The time in between other things is often spent best in sumptuous laziness.
Especially in cold winters, when all one wants is to snuggle, cuddle, sip hot chocolate and gaze at the snowflakes. This time we chose an alternative route for the time between Christmas and New Year, frequently spent with mommy sipping tea or making warm desserts. In the midst of Hogwarts designed and Transformers backdropped Princeton, we wandered into Scott Anderson and Stephen Distler’s Mistral, meaning windswept. It actually referred to the fresh water and air that sailors got at the Mediterranean sea, but with its sweeping blue logo, it reminded me more of windswept hair on a lover’s forehead.
With sunlight splashing off the walls, it was no surprise that I felt enchantingly warm and homey behind the French windows and Santorini blue mosaics, which while Greek by color, were Japanese by styling (Anderson had of course spent his childhood in Japan). A white tree branch acted as an awning to a few tables, giving the ambiance an understated and restful feel. We sipped on warm cider, frothed like cappucino with visible cinnamon specks. Intriguingly enough, the mix of spices was a distant reminder of mulled wine on the streets of a Christmas market in Paris (vin chaud!) with the appearance of one in Vienna.
The tapas style plates arrive in-sequentially, indicative of high taste and a low probability of overeating. Chef de cuisine Ben Nerenhausen, of former triple Michelin star Meadowood, drew inspiration from Pakistan and Egypt to add depth and character to the plates. Evident from the middle eastern spices glinting off the wafer thin poppadum like fritters, blanched in pale white like the winter snow.
With my obsessive kale streak, the actual kale salad itself arrived in an artistic vertical on a round plate, dominated primarily by purple and yellow hues, both respective fashion color trends of the year. With squash, purple lettuce, pomegranate and pine nuts, it had a variety of crunchy textures varying from the tartness of the kale to the gumminess of the squash and the crackle of pomegranate arils. Definitely a clear winner in the healthy market category.
As homage to winter was the winter chicory salad with Asian pears, candied hazelnuts and a herbaceous ricotta dumpling. While well plated attractively on a stone designed plate, this one seemed dry or underdressed, since the prime flavor came from the juiciness of the pears and the sweetness of the hazelnuts. The ricotta itself, besides not being my favorite, had low spreadability. A tasty salad though, despite the few hiccups.
And since my Californian experiences, I have found that no vegetarian meal is complete without a formation of beets. On a cast iron pan were both red and orange beets, lime, squash, creme fraiche and a dukkah spice blend. I heart beets, not just for their addictive red color but because their cooked texture reminds me of exploding candy. Mixed with squash, not only did it give a sunset hue to the plate but complemented with a tangy flavor. The spice blend, evoking Middle Eastern sentiment, was a bonus kick of masala flavor.
For dessert, I got my favorite carrot cake, identified here as a carrot cremeaux, hinting at its gastronomic deconstruction. For what I saw was a slab of carrot jelly on a gingerbread biscuit, outlined with pistachio and carrot shavings alongside raisins and a scoop of cream cheese frozen yoghurt. An intriguing concept this, for while I had had salad with sorbet dressing, I had never had the formats deconstructed to a point that juxtaposing them actually worked for the taste buds. The carrot tastes were the right balance of vegetable starchiness and sugar, and the ginger biscuit and frozen yoghurt gave a variety of spicy to healthy.
The chocolate dessert (an obvious staple) was a flourless almond chocolate cake with fennel ice cream, honey and candied walnuts. And after exploring juxtaposed flavors of ice cream, I have to say I lent my heart to fennel, a muted version of wasabi with only the pleasure and none of the spice. Plated in whimsy in glass plates sans structure, the cake pieces were outlined with rosemary, honey droplets and candied walnuts. The chocolate cake was surprisingly decadent, almost fit for a molten chocolate cake, and in decadent contrast with the earthiness of the fennel and cloying honey.
To sum up, the chef sent over coffee cacao meringues, perfectly puffed and speckled with the rightly done spongy inside and crackly outside. Another deconstructed way to end a meal with coffee.
Having added to New Jersey’s culinary pedigree, I was proud to have Mistral in the Ivy League neighborhood, in the vicinity of a hometown.
For there is nothing better than doing close to nothing in between other things.
Especially if nothing resides close to home.