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Provenance: Provence

Mistral derives the best of its light Mediterranean menu when it least alters the South of France fare.

June 19, 1997|MAX JACOBSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

CORONA DEL MAR — Mistral bills itself as a neighborhood hideaway with reasonable prices and "accessible cuisine Provencal." This is the age for it. Provencal seems to be the regional French cuisine Americans go for these days.

Probably that's because it's so light and Mediterranean, using olive oil, tomatoes, olives and garlic liberally. At its rustic best, Provencal food can be a revelation.

However, at Mistral there is the issue of just how the restaurant defines "accessible." The best dishes here are the ones that don't monkey around with the ingredients. The roasted guinea fowl with fresh herbs and Nicoise olives, say, or the marinated leg of lamb with white beans and vegetables.

But when the kitchen tries toning down the flavors or simplifying dishes to suit what they feel to be our tastes, things have a tendency to fall flat. The mussels Provencal, for instance, is a dud with nowhere near enough tomato and garlic. A goat cheese "terrine" is just a few sliced vegetables and some goat cheese arranged haphazardly on a plate.

On the other hand, Mistral is loaded with charm. The interior has been completely renovated since the days when this was Trees--it's now a breezy mustard yellow. The room is further brightened by a wealth of colorful fabric banquettes. Cheerful, mildly Impressionistic art, mostly from the hand of local artist Pamela Calors, decorates the walls.

When you sit, you will be served toasts topped with a salty olive spread, and, if you ask nicely, little dishes of Nicoise olives and a garlic mayonnaise aioli, which wonderfully complement your basket of French bread.

Then to the appetizers. Snails are served, as usual, in garlic butter, which immediately raises the question why aioli isn't on the table throughout the meal, as there would be in Provence.

The lobster bisque (not particularly a Provencal dish; it's Breton if anything) is silky and sumptuous. It's a bowl of coral-colored soup redolent of sherry, with four of five generous hunks of lobster meat adding richness. One more non-Provencal appetizer done well here is the Norwegian smoked salmon with capers, onions and herbed cream cheese. The salmon is buttery and woodsy, the accompaniments impeccable.

About those mussels. Perhaps the chef has his reasons for using the slightly rubbery Pacific black mussels instead of the superior ones from Santa Barbara or Prince Edward Island, but there is no excuse for such a wimpy broth. I'd say the same thing about clams mariniere in a white wine, shallot and garlic clam broth. Pump up the volume on these dishes, please.

Salad Mistral is nice southern French pickings such as sliced fennel root, tomatoes, onions and baby artichokes in vinaigrette, garnished with basil. More perplexing is the Belgian endive and watercress salad. This is a huge salad, easily big enough for two, punctuated by a giant mound of watercress in the middle. You won't taste much of the French mustard vinaigrette, but there is no escaping the clumps of goat cheese that make this a rather heavy salad.

I always look for guinea fowl (pintade) when I am in France, because it's gamier than chicken but not as fatty as duck. Mistral offers guinea fowl and prepares it beautifully, braising the bird to a golden brown, with lean, flavorful flesh beneath the skin. Marinated leg of lamb comes up gamy and juicy too, in thin slices done to a lovely deep pink.

Those two dishes made the fish and steaks all the more disappointing when they arrived terribly overcooked. Our swordfish, topped by an insipid sprinkle of dried paprika, in the supermarket manner, was as hard as a board. We had ordered the grilled top sirloin medium rare; it came medium well, with a green scoop of herbed mai^tre d'ho^tel butter in place of the advertised herb aioli. Among the steaks, the best turned out to be the grilled rib-eye, a nice cut that comes with garlic-saffron mashed potatoes.

Yes, there is bouillabaisse. At ports in the Mediterranean, this most celebrated of Provencal dishes is made almost entirely with fish, though there is some dispute as to whether lobster can join. (Authentic bouillabaisse is supposed to be made with hard-to-get fish such as weever, red mullet and a particularly ugly sort of rockfish.) American bouillabaisse is always full of shellfish, bearing little resemblance to the original.

*

Mistral does a creditable job, in the circumstances. Its bouillabaisse is a giant bowl of clams, mussels, swordfish, yellowtail and whatever else the chef has on hand, all in a mildly fishy, saffron-scented broth. The condiments--peppery homemade croutons, grated Gruyere and rouille (red-pepper mayonnaise)--are terrific. It is fun to combine everything in the bowl and eat it all a la Marseillaise, even without the proper rockfish.

Among the desserts, all made on the premises, look for a killer tarte au citron (single crusted lemon custard tart), an egg-rich mousse au chocolat and an exemplary creme bru^lee Catalane, as the French are wont to call creme bru^lee.

This is a friendly, accommodating restaurant where the staff bends over backward to please. Ask for dishes to be more authentic, and the kitchen will do its level best to comply. But the general level of the food would be better if they had the courage to let Provence be Provence.

Mistral is expensive. Appetizers are $6.25 to $9.50. Salads are $5.50 to $9.75. Entrees are $13.50 to $18. Desserts are $3.95 to $5.50.

BE THERE

* Mistral, 440 Heliotrope Ave., Corona del Mar. (714) 723-9685. Dinner 5:30-10 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday. All major cards.

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