Notorious Jumping Frog

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                                                                                                                                                         LE MISTRAL
                                                                                                                                                         1400 Eldridge Pkwy.,
                                                                                                                                                         What the stars mean: 1 = fair,
                                                                                                                                                         some noteworthy qualities; 2 = good,
                                                                                                                                                         above average; 3 = very good, well
                                                                                                                                                         above norm; 4 = excellent, among
                                                                                                                                                         the area’s best; 5 = world-class,
                                                                                                                                                         extraordinary in every detail. Reviews
                                                                                                                                                         are based on multiple visits. Ratings
                                                                                                                                                         reflect the reviewer’s overall reaction
                                                                                                                                                         to food, ambience and service.

                                                                                                                                                         RESERVATIONS Excellent idea,
                                                                                                                                                         especially on weekends
                                                                                                                                                         PARKING Ample self-
                                                                                                                                                         parking out front
                                                                                                                                                         FAR FROM PARIS Attire is
                                                                                                                                                         casual verging on suburban
                                                                                                                                                         quirky, with tropical shirts
                                                                                                                                                         and even the occasional
                                                                                                                                                         pair of shorts
                                                                                                                                                         FRENCH TWIST In lieu of a
                                                                                                                                                         standard martini or cosmo,
                                                                                                                                                         sample what mixologist
                                                                                                                                                         Fred Elahi (a long-time
                                                                                                                                                         fixture at Brennan’s) does
                                                                                                                                                         with a classic Sidecar,
                                                                                                                                                         adding lavender and honey
                                                                                                                                                         FAMILY TIES The ravioli
                                                                                                                                                         recipe comes from the Denis
                                                                                                                                                         brothers’ grandmother, while
                                                                                                                                                         the canvases depicting rustic
                                                                                                                                                         Provençal scenes are by
                                                                                                                                                         their mother.

                      Notorious Jumping Frog
                      Le Mistral leaps to a fab new space—and up a few notches on the French food chain
                      | By John DeMers | Photography by Debora Smail |

                      Chef David Denis is surprised and delighted. Three days                In Le Mistral’s original strip-center location just a few   DRINK IT IN Clockwise from top left:
                      earlier at his born-again Le Mistral in West Houston, he         steps from the spot that opened in May, the traditional           A Lavender Sidecar is served up in
                                                                                                                                                         the cocktail lounge (pictured below);
                      installed a computer program to tell him where his customers     baggage of la cuisine classique proved harder to shake than the   seared foie gras over roasted pears
                      came from. And the results astound him. “Seventy-five             chef feared. There was a general ignorance that the cooking       with a port wine reduction makes a
                      percent,” Chef Denis says with a soft French accent, “are        of Provence (the Denises hail from the city in southern           decadent starter; and warm sunset
                                                                                                                                                         hues intermix with art at Le Mistral’s
                      Inner Loopers. I don’t know if that was true at the old place,   France) is different from the cooking of Paris, with olive         new location.
                      because we had no way to track it. But I don’t sink so.”         oil and fresh herbs turning up where large doses of butter
                            On this busy Saturday night, I find myself thinking         and cream were expected. And then, as the shock of Sept.
                      back eight years ago, when Denis flirted with opening a           11 evolved into the invasion of Iraq and international hard
                      restaurant Downtown but then let his gaze drift westward.        feelings, Americans talked of “freedom fries” to avoid even
                      There, along Eldridge Parkway, which had little meaningful       saying the word “French.” The Denis brothers were hurt
                      development at the time, he had a dream of a “new                and worried. Yet they worked hard to make that little strip-
                      Downtown”—built around the global energy industry.               center Le Mistral the best French restaurant they could.
                      To some degree, I’m sure, Denis enjoyed the Frenchman’s                “Sometimes,” David laughs, surrounded by the
                      natural belief that all the world was waiting for French         high ceilings of his new place, “we call our food ‘friendly
                      cuisine. He was thusly inspired to beg and borrow and steal      French.’ We don’t want people to think ‘Oh they’re French,
                      his brother Sylvain away from life as an architect (in St.       they’re snooty and they’re expensive.’” He shrugs in mock
                      Tropez on the French Riviera), convincing him to move            exasperation. “We really hate it when people sink that.”
                      here and manage the dining room and the wine.                          After 18 months of construction, continued...

                      184 |         |   Oct 2008
...continued      at a cost of $3.5 million, the brothers
have made a space that’s what I’d call Neo- or even Post-
Provençal chic, the ancient colors from this land of rock,
olive and lavender balanced with the sleek lines and
occasional contemporary shapes. An interlocking series of
walls in hues of deep red, mustard yellow and sunburnt
orange keeps things intimate, giving way here and there
to outcroppings of gray-black stone that seem more a
geological force than a visual accent. There are occasional
overhead flourishes of slanting dark wood panels. Other
improvements include the addition of a 12-seat chef’s
table, a wine cellar that seats 10 and a trés moderne cocktail
lounge. There’s also a large iron-gated patio good for drinks
or dining beneath cream-colored umbrellas and flickering
gas lanterns, within earshot of a trickling fountain.
      When the place is humming, as it is on most nights, the
crowd puts up such a happy buzz that, if music is playing at
all, you can’t begin to hear it. The entryway strains of Frank
Sinatra and Tony Bennett (a far cry from long-suffering
Edith Piaf, after all) are forgotten as gorgeous hostesses
steer parties of four and six to tables and black-clad waiters
deliver food on plates in a crazy array of shapes and sizes,
the most outlandish of which resemble huge sunflowers.
      To accompany those selections, Sylvain, the architect-
turned-sommelier, has assembled a wine list mostly from the
Old World that manages to not insult the New. There are
many wines from California, South America, Australia and
New Zealand. Bordeaux and Burgundy preen proudly, of
course, and they do so right alongside the Loire Valley’s crisp
whites and the Rhone Valley’s complex and earthy reds.
      Chef David has avoided the regional take on French          “Sometimes we call our food ‘friendly French.’ We don’t want people to think
food that inspires his brother’s approach to wine. As though
he fears overwhelming the diner with geography, he paints         ‘Oh they’re French, they’re snooty and they’re expensive.’ We really hate
French cooking with a broad brush—letting his Provençal
                                                                  when people sink that,” says Chef David Denis.
inclinations shine through without the slightest implied
triumph over Paris. Sauces here are more light than not,
but certainly not watery nouvelle. Flavors tend toward the
intense, whether achieved by reduced meat stocks appearing        a beef tenderloin that’s both roasted and smoked, like the
in the form of demi-glace or fresh herbs roasted or sautéed.      world’s fanciest barbecue, outlandishly paired with black
      You can start with either—or both—forms of foie             truffle mashed potatoes and a sprightly Bordelaise horseradish
gras at Le Mistral, seared slices over sweet-dark roasted         sauce. By far the best beef, however, is an American-style
pears in port wine or a terrine of smooth pâté, marinated         grilled and peppercorn-cognac-sauced Angus ribeye. It
in Sauternes. Other excellent choices upfront include the         lounges across a mound of house-cut French fries, which get
intriguing spin on lobster bisque. The creamy bisque is           a rich béarnaise on the side for dunking.
there in the oversized white bowl all right, but it’s topped            And then to dessert. Chocolate lovers will gravitate
with a seared baby lobster tail and saffron croutons. At           toward the mousse-like fondant Marie Brizzard with a
long last, here’s a soup that requires a spoon, a knife and a     mini-vanilla shake, while the sorbets sidestep the usual
fork—and it’s worth every utensil.                                boredom by using ingredients like black currant of cassis.
      Denis’ efforts at French nationalism aside, we enjoyed       My favorite dessert, though, is the tarte tatin, which has
some of his Provençal entrees the most, starting with the         the cultural advantage of being “as American as apple
boneless rabbit tenderloin and leg, served atop the region’s      pie.” Once you tuck into this hot pastry starting to melt      HAUTE PLATES The Angus ribeye
traditional black olive tapenade. The delightfully juicy          its topping of vanilla ice cream and wash it down with the     in peppercorn sauce is the best
                                                                                                                                 beef bet and, far above, Le
caramelized duck breast shows up with a southern-spicy            apple brandy called Calvados, the grand old red, white         Mistral’s mixed greens and pine
orange sauce, an apple-foie gras cake and green asparagus.        and blue start to blur with the Denis brothers’ bleu, blanc    nut namesake salad is topped
      Beef is well represented, as it had better be when you’re   et rouge. Indeed, after the proper application of wine and     with blueberry vinaigrette.
sitting right under Barbara Jones’ lifesize painting of a         brandy, you slap your forehead like an idiot and announce:
Brahma bull. With a quick nod to Texas, Denis dishes up           They’re the same damn colors! H

186 |          |   Oct 2008