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AT A CROSSWINDS : Heavy Sauces and Predictable Dishes Have Mistral in the Doldrums

October 09, 1994|S. Irene Virbila

We rush from the car through Mistral's doorway, leaving outside the hot gusts scooting bits of paper down the sidewalk, the Los Angeles equivalent of the mistral , the malevolent icy wind that torments the south of France. Immediately, the host of the 7-year-old San Fernando Valley restaurant rushes over to assure us our table will be ready in minutes.

Waiters in black vests and crisp white shirts clear the table, setting out heavy porcelain and serviceable wineglasses. A couple seated at the green banquette along the wall toast each other with Champagne. At the bar, a group waits for a table, the young women in spare black dresses sipping martinis. The high wood ceiling is burnished and the soft light from the shimmering chandeliers gives the room a romantic, old-fashioned feeling. We feel content, cared for, pleased to find this little bistro.

"When Richard Flanagan was cooking here, I had a meal as good as any I've had at a one-star restaurant in France," says one friend as we settle in at our table. "He was American, but he had a French heart." Well, it turns out that Flanagan, who built much of Mistral's reputation for good French cooking, has moved on. And the new chef is French--which sounds encouraging.

Then we open our menus, only to find a collection of the kind of popular California-French/Italian dishes that restaurateurs are convinced spell sure-fire success. Caesar salad. Goat cheese salad. Pizzas. Angel hair pasta. Our hearts sink. We read on. Whitefish or chicken in Dijon mustard sauce--now that sounds more like what we had in mind. A few dishes on the page of specials are promising. Still, we take some time to pick our way through the menu, holding onto the hope that well-crafted cooking will redeem the dreary-sounding choices.

The beet and walnut salad is fine, slices of cooked beets dressed abundantly in horseradish cream. It's a lot of salad; everything here is served up with a generous hand. There's a good aioli, the real thing, slick and greenish and sharp with pounded fresh garlic, served alongside a bowl of fish, shellfish and potatoes in a delicious briny broth. But a savory tartlet has such bland, heavy potato-and-onion filling, it becomes real work to eat more than a few bites. I like the warm piquant potato salad, but the marinated herrings draped on top are inedible--old-tasting, with the texture of wet sawdust.

Throughout the meal, the staff are engaging and on their toes. When the wine buff at our table (aware of the dearth of interesting choices on the list) pulls out a bottle of good Burgundy, our waiter is immediately at his side. Not only is he there to open the wine, but he heads off any unforeseen embarrassment by thoughtfully noting the corkage fee.

The main courses arrive: Each plate looks as if it came off the assembly line with the same neatly aligned array of vegetables: green beans, whole baby carrots, a tomato half stuffed with diced zucchini, potato puree piped. If that's not indication enough of the kitchen's laziness, each of the meat dishes is napped with a suspiciously similar clear brown sauce that manages to obliterate any differences in the taste of the perfectly cooked lamb or veal chop.

It was telling of the restaurant's problems when a friend at the table described to her husband the crispy free-range chicken sitting in a thick Dijon mustard sauce. The otherwise polite and appreciative bon vivant, who eats out enthusiastically all over town, couldn't help commenting, "If I had cooked this chicken at home, you would have taken one bite, put down your fork and said, 'Well, honey, why don't we go out to a restaurant after all.' "

Unfortunately, this was not an isolated, unlucky meal. On another visit, an even heavier brown reduction was poured with abandon on the chicken Mistral, on the lovely pork loin and the veal chop. It's as if the chef is intent on making every other dish taste the same.

Still, Mistral's menu does include a few decent dishes: pissaladiere, the Provencal cousin of pizza, topped with caramelized onions, salty anchovy fillets and Nicoise olives; a German potato salad with rustic grilled chicken sausages; a tender, not very flavorful steak, topped with a knob of herb butter and accompanied by crisp pommes frites. Swordfish is beautifully grilled, but its orange-ginger sauce is a close relative of sweet-and-sour. There's also a classic creme brulee and a nice pear tart.

The mystery is why, with Pinot Bistro just down the way (a restaurant that offers truly interesting French food), Mistral doesn't make at least an attempt to be more daring. Instead of holding to a true course, the kitchen shifts with the prevailing winds of trend.

Mistral, 13422 Ventura Blvd . , Sherman Oaks; (818) 981-6650. Closed Sunday and Saturday at lunch. Dinner for two, food only, $40 to $76. Corkage $10.

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