine service. The cellar is much larger. Far more wine can be refrigerated. The wine list is expanding. And large groups can now dine in an enclosed wine cellar room.
This upgrade cements Le Mistral's place at the top of the Houston's food scene. With the space upgrade (and the departure of Philippe Schmitt from Bistro Moderne), Le Mistral is now unquestionably our best French restaurant. And it is making a run to be the best restaurant of any kind in Houston.
Food from the French border with Italy
Most of Chef Denis' dishes reflect the cuisine of his native Provence, which sits astride two of the world's best cuisines -- French and Italian.
Last night, we started with seared sea scallops over leeks "fettuccini" with a smoked salmon carbonara sauce. The large, fresh scallops explode with the salty taste of the sea. Below the scallops, delicately flavored leeks have been shredded into a pasta texture. The buttery carbonara sauce includes small bits of smoked salmon, which adds to the richness of the dish.
A large red ring on top of one scallop tasted like a potato chip, yet I was not sure whether it was made with a potato or some other vegetable.
My wife's long-time favorite dish at Le Mistral is much simpler. It is a salad of baby spinach leaves with goat cheese and carmelized pecans with a pear vinaigrette dressing. This photo does not to justice to the thickness of the huge ring of goat cheese that sits atop this dish. The disk is a study in contrasting flavors and textures -- creamy warm and pungent cheese, crunchy sweet nuts, fresh greens, and smooth and delicate pear dressing.
Our entree was rabbit stuffed with olive tapenade with gnocchi and a light tomato sauce. There was were some difference of opinion on this dish. The man at the table next to us thought his rabbit was dry and stringy. My wife remarked how tender, moist, and non-gamy our rabbit was. "Almost like chicken," she observed. I thought the truth was somewhere in between. And I am happy for rabbit to taste gamier than chicken.
My wife didn't like the gnocchi quite as much as the toasted pillows of gnocchi that Chef Denis created for the menu at Ristorante Cavour. She thought the texture of these gnocchi was a little two chewy. I disagreed. For this dish, I had the sense that Chef Denis was using tubes of gnocchi to emulate a root vegetable. I enjoyed the chewiness, and found the dish very creative. Yet I still believe that his gnocchi at Ristorante Cavour is the best pasta dish in town.
Finally, we split a dessert that has long been one of our favorites -- chocolate fondant with a Marie Brizard Cafe-infused vanilla shake. The center of this cake was not as liquid as usual. But I the ice cream had improved now that Le Mistral makes it in house. Throughout the ice cream were small, yet noticeable, black dots of vanilla bean.
Where can Le Mistral go from here?
Le Mistral is still getting used to its new space. There are far more restaurant staff, and they stumble over each other a bit as they work out their routines. But service already has improved as the result of the expansion. By fall, the restaurant to hopes to expand out to its courtyard patio. (They are waiting for a large fountain to be completed.)
The only improvement I could hope for is a little more seasonality and experimentation in the menu. Many dishes, including some of our favorites, have not changed much in years. In July, the menu is dominated by wintry dishes, from French onion soup to beef wellington to racks of lamb with mashed potatoes. Denis seems to use Ristorante Cavour more for his experimentation and seasonal dishes.
Yet I appreciate that Le Mistral must walk a line between culinary invention and pleasing its suburban crowd. For instance, a review on b4-u-eat by "Bubba" made this complaint:
"I ordered a cocktail, a salad, a steak and a glass of wine. Salad choice was limited to some sort of blueberry vinaigrette dressing . . . no ranch, blue cheese or …..?; the filet came out perched on top of a potato like a miniature tower swimming in some sort of blueberry syrup. Weird."
Sorry, Bubba, Le Mistral doesn't have ranch dressing. And its plating (do you know that word, Bubba?) is not weird. It is artistic and creative.
With its new space and huge crowds, Le Mistral is dragging its largely suburban audience into the forefront of French cuisine in Houston.