MISTRAL, THE MOST controversial restaurant in town at the moment, does not look the part. It's elegant in a simple way: white linens, dark woods, buttery walls, glass vases sprouting gladiolas and calla lilies, wine on ice in a silver urn, lots and lots of slanting sunlight. The 11 tables are arranged thoughtfully in a space no designer ever got his ringed paws on, hence the most appealing part of its charm. Mistral
113 Blanchard, 770-7799
Dinner Tue-Sat, 5:30 till whenever
AE, MC, V; full bar This tone of effortless elegance was embodied in the gentleman who on our first visit met us at the door, a mae d' of the old school who greeted us with restrained warmth and guided us expertly through what would be a very long meal. It was he who explained the concept of Mistral: Off the list of some 17 ingredients each diner is given in lieu of a menu, owner/chef William Belickis designs tables d'h�in four courses ($50), seven courses ($75), or nine courses ($100), depending on the diner's preference, time constraints, and, um, pocketbook. We swallowed hard and ordered two of the last, dubbed "The Mistral Experience." Three hours later we stumbled out onto Blanchard Street, stunned from our Experience, somewhat wider of girth but about $288 slimmer in the pocketbook region. Let me tell you about it. Our first course was an amusee of goat cheese-Maine lobster quiche: a creamy little island served in a shallow sea of chive sauce with a chive pitched artfully across the plate and punctuated by a briny dollop of Osetra caviar. To say that the quiche was flaky, its chunk of lobster a sumptuous crown, its chive sauce smooth and buttery, its caviar sharp and bursting with flavor, would do nothing to describe the splendor of eating each part together. A single perfectly seared Maine diver scallop arrived next, served over a fanciful blend of peppers, pine nuts, and green olives that after the first omnitextural bite became quite impossible to stop eating. A plaid of red- and yellow-pepper sauces added a whimsically decorative flourish. Dinner continued with a shallow bowl of clear tomato consomm頨Chef Belickis presses the heirloom tomatoes through cheesecloth to distill the clearest juices), studded with a handful of halved heirlooms and a single hunk of seared yellowtail tuna. It was as if Belickis captured the very breath of tomatoes, which then became an unexpectedly perfect, sweet showcase for the tender tuna. A scattering of minty herbs furthered the almost unbearable clarity of this dish. An utter smasher. Next came a piece of Northern California striped bass, served over wedges of baby turnip, scattered with fresh, crunchy beans and peas and bits of savory tarragon, in a light chicken-stock sauce. This one tasted like a young garden, which one is not surprised to learn Belickis nurtures on the rooftop of this Belltown building. This he followed with a sexy plate of Hudson Valley foie gras and figs, which he impulsively poured an 1845 Madeira over. "He went a little crazy back there tonight," our waiter told us proudly. The main dish, blushing slices of butter-tender Ellensburg lamb over pur饤 fingerling potatoes with cauliflowerettes in brown butter, continued the meal's extraordinary arc. Flavors both primary and ancillary—the sprig of rosemary atop the meat, the truffle butter in the jus—conspired winningly on the palate, and once again the textures (potatoes that redefined creamy and crunchy cauliflowerettes) were thoughtfully combined. And I don't even like cauliflower! The meal waned well. Salad was a pile of youthful exotics in a splendid Beaujolais dressing. A plate of relatively mild cheeses (including a terrific Stilton) arrived, with apple slices and grainy brown bread. Dessert, a large helping each of vanilla bean cr譥 brl饠and almond tart, were unexpectedly generous after such largesse. Strangely, though, we didn't leave stuffed; Mistral's staff knows a thing or two about pacing. "No, the Mistral staff knows a thing or two about ripping you off," steamed a foodie friend after I told her about my meal. Her sampling of Mistral's $50 "Pre-Theater Menu" had left her feeling snubbed and undersatisfied. When she asked her waiter for more bread and got a little lecture instead on how the chef frowns on too much bread consumption, my friend got snarky, loudly inquiring at meal's end when her dinner would be arriving. My friend, as it turns out, is not alone. Since it opened in January, Mistral has been dissed by newspaper critic and vox populi alike for being precious, pretentious, and way too pricey. Indeed, one does get the feeling at Mistral of being in a temple of haute cuisine; one pair of diners inquiring at the door about getting a couple of appetizers felt turned away like yesterday's ling cod. "What taste experience may we create for you tonight?" inquires the menu unctuously, even as the m⩴re d' is describing how Chef Belickis, late of Fuller's and New York's famed Bouley, likes to tailor every meal to the diner's taste and wine choice. "He won't serve the same diner the same thing twice," the m⩴re d' intoned. WITHOUT QUESTION all this food 'tude can be a bit much. But never, in our experience, too much. In two anonymous visits we enjoyed waiters who talked food (what a joy!) but never lectured about it. We enjoyed the most genuine of welcomes—and we in our jeans, no less. Mostly, we enjoyed Chef Belickis, a young, soft-spoken overachiever who roams the dining room to greet his guests and burble about the rare Iranian caviar with all the enthusiasm of a schoolboy with a new bike. He's abrim with high expectations for his first solo venture; my guess is that these expectations and their byproducts have translated to the public as pretension. When we returned to check, this time for two of the $50 meals, we found our m⩴re d' had been wrong on at least one point: Chef Belickis most certainly will serve the same diner the same thing twice. There, almost identically revisited, were our goat cheese quiche amusee—this time sans lobster, but with an heirloom tomato salad alongside—and our Maine diver scallop appetizer, this time over chive-infused cr譥 frae and more of those delectable baby turnips, and our roasted Ellensburg lamb over fingerling potatoes with cauliflowerettes—only this time with a fascinating little chop-up of olives, peppers, and lots of fresh thyme. And, then, our same terrific desserts. Mind you, we weren't complaining; these dishes were so great the first time I'd take them once a week for a lifetime. And yet a place aiming this high (read: charging this much) needs to make extra good on its lip service. It put me in mind of my angry friend; whether because of the diminished size or the encore quality of the meal, I left that second visit feeling less than satisfied. Thus my advice: Save Mistral for a big splurge, skip the mini meal, and go for the $100 Experience. At this level, the intelligence and spirit of Belickis' food is on a par with that of the Herb Farm or Rover's, with the fact that it's a homegrown little bo in Belltown only adding to the delight you will experience in finding it. But you'd better go soon. For all its enchanting qualities, Mistral seems doomed: Belickis is romantically disinclined to advertise, the walk-by crowd along this piece of Blanchard isn't exactly the disposable-income set, and word of mouth among foodies has been mixed at best. Seattle notoriously abhors anything it perceives to be unaccommodating. And in this case, I fear art is no exception.