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Mistral Meal -- Fantastic (long review)

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Mistral Meal -- Fantastic (long review)

Wilson | Dec 20, 2003 12:22 PM

They have three choices, the chef's tasting menu (7 courses), the market menu (5 courses) and the "Mistral Experience," 8 courses. We each had the "experience," with the wine accompaniment -- five different wines. We also had champagne before the meal and I had a glass of port with dessert.

Highlights were the lobster amuse bouche, the parsnip soup, the Alaskan ling cod and the lamb. The flavors were out of this world, and they were perfectly matched with the wines. The soup came with Mason sauvignon blanc from California. It was a unique wine, so different than the usual sloppiness that all too often characterizes that variety when made by California wineries.

The cod came with Forman chardonnay, which has instantly become my favorite chardonnay, displacing my long-standing favorite, Kistler, from the top chardonnay spot. The Forman was elegant without being overpowering, as the Kistler might have been. Maybe a better way to put it is that Kistler would be better with blunter food; for instance, we had a bottle of Kistler with our steaks at the Ringside in Portland a month ago. Perfect.

I'd be less enthused about the Hawaiian swordfish, which was too salty for my taste. I also thought it was gamy tasting. This might also be a function of my having lived in Boston for a long time, where understated taste in fish is the style including swordfish. I wasn't too high on the foie gras, either, but this had nothing to do with Mistral. My dining partner doesn't like foie gras and I ate his portion as well as mine. Way too much foie gras and I ate it way too quickly! As a result of that and the wines, I am afflicted with a minor crise de foie this morning. More generally, I've been crossing paths with foie gras more often lately, and am on the verge of deciding that the only foie gras I'll eat will be in pate form.

The wine served with the foie gras was from Hungary. It was unique and amazing, a 1983 Disznoko Tokaji Aszu 6 Putonyos. It was muddy red, almost brown, and sweet with a Sauterne-like flavor. It was a perfect match for the foie gras, and a unique dessert-style wine worth seeking out for the home cellar.

Moving onward, I had duck breast and my dining partner had rack of Oregon lamb. The duck was my least favorite item. It frankly lacked flavor, which at Mistral was a surprise. But I had a bite of my partner's lamb, and I was instantly back in Scotland, where the lamb is on a different planet compared to everything in this country except for the Oregon lamb that Mistral found.

Next up was a cheese course. Three small pieces -- two sheep's milk and one goat's milk. All of them were outstanding, my favorite being the herbed goat's milk cheese. One criticism is that they didn't serve the right bread with this cheese. There was a small basket with either a doughy white or a flavorful pumpernickel. The white bread was too doughy and the pumpernickel interfered with the cheese. I think they ought to include a more neutral bread or cracker in the mix.

The wine with the duck and lamb was an Arcadian pinot noir from California. I blow hot and cold on American pinots. I find most of them blast you with fruit, even the famed Oregon pinots. But the Arcadian was more restrained, and now I know which American pinot to seek out. With the cheese we were served a 2002 Torbeck, from The Sterling vineyard, Barossa Valley. I'm not sure where that is, U.S. or elsewhere, but it was deep and match the cheese just perfectly.

Dessert was a chocolate souffle with some berries, surrounded by homemade ice creams. My partner had a bunch of wine left, so he didn't order any after-dinner drink, but I had a glass of 1977 ruby port. Folks, you MUST order this port if you are served chocolate. I often find it difficult to distinguish among ports, but there was no missing this one's quality. My wine vocabulary isn't good enough to describe it; you just have to have it.

After dessert (as if we could eat more!) we were served three small sorbets, one of which was a raspberry sorbet that tasted exactly like the raspberries from my backyard bushes at the very height of summer. From there, had coffee and the check. Dinner for two was $385. Tax and tip brought it to $510. Please no comments about overtipping. I tip what I tip. Outstanding food and service gets an outstanding tip. So sue me.

One critical note would be that, while the dessert was excellent, I think Mistral should rethink its approach to dessert. I took two people to Charlie Trotter's in Chicago six months ago, and thought that Mistral's food and service is better but that Trotter's has a better dessert. The difference is that Trotter's offers its dessert ala carte; another $50-$75 for a dessert course would have been no problem for us. Mistral, I know you can do it!

Some words about service and ambiance. The service at Mistral was outstanding. It was warm, sophisticated and highly knowledgeable. It was also correct without being overly mannered or obsequious. One small touch that I appreicated was that, on the way to and from the bathroom, waiters with plates in their hands yielded to me as I passed. A small but telling courtesy, executed without servility.

They have a small, tightly-knit crew of people who are enthusiastic about working at Mistral because they are dedicated to the best food. You're served by a team of waiters, and the chef comes out late in the meal to chat. The servers know the food and they know wine, and they have the time to talk about it, an interest in doing so and the knowledge to make the conversation worthwhile. This is in contrast to Charlie Trotter's which while a great restaurant I thought had a server who was "reading his lines." Mistral's servers match those of Paris's three-star restaurants.

Decor and ambiance would be the least impressive. I had seen some negative comments on this board about that, so I was curious. I don't agree with those who called the decor too spartan, but if I owned the space I would not go for the exposed duct work. I'd have a drop ceiling. I'd also install more soundproofing, in the form of thicker carpeting and some sound baffling art work on the walls and in the corners. I say this because a table of eight diners was making a fair amount of noise, and at times it detracted from the experience. I think Mistral could be more intimate if they'd lower the ceiling and "quiet" the room.

The other criticism I have of the space is that it lacks an entry vestibule. A restaurant of this extraordinary level ought to separate the guests entering from those eating, and separate those eating from the elements exposed when the door is opened. The food, wine and service are every bit as good as, say, Lucas Carton in Paris. They deserve a better space. That said, I would also say that the decor is as good as it can be given the constraints of the space. There is enough space between the tables, and you never get the feeling of an overcrowded restaurant, even though it was full when we dined.

I haven't (yet) been to the Herbfarm but plan to go. It's been a while since I was at Rover's, and when I went I wasn't particularly impressed with the food. Mistral is a real departure from the Seattle dining that I know and actually love quite a bit. Seattle is a relentlessly middle-class city, and in most ways that's a great thing. But its very top-end dining choices have always been sparse, partly I suspect because restaurant patrons here just can't get their minds around a $500 meal for two.

There's enough wealth in the Seattle to support it, but the mentality has not been there in my judgment. You'll see one hot new restaurant after another, and evenutally they devolve into very nice places to get alder-planked salmon. Which is a commodity, which means price based competition. This is more good than bad, I suppose, but there ought to be a few places where that way of doing things doesn't rule.

Mistral is one of those places. I've been all over the world for great meals, and the one we had at Mistral puts it in league with the three-stars of Paris and their offspring in Chicago, California and the East. We'll definitely be back. Not something you'd want to do every week or even every month, but once every two or three months won't hurt a bit.

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