The French don't really eat all those cream sauces. Parisians, for example, hang out at wine bars, Greek restaurants and bistros, smoke- filled neighborhood haunts where everyone orders steak with French-fried potatoes.
That's why I'm tempted to call Mistral the most French of all Valley restaurants, despite the fact that the chef is named Richard Flannigan. Mistral is a casual, white-tablecloth bistro (it calls itself a brasserie, but there isn't enough brass in here to make a decent trumpet) that looks as if it were yanked from a Paris side street, complete with dark wood panels, mirrored walls and crystal chandeliers. It's also the place to get the best steak frites on the entire Boulevard, and we're not talking the Boulevard Saint Germain.
Friday evenings, the restaurant is jammed. The bar is three-deep with intense-looking industry types attempting to unwind, while a distinctly stodgier crowd sips Pellegrino at small tables. We angle for the cozy, moss-green banquette, strategically situated between the bar and the front window. After what seems like an eternity, a jacketless waiter comes by wearing a tie that looks like it costs him a week's pay. And he's surly, just like a Parisian waiter.
But it doesn't much matter. There are so many good things to eat here we are willing to overlook what we perceive as an attitude. Pissaladiere is, I admit, not the type of thing you get in Paris, but in Provence, it's practically de rigueur . This one is fabulous, a sort of pizza with a cracker-thin crust topped with shredded onion, olives and anchovies. It lasted about two minutes at our table.
Flannigan has a few classic starters on his menu. For instance, a French onion soup, if you like that sort of thing--a beefy, slightly sweet concoction in a silly brown crock. It's as good as you have a right to expect (yes, the cheese bubbles down the sides, right on schedule), but on the whole, you're better off chancing one of the special salads he prepares daily.
One night he made a luscious salad out of smoked chicken, radicchio, arugula and toasted almonds with a light vinaigrette, and it was almost perfect. He also put a more elegant affair together: haricots verts, fresh corn and lobster meat, a resonant trio of crunchy, sweet and complex perfumes. The curmudgeon in our group went for the Caesar, and complained that the kitchen used too much anchovy. Our social X-ray picked at a light salad of smoked salmon and cucumber with a dill and sour cream dressing--insubstantial, perhaps, but delicious.
Second courses at Mistral hardly miss a beat. Pasta, the one section of the menu that is distinctly not French, is a house specialty. Angel hair, that Ventura Boulevard standard, comes with its obligatory topping of diced tomato, garlic and basil, the quality you'd expect in any Italian trattoria worth its salt. But linguine with multicolored peppers, onions and Cajun shrimp, is heartier and friskier, more in the spirit of this room.
Our curmudgeon was quick to point out that his chicken Mistral was flawed. The chicken had been roasted with garlic cloves and rosemary, but the bird's natural crispness was obscured by a blanket of rich, deep brown demiglace, which upgrades this dish from bistro to dining room. We all agreed that the true bistro version would be superior.
But my New York steak turned out to be the envy of everybody at my table . . . and at the next table too. There's no denying this thing is a beaut: a thick, juicy, uniformly browned piece of meat, fried in butter and smothered with chopped shallots. And it's not as if having a pile of good, fine-cut fries on the side hurts. Call it a New York if you must, but in Paris, this dish is known as steak frites. A little white jar of moutarde alongside authenticates the proceedings nicely. The steak is available, incidentally, in a choice of styles. Apart from the shallot version I had, you can choose it topped with herb butter or green pepper sauce, even raw (steak frites tartare) .
Desserts here are exactly what you'd expect to find on a Paris side street, outside of the creme brulee (eggy and tasty in its oval dish), acetylene-torched for its sugar crust, California-fashion. Pear and raspberry tarts are particularly crusty and fruity, and there is an ultra-fudgy flourless chocolate cake to grab when it is available.
And don't miss a cup of the intense house espresso, if you like that sort of thing.
Now light up a Gauloise and look bored. Vive la France.
Where and When
Location: Mistral, 13422 Ventura Blvd., Sherman Oaks.
Suggested Dishes: onion soup, $4.50; pissaladiere, $7; linguine with Cajun shrimp, $15; N.Y. steak, echalotes, $19.50; pear tart, $4.50.
Hours: Lunch 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m. Monday-Friday; dinner 5:30-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 5:30-11:00 p.m Friday-Saturday. Full bar. Valet parking.
Price: American Express, Diner's Club, MasterCard and Visa. Dinner for two, $35-$55.
Call: (818) 981-6650.