“A breath of fresh air” is the byline of Mistral’s website, and a breath of fresh air it is indeed. With many Mediterranean/new-American establishments offering small plates/tapas menus elbowing for attention on Nassau Street (from the aptly named Mediterra to the debutante Despaña), Mistral’s owners Scott Anderson and Stephen Distler (who also jointly own another Princeton culinary gem, Elements) have a competitive edge: chef de cuisine Ben Nerenhausen. Nerenhausen injects innovation into the trite, has-been 90′s culinary buzzword “fusion” and elevates it to the status of “hybridity” by infusing his own biographical background into every dish and design choice.
Although I dined outside at an unassuming patio table, a glance inside revealed a Japanese minimalist interior design — honey-tinged wood, candy-coated black upholstery and sea-foam green and blue accents. The influence of Nerenhausen’s childhood permeates into the plating and dishes: matte black basalt rock slabs evoking a rock garden and Minimalist white ceramic dishes with Mondrian crosses presenting for my enjoyment regionally-sourced ingredients prepared in a traditionally Mediterranean way but with an Japanese zing.
Nominally a small-plates establishment, the portions at Mistral are generous and almost entrée-like in comparison to the tapas plates at Mediterra. With the plates all arriving at the same time, Mistral promotes no hierarchy among its dishes and instead encourages family-style dining. Their menu also evolves seasonally, as their regionally-sourced manifesto declares, but is neatly divided by terrain: “From the Fields,” “From the Water” and “From the Land.” Their house-made drinks more than make up for their lack of a liquor license. Their watermelon coconut cooler is a tall glass of bold blood-red liquid with finely ground and perfectly suspended pulp and a layer of thick coconut cream that ripples brightly over the tongue. The peach ginger kombucha, on the other hand, is an earthy, syrupy concoction, more vinegar-like than the average kombucha and so full-bodied that it is almost an entire course in its own right.
As the nature of the drinks seem to suggest, pretension — which is to be expected when words like “fusion” and “small plates” are thrown around — never materializes; instead, what manifests is a sense of whimsy and playfulness grounded in knowledge of the compatibility of the ingredients. The kale salad with shaved lamb, dates, orange and pepitas was the most refreshing salad I could have had to cure my post-Reunions hangover. The tongue bounces between detecting the crispiness and bitterness of the kale and licorice-accented fennel to experiencing the earthiness of the nutty pepitas and the smoky (but not gamey) shaved lamb slivers. The flavors found a union through the citrusy dressing, studded with jewel-like orange pulp bits.
The grilled octopus offers a similar bombardment of flavors: the small dollops of pimenton aioli provide an acidic flavor that is augmented by the sunny burst-in-your mouth heirloom tomatoes, all in addition to the smokiness of the evenly charred tentacles. The cubes of buttery brioche croutons, canary yellow tomatoes and the almost-abstract tentacle suction cups also make for a visually unique and appealing sight.
I took a chance on the special: spare ribs with pickled watermelon rind and microgreens. Although I did not exactly regret the decision, the spare ribs were too largely portioned, dry and generic in terms of seasoning. The picked watermelon, however, was refreshing, crunchy and unexpected, a sort of Western take on the Chinese pickled radish salad.
The gem of the meal, however, was the smoked garganelli. The gooey bright orange yolk of a fresh farm egg envelopes the perfectly al dente garganelli pasta like sea foam, and the earthy crunch of toasted hazelnuts, along with the zingy medley of chopped scallion and chives, cuts into the creaminess of the garganelli and yolk perfectly. This dish is sheer bliss. The only fault that I could find with this dish was that there not more of it.
I did not try the desserts because the portions were bigger and more filling than I had expected, but I will definitely be returning to Mistral, a veritable haven of cross-cultural culinary experimentation, for more culinary innovations, desserts and, of course, the smoked garganelli.
Address: 66 Witherspoon Street, Princeton, N.J.
Hours of Operation: Mon - Thurs: 11:30 AM – 3:00 PM; 5:00 PM – 9:00 PM, Fri: 11:30 AM – 3:00 PM; 5:00 PM – 10:00 PM, Sat: 11:30 AM – 10:00 PM, Sun:11:30 AM – 9:00 PM