A Mighty Wind

Mistral's Kitchen's short rib is the standard by which all other entrées will be measured.

8pm, 9 pans on the induc.It was after dark on a Friday, the floor three-quarters committed, and I was scribbling careful, blind notes along the seam of my blue jeans, my hand moving out of sight beneath the edge of the counter that runs the length of Mistral Kitchen's open center line. I was writing on my pants, timing out the night by the number of pans the sauté cook was juggling, because the cooks working in front of me had already seen the notes scribbled all over the back of my hand, and had asked why I had instructions for getting to a chicken restaurant in Everett doodled on myself."Because they serve chicken and waffles, man," I answered, grinning maniacally about having found a place that served one of the most brilliant innovations in American gastronomy."No way," said the cook, carefully quartering a side towel and glancing at the orders lining up on the slide in front of him.No one seemed to notice my hand moving below the level of the counter—which was good, because I didn't want to know what they'd think I was doing if they had. I mean, I was excited to be there, but not that excited.Along the back wall at 8 p.m., the girl standing sauté had nine pots and pans of various sizes sharing space on six stand-alone induction elements arranged on the stainless (hence my pants-notes shorthand). On the floor, the hostess was seating tables with a graceful equanimity, staggering the reservations and walk-ins to keep the pressure off the line. Everything was flowing smoothly as I looked over the daily menu on its clipboard and kept scratching away with my pen: tandoor, tiled pizza & roaster, the ramp.The ramp: It was a big deal to chef and owner William Belickis that the ramp that led from the front door of his new restaurant down onto the floor had the feel of the archway, apple-lined and dramatic, that once led into chef David Bouley's eponymous restaurant in Manhattan—first, because Belickis had done time working with Bouley in New York, and second because he wanted the sensory experience of being at Mistral Kitchen to start as soon as a customer opened the door. So he had a ramp built, with a revealing turn built into the middle of it, and he now stacks crates of seasonal fruit and herbs (and lots of apples) along the brief walkway to differentiate it from the street outside and to season the air.Yeah, season the air. There is something so regulated and so careful about the Mistral Kitchen experience—some sense of a wildly talented control freak on one of those rare jags where every fiercely managed element in the environment has suddenly come together just so—that even the air his customers breathe is under Belickis' command. Apples tonight. Maybe tomorrow, thyme and pears.But it works. The room itself—all hard angles, brushed steel, chrome, and polished black lacquer—ought to be as cold and intimidating as a horror-show surgical theatre. But it's not, due to the perfectly placed touches of natural wood and soft, brown leather; because of an artful curve in an unexpected place, a delicate play of light across wineglasses on an unclothed table. The food should be precise and constrained in a room like this, twisted and tortured to fit the severe whims of a man who would serve dinner across welded steel. But it's not; modernist gadgetry and border-hopping fusions aside, it comes off all the more rustic and plain for the juxtaposition of eating cauliflower soup or simple bowls of Manila clams and chorizo in a white-wine beurre blanc on the bridge of Captain Nemo's Nautilus. Service in a place like this ought to be formal and stiff. But instead it's rather casual and amusing.Like later in the evening, when my waitress, instead of asking me how I liked my dinner, simply shot me a look from the other end of the bar, raised a questioning eyebrow, and, when I smiled, barked out "I know, right!" and clapped her hands delightedly—a conversation had with the air.8:40pm, 11p on induc.The hamachi crudo had been lovely, laid before me on a plain white plate set with a salad of microgreens (shaved fennel and slivered radish), Nagel stripes of basil oil and mango purée, and four lozenges of tuna flesh that were set in precise arrangement like too many hands on an impressionist clock. Oddly, my favorite part of the plate had been the salad (unusual for me), simply because the hamachi had been left more or less alone, dressed only in a dash of oil, while the salad had been nicely composed and touched with an acidic dressing that served the same purpose as a nip of good balsamic vinegar before dinner: a goad to the appetite and a shock to the tastebuds.I'd watched while one of the cooks assembled my charcuterie plate—a massive thing, about a foot long, laid with generous portions of La Quercia prosciutto (a domestic variety out of Iowa, of all places, that can easily stand up against the best Italian varieties), some peppered salami from San Francisco, and an excellent pile of paper-thin copa with just enough spice to set it apart from its fatty companions on the plate. I'd fallen in love with Mistral's rotary slicer in that moment: watching the cook work its handle, jigging the carrier back and forth across the gleaming blade, and snatching little bites of the meat for himself. It didn't bother me that he was eating, too. If I'd been him, customers would've had to jump me in the back alley just to get a bite of that prosciutto for themselves, tearing whole legs of the stuff out of my hands as I made a run for it.At 9, I'm marking up my pants again: 9pm, 13p on the induc. The floor was starting to load up now, the cooks spinning in place. And while never full, Mistral Kitchen was doing good business, with deuces and four-tops filling the dining rooms and larger parties wandering off to the little lounges spotted around the wings of the main space. When designing Mistral Kitchen, Belickis built in what he called the "Jewel Box"—a private dining room, seating about 24, conceived as an homage to his dearly departed Mistral (which closed in March 2008), and a place for some serious white-tablecloth service.I never knew the original Mistral, and couldn't care less about the Jewel Box. I'm so much happier sitting in the mix on the main floor, watching the cooks hard at work, the cooks joking around between waves of orders, the cooks laughing at the guy sitting ramrod-straight at the end of the counter opposite me, tapping his foot on the rail, trying to talk to every server who comes close, asking about the oysters, the clams, the charcuterie, and the oysters again. So tooled up was he on his Friday-night party chemical of choice (from the look of him, I was guessing a cocktail of good coke and wombat adrenaline), the dude couldn't stop talking, sweating, and grinding his teeth all at the same time. And when he was suddenly inspired to leave (in the middle of a sentence, I think), he moved as if there were goblins climbing his legs, hitting the door at half a sprint.My entrée was delivered across the counter by the cook who'd finished it: a beautiful short rib, pink straight through, perfectly symmetrical—a lovely slab of pure meat, served atop a simple bed of escarole with a few tournéed potato halves and a side of potatoes Robuchon.And at this point I have to stop and say that without even knowing it yet, I had just been served my first great meal in Seattle. Not just decent, not merely good enough, but truly great—one which can stand as the benchmark for what the cooks here are capable of; what they can do when time and place and product and presentation all come together into some whole greater than the sum of its parts. The crudo had been wonderful, the charcuterie so smartly chosen and well-handled that it rose above the plain excellence of its creation. But neither of those alone were great. It wasn't until the whipped and butter-jacked purée of potatoes arrived in their small, white bowl, and the simple plate of short rib, greens, and starch was set before me, that everything gelled together and I knew that this—this two hours, this one night out of the last hundred or thousand I've spent out eating—was what would come to both reassure me about Seattle's potential and define its playing field.The short rib had spent a bit more than 48 hours in the thermal circulator, waiting for me to show up and order it. The escarole had been carefully chopped, braised, blanched, shocked, and—this is the important part—salted liberally before being laid down as my rib's final bedding. The potatoes were only potatoes, and the whole dish was so simple and unfucked-with that it seemed ridiculous, the amount of effort and science and preparation that had gone into its completion.But it was so worth it. The rib was cooked a lovely, uniform rare from its surface to its center, and was as tender as taking a knife to a brick of room-temperature lard. In flavor, it was the definition of rib: meaty and salty without the dulling notes of grill char or liquefied fat. And when laid against the salty, soft escarole and the slight heft of boiled potatoes, the experience of eating it was rather like being a child again: having a perfect beef stew, handmade by your grandmother—provided, of course, your grandmother had easy access to a few thousand dollars in high-tech kitchen gear and a team of trained prep cooks hidden in her pantry.9:15, 5p on the induc.I want the hand-crank rotary slicer that the cooks manning their posts inside the bunker of Mistral Kitchen's center line use for cutting their charcuterie. I want it in my house, sitting right on my coffee table, in a position of honor in the middle of the room, always loaded with a leg of that La Quercia prosciutto.I want a sous-vide setup like they have, squeezed in between the cold tables and the pastry kitchen—the thermal circulator and vacuum machine, the mad-scientist digital readouts and heating elements, cobbled together like some kind of steampunk stage set for growing monsters.I want Mistral Kitchen's beer stockpile unloaded into my fridge. I want the lovely, thin-bladed little steak knives with their scimitar curves and gleaming blades nestled in my silverware drawer alongside the plastic forks and disposable chopsticks I usually use. I want one—not all, just one—of Mistral Kitchen's cooks to bring a cot and a blanket and live in my closet: to be available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, just to make me Joel Robuchon's mashed potatoes whenever I want them.In a moment of quiet as the night began to wind down, I made this list of everything I wanted from Mistral, when in truth all I really wanted was another short rib, some potatoes, a bite of prosciutto, and the Herculean appetite to put it all away a second time. What I wanted was another reservation and another night like the one I'd just had.I had dessert instead—a lateral slab of brownie, some peanut-butter ice cream, and a dusting of chocolate nibs. It paled in comparison to everything I'd eaten before.I went back for a pizza out of that big, tiled oven and loved it—the crust soft and charry like Indian naan, the sauce showcasing the fruity sweetness of tomatoes above their vegetable pulp, and the top finished with pink and white gourmet salts. I had sous-vide chicken, slow-poached in its own jus and dotted with only a few pieces of olive; a composed salad of Louisiana prawns, avocado, and butter lettuce; a wonderful, restrained, rustic/contemporary mashup of a bowl of butternut squash soup that I loved: the smooth purée like drinking warm cream, the threads of basil oil drizzled on top giving it a refreshing point, and the black trumpet mushrooms and chopped tarragon lending earthy top and bass notes to the sweet solidity of the squash.But through all this, I would be telling the story of the short rib to literally anyone who'd listen—bothering strangers, telling my dining companions, "No, this is good. Don't get me wrong. But this short rib the other night..."It was my first love in the city of Seattle, the first instant I knew for sure that there would be greatness and adventures to be had here.And like they say, a fella never really forgets his first time.jsheehan@seattleweekly.comPrice CheckHamachi crudo $13

Pizza $12

Short rib $22

Charcuterie plate $16

Prawn salad $14

Potatoes Robuchon $7

Squash soup $9

 
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