Strong and dry, the famed Mistral wind barrels down from northern France, bringing clear skies and sunny weather to the Rhône Valley. Like its namesake, the new restaurant from Steve Distler and Scott Anderson, owners of Princeton’s celebrated Elements, is strong in concept, dry (well, BYO, anyway) and auspicious, adding to Princeton’s suddenly sunnier dining scene.
Actually, Mistral’s innovative, ever-evolving menu is not rooted just in France and the Mediterranean; it truly spans the globe—often within a single dish. I counted five countries represented in a notable plate of Jersey-grown zucchini tempura (Japan) with Romesco sauce (Spain), epazote (a Mexican herb), and a house-cured pork resembling Italian prosciutto, only silkier, less salty and sliced translucently thin.
The kitchen is a collaboration between Elements chef Anderson and his Mistral executive chef, Ben Nerenhausen, whom Anderson lured from the Michelin three-star restaurant at the Meadowood Resort in Napa Valley. Initially, menu development was a 50/50 effort, Nerenhausen told me in a phone conversation after my visits. “It was for me to see what Scott was looking for. Now, most of the decisions are mine.”
The exciting result is a slate of beautiful dishes that combine the familiar and the exotic in imaginative ways. That cured pork with the zucchini tempura? It’s made from the loin rather than the usual leg, Nerenhausen explained. “We leave the fat cap on and cure it for a week with juniper, garlic, rosemary and other herbs, then age it for about four months.”
The restaurant, like the wind, has a clear identity. The menu is exclusively small plates, priced from $8 to $15. Dishes emerge from the kitchen at a fast clip in a setting more casual than Elements, but just as aesthetically hip. Mistral’s small plates are not the bar nibbles of classic Spanish tapas, but are more akin to half-servings. Each packs full-size flavors, ranging from potent to subtle, and pleasing contrasts of texture. Even when a portion is relatively small—like the ramekin of clam-chowder custard—it usually proves so rich and pleasing that it satisfies. A beige custard may not sound appetizing, but I assure you, it’s the perfect, satiny delivery vehicle for seared razor clams, lightly smoked potatoes and a whisper of Old Bay seasoning.
One mark of Mistral’s casualness is that it doesn’t distinguish between lunch and dinner. Indeed, there is just one menu (printed on a paper placemat), and service is continuous from opening to closing on weekends, with a two-hour weekday break between afternoon and evening service. The do-drop-in theme is further reflected in paper napkins, Mason jars as water glasses, and a modern design that feels vaguely Japanese in its spare, mid-toned wood tables, chairs, beams and floor. The one major artwork is wood, too: a stylized, roughly 6-foot-tall sculpture of Mistral’s logo—a tree, its almost-bare branches blown by the eponymous wind. The restaurant seats just 45, with room for another 45 in good weather, on the patio, under bright blue umbrellas.
The servers—young and perky in their jeans and Mistral T-shirts, sometimes accessorized with spiky hair, piercings and tattoos—will suggest you order two or three savory plates per person. Even without dessert, that can quickly add up. (At my tables for four, we were very happy sharing nine or 10 savory plates and two desserts.) The menu is divided into three rather preciously-named sections: From the Fields, From the Water and From the Land (plus desserts). Pick from them as you wish.
You might start with snappy links of lamb merguez sausage with harissa, sheep’s milk cheese, fresh mint and a combination of dried and fresh chickpeas. Those last, new to me, are bright green, firm and taste as fresh as spring. I may be addicted to the kimchi pancake, its golden, crisp batter yielding to a surprisingly creamy interior filled with subtly spicy house-made kimchi. Creamy, subtle, kimchi—I’ve never before used those words in the same sentence. Alaskan sockeye-salmon tartare is a pretty tour de force. The salmon and red and yellow beets are very finely minced, tossed with grains of spelt, flavored with juniper and pressed into a log and sliced.
Specials expand the menu a bit. While service is generally strong for a nascent operation, one of our servers neglected to mention the day’s specials, and they are worth hearing about. If the confit chicken wings coated with a sticky-sweet-spicy-crunchy paste of dates, chile and sesame seeds is on offer, do not hesitate to order it.
Tasting a lot of dishes is fun. But over three visits, I found that plates tend to arrive only a minute or two apart, sometimes creating Chinese-restaurant-like overload. Nerenhausen later told me that diners can request dishes be sent out in a certain order. Still, pacing can be a problem.
Case in point: We ordered the delicate onsen egg. (Onsen in Japanese is a hot spring.) The egg, cooked sous vide, yielded satiny whites and a bright-orange yolk that was sticky wet and umami rich. Capped with half-melted shavings of aged Gouda, the egg rested on risotto-like grains of fregola, shaved asparagus and royal trumpet mushrooms. One guest declared it “approaching transcendent.”
But before we could fully savor, let alone finish, the dish, our order of rye garganelli pasta with smoked trout arrived. It was equally captivating, but different—surprisingly light, the house-smoked trout more nuanced than most, and the wet egg yolk binding the dish adding a mere whisper of horseradish.
Many BYOs miss an opportunity by putting no thought into creating enticing non-alcoholic drinks. They should take a lesson from Mistral. Its bracing, food-friendly sodas, lemonade and iced teas may encourage you to leave that bottle of wine at home next time. Like everything else on the menu, the soft drinks are highly seasonal and made with local and regional ingredients wherever possible. If either Thai-basil lemonade or vanilla-lavender soda is available, grab it.
Desserts are full size, even generous. A terrific, moist brown-butter cake is served warm, festooned with fresh berries and tiny elderberry blossoms. Lemon posset, an old-fashioned eggless custard, comes with candied citrus and fresh herb granita in flavors such as basil and shiso. One companion took a bite and nearly swooned. “Like a cloud in your mouth,” she said.
A few dishes were ill conceived or poorly executed. Vegetables à la Grecque was good but totally standard, out of synch with the Mistral ethos. The charred zucchini with mild ocean perch not only were uncharred, they tasted raw. Our server touted a chocolate-mint dessert as the chef’s take on an Andes mint. But made of milk chocolate rather than dark, it missed the mark. Panna cotta made with hay steeped in cream (hay is no longer just for horses) and topped with meringue was revelatory the first time; the next time, the subtle hay flavor was overwhelmed by too much cloying meringue.
Noise is always an issue in a room of hard, bare surfaces like Mistral’s. Does it really need to be exacerbated by loud, thumping music? But in the end, the food saves the day. Whichever way the wind blows, I hope it wafts you toward the invigorating Mistral experience.Click here to leave a comment
Cuisine Type:American - Fusion/Eclectic - Modern