Friday, December 28, 2007

The Mystique of Mistral

Would Mistral, located on Columbus Avenue in Boston’s chic South End district, live up to its lofty reputation as one of the city’s trendiest, tastiest, and most expensive dining destinations? That was the question du jour for this reviewer, who was calmly prepared to drop over $200 for a meal allegedly suited for a king (well, it better be). As part of a formidable culinary quintet under the aptly named Commonwealth Restaurant Group (which includes elite eateries Teatro, Sorellina, Mooo, and the newly added L’Andana in Burlington, MA), chef/owner Jamie Mammano’s Mistral has just concluded its first decade-long run in Boston. In light of its notoriously renowned exorbitant prices, Mistral’s longevity has often been attributed to Mammano’s ability to create consistently delectable French Mediterranean fare for a hip (and wealthy) clientele. The term Mistral signifies ‘a dry, cold northerly wind that blows in squalls toward the Mediterranean coast of southern France.’ Would Paul’s Palate be ‘blown’ away by Mistral’s grandeur or would he wish he hadn’t ‘blown’ away his well-earned money on his meal there?

Mistral’s ambience is indeed a beautiful, sweeping accomplishment to behold. You feel like hip royalty (think Sofia Coppola’s recent film version of Marie Antoinette) upon entering its doors. On Mistral’s website, its interior is described as heavily influenced by the ethereal landscape of Provence in southern France. From its hand-picked French pottery, high ceilings, and arch terra cotta floor to ceiling windows, this bistro masterfully meshes French tranquility and regality with Bostonian modernism and sophistication. Tall cypress trees provide a convenient, scenic partition between Mistral’s chic, expansive lounge/bar (seating 40 patrons) and its dramatic main dining area (seating 140). It doesn’t hurt matters that the building’s acoustics actually enable me to conduct a meaningful, even comprehensible conversation with my wife. Paul’s Palate even tries to discreetly determine if Mistral falls victim to the dreaded breadcrumb virus that periodically breaks out at some of the city’s other restaurants, but alas, there is not a morsel to be found in this pristine establishment.

Subtract the stuffiness and arrogance one might think universally accompanies this type of atmosphere, add a hint of casualness, and this is what makes Mistral so refreshingly inviting for first-timers such as myself. Everything about this restaurant implies, “Sure, you’ll be emptying out your wallet this evening, but we sincerely welcome you here and hope to see you again soon.”

Our server arrives, and he is genial, knowledgeable, witty, and attentive all at once, which is no small feat. He applauds our audacity to sample the most adventurous of appetizers from the menu. One such selection, a sushi tuna tartare with crispy wontons, is lusciously soft and packs a potent kick given its submersion in a zingy ginger and soy sauce (or perhaps this could be attributed to my consumption of a unique, but lively pear/ginger martini?). The other: seared foie gras with a confit of duck in brioche. The succulent meat of the duck is perfectly accentuated by a sweet-tangy tart Wisconsin cherry reduction, enough so that I found the brioche to be superfluous to the dish. So far, so good, and away on to the entrees we go.

Although I express some reluctance in ordering the half ‘whole roasted’ duck given my previous, albeit delicious, encounter with this pheasant in the form of the foie gras, our server assures me that the former dish is distinct enough to warrant a gander (no pun intended). Gobble, gobble, indeed: although this particular duck possesses the same moistness of its fowl predecessor, it contains a sprinkle of mild cranberry gastrique so as not to make the dish overpoweringly sweet. Its skin is buttery and smooth, atypical of the crunchy, tasteless covering that typically surrounds this type of bird. Underneath the duck lies a superlative wild mushroom risotto, undeniably the best Paul’s Palate has ever consumed. Unlike most risotto, which is pasty in texture and heavy on the stomach, this concoction is light, yet hearty, and plenty flavorful (the sweet mushrooms take center stage). I would have been more than content spending my entire evening wolfing down this miraculous side dish. Neither does my wife’s roasted rack of Colorado lamb disappoint. Three ‘ginormous’ (yes, they’re that large) are playfully presented atop - what else – that unforgettable mushroom risotto, and prove to be meaty, fatless, and perfectly cooked. Chef Mammano’s cuisine has thus far left a most positive imprint.

Desserts provide a saccharinely sensational conclusion to the evening. My wife’s eyeballs immediately shoot skyward upon delving into a rich, dense Belgian chocolate sorbet. Where else but here would such a rare sorbet be offered to the dairy-deficient masses? My warm apple tart with maple walnut ice cream, albeit simple in presentation, is the ultimate comfort food. The sweet and sour flavored theme that worked to perfection with the aforementioned foie gras reappears here with equally striking success.
Let me be frank: Paul’s Palate immensely enjoyed Mistral, enough so, perhaps, so as to place this esteemed establishment on his top five all-time favorites list. In fact, I can’t wait to go back there. Wait, let me re-phrase that: my empty wallet prohibits me from doing so. Let’s do the math: appetizers average $16-$18, entrees between $35-$40, and desserts at $10. Tack on a couple of cocktails ($12 apiece) and customary $15 valet parking, and your tab soars well north of $200. That’s a hefty price to pay for near perfection, to which Mistral comes awfully close. Looking for that romantic dining spot to celebrate a special occasion? Certainly. A return affair, however? Only if you’re buying, my dear friends. I believe Mastercard said it best: ‘the cost of a wonderfully prepared gourmet meal: $200; the mortified expression on your face having perused your ridiculously expensive bill: priceless.’

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Spanish Inquisition

When Paul’s Palate is invited to a cordial after-work Holiday party, he finds himself transformed into a latter-day Ebenezer Scrooge. “Bah hum-bug,” I say, to overrated holiday spirit and hopes for a bright new year. But when this invitation is accompanied by the words ‘…at one of Rhode Island’s nicest restaurants,’ well, his interest, and taste buds immediately awaken. The restaurant in question: Spain, a decorous outfit situated on busy Route 2 in Cranston, RI, whose ‘authentic’ Spanish cuisine supposedly has local food aficionados in the Ocean State swimming with praise. Would Paul’s Palate find himself swept along in this tide of superlatives or would he end up drowning in negativity?

As far as ambience goes, Spain has oodles of it, if not an excess of it. Despite being cramped in alongside bustling Route 2 and having a shockingly limited amount of parking for such a large establishment, it is evident that Spain desperately wants customers to feel as if they have been whisked away into the streets of Madrid. From its glamorous courtyard dining area, to a posh bar, to segmented rooms on a luxurious second floor, however, the term ‘authentic’ does not exactly spring to mind. Having traveled across this bucolic country several years ago, Paul’s Palate recalls how this region prides itself in its simplicity and graciousness (more on that later). Spain (the restaurant), however, seems to find itself caught in an identity crisis: from its marble tiles to its backlit bar to its ‘I’m cooler than you’ll ever be’ staff, this establishment speaks in a foreign tongue. Spain can’t decide if it’s better to dine in a tranquil Spanish garden or a more elaborate upscale, gourmet setting, so it bafflingly elects to be both.

While the food at Spain rates as certainly above average, the menu offerings do not yell out authentic Spanish fare. Spain half-heartedly gets things right with such side dishes as esparragos a la vinagreta (imported Spanish white asparagus topped with olive oil and shaved vinaigrette), grilled smoked chorizo (Spanish sausage), and gazpacho. Other dishes, however, are just plain insulting in terms of their categorization as Spanish fare: Picasso and Spain salads are nothing more than seasonal lettuce sprinkled with olive oil dressing and Gorgonzola cheese. And what gives with Spain’s insistence to stuff anything in everything with shrimp, scallops, and crabmeat, such as mushroom caps, and vieras rellenas (stuffed scallops)? Surely, Picasso (the late, great Spanish artist) would be rolling in his grave at such non-traditional nonsense. Other appetizers, such as calamari, jumbo shrimp cocktail, and clam casino are certainly not Spanish delicacies. Bring on some tapas, demands this confounded critic, but sadly, there are none of these tiny, tasty regional specialties to be had. To make matters worse, the white sangria, a mix of orange juice and white wine, lacks the customary zip that Paul’s Palate expects from this typically potent beverage.

The entrees, in all fairness, appear to be more successful in their attempt to re-create the Spanish fare I’ve come to know and love. Dishes such as veal Jerez (veal filets sauteed with asparagus, spinach, imported prosciutto, and provolone in a light Jerez sherry sauce), solomillo del cerdo (pork tenderloin with a port wine wild berry shitake mushroom sauce), camarones diablo (shrimp prepared in a Romano tomato with an herb spice sauce) and paella marinera (shellfish baked in saffron rice) all sound appetizing. Our server confidently recommends the veal Spain, which consists of a provimi veal loin chop with – you guessed it – lobster, crabmeat, smoked ham, Castilian cheese, and topped with a mushroom Malaga wine sauce. The impressive presentation of this dish is eye-popping, for sure, and the sheer enormity of the loin chop instantly brings this image to mind: Fred Flintstone’s car topping over upon ordering his gigantic order of brontosauras ribs. The meat is succulent enough, but would it hurt the chef to err on the side of simplicity, not excess? There’s too much filler in the meat. Paul’s Palate would be content with lobster, crabmeat, or ham with his veal, but digesting all three makes him nauseous.

Speaking of wave-inducing nausea, Paul’s Palate finds the much-heralded level of service at Spain intolerable. While it is universally acknowledged that Spain (the country) prides itself on conducting meals at a leisurely pace, Spain (the restaurant) serves its meals at that of a snail’s. Our main server appears to be indifferent, if not downright rude to our table. It seems as if an hour has passed by before he takes our order, and he abruptly delegates the remainder of the meal to a group of servers. While these waiters are more attentive to our needs, there is a lack of continuity to the meal that that detracts from what should be a memorable dining experience. While Paul’s Palate is delighted to bite into homemade banana bread pudding, topped with a creamy vanilla-raspberry sauce, as the evening’s finale, the damage has already been done and, I’m afraid, is irreparable.

Although value is considered more than fair, with appetizers averaging $9 and most entrees ranging between $15-$22, overall Spain rates poorly given its lack of (or, dare I say, warped sense of) authentic Spanish atmosphere and cuisine. A lackluster, pretentious level of service does not help matters. Where’s the 'amor (love),' you ask? Paul’s Palate recommends seeking it out in the real Spain, not at this imposter of a fine dining establishment.