The decor at Mistral is understated: cream walls, leggy chandeliers, white tablecloths. The most striking design element is a large, ornamental clock on one wall, featuring Roman numerals but no hands.
This is fitting. Time hasn't changed much inside the French-inspired restaurant since it opened 15 years ago. But time has changed around it. In the late '90s, things were flush. Boston's fine-dining scene was blossoming. There were expense accounts and expensive wine lists on which to unleash them. Mistral was hailed as the hottest table in town. All the people there looked like celebrities or were, marveled the food and fashion writers. Everyone wore black. It was so New York!
Now the once-commonplace high-end restaurant is a rarer creature. We live in a gastropub world. Yet Mistral keeps on ticking, not the hottest but ever busy, a constant. The food always meets a certain standard. The menu features many of the dishes it has for years. In a market-driven, chef's-whim landscape, this brand of fine dining has become the exception. If the Locke-Obers of the world are closing, does this make places like Mistral the new old guard?
The restaurant was last reviewed in 2001. In the past, Globe writers praised chef-owner Jamie Mammano's mushroom "carpaccio" with roasted peppers agrodolce, thin-crust pizzas, crab ravioli, grilled beef tenderloin, and profiteroles. Those creations are all still served, and their lure remains strong.
The thin-sliced portobellos, tart with vinegar and tempered with sugar, let vegetarians share some of the meaty pleasures of Mistral's even finer beef carpaccio. The grilled pizzas are perfect for sharing, along with a nicely composed salad (try the lamb's lettuce with goat cheese and pecan melba). The pie that comes topped with a drift of mashed potatoes, thin slices of rosy beef, and a drizzle of truffle oil is the kind of highbrow-lowbrow bar fare one might indeed return for year after year. Crab ravioli are lovely as ever, silky pasta skins filled with sweet meat, served in broth flavored with thyme and tomatoes. Rare grilled tenderloin with horseradish whipped potatoes and asparagus in late fall is seasonless dining, eternal and well executed. And if the pastry in the profiteroles can be a bit tough, well, they are still profiteroles, filled with ice cream, chocolate sauce spilled on top, the kind of dessert that makes adults feel like kids.
Under executive chef Mitchell Randall, the kitchen does well by classics. Rich lobster bisque touched with cognac is topped with a crown of puff pastry, snuggled up in a napkin nest. True Dover sole is a true indulgence, with the market price on a recent evening $68. It is a noble dish, a fish of substance, cloaked in lemon, butter, and capers, with spinach and fingerling potatoes on the side. There is no tableside presentation, so you are paying purely for taste, not rigmarole.
But who orders lobster bisque and Dover sole with regularity? The modern diner gravitates toward pan-roasted cod with a striking scarlet lobster and beet risotto. It is too bad the fish is underseasoned, tasteless, unable to stand up to the bold risotto. And veal Milanese is so heavily breaded, the meat so bland, that Madeira sauce and sage offer little assistance. Accompaniments of red kuri squash and an impressive ruff of late-season maitake mushrooms have eye appeal but are bland, too.
Other inventive touches are more successful. Roast Cornish hen is rubbed in maple and cumin for New England-meets-Morocco flavor; the juicy little bird is cooked perfectly. And ricotta gnocchi are topped with tender, wine-braised boar perked up with plump currants, one of the tastiest dishes at the table.
For dessert, the romantic is tempted by an assiette for two: one profiterole, a little creme brulee, chocolate pot de creme, and berries with champagne zabaglione, miniature sweets over which spoons can meet cute. But the minimalist gets the better reward: executive pastry chef Shane Gray's luxurious sorbet, in vibrant flavors like cider, raspberry, and red wine.
On Sundays, Mistral has won fans for its excellent yet pricey brunch. All week long, the bar draws crowds with well-made cocktails and a wine list that seems designed to impress as much as delight, filled with big names and sometimes significant markups.
The restaurant is part of Columbus Hospitality Group, which also includes Teatro, Sorellina, Mooo . . . ., and others. The word "hospitality" is not incidental — the restaurant group prides itself on service as well as food. At Mistral, however, it is not as consistent as one might hope. One night a cheerful, competent server attends to our table; another, a bossy, supercilious one. Courses can be paced too quickly, plates dropped rather than gently placed in front of diners.
A few years ago, a friend and I spent an evening at Mistral next to a table of drunks behaving so boorishly it nearly ruined our dinner. On our way out, my friend was compelled to ask the unfailingly polite server how the man could stand it. "I just smile wide and think of the tip," he replied.
No one seems to be feeling their oats quite so much these days. The celebrities are fewer and farther between. But business is still steady, with a younger crowd than one might expect, a mix of diners here for work and for pleasure. Once the hottest place in town, the restaurant is now a mainstay. Time doesn't stand still. Evolution happens.