4000 Coronado Bay Road, Coronado
The ever-enchanting Mistral (née Azzura Point) has been remade again with a renovated dining room and new chefs. The executive chef for the whole resort property is Marc Ehrler, a hotshot direct from France. The chef de cuisine at Mistral, their fine-dining venue, is Patrick Ponsaty.
When it comes to Chef Patrick, I’m like that ’60s girl-group ballad that runs, “I will follow him/ Wherever he may go…” Ten years back, he was head chef at El Bizcocho, and his cooking knocked my socks off at a time when most San Diego cuisine left all footwear firmly attached. Ate there again a couple of years later — another knockout. I just wanted one more dinner to see if he might really be worthy of five stars, but the evening of my reservation, fires swept through North County, closing the roads. By the time the smoke cleared, the owners of El Biz fired Ponsaty (I don’t know why). He went on to work at La Bastide in Scripps Ranch and then Bernard’O in Rancho Bernardo, where I enjoyed excellent meals. When I interviewed him on the phone, he told me that the owner didn’t set stringent limits on his ingredients. Still, I was glad when I heard he’d be cooking at a resort again, which presumably offers more scope than even a serious bistro.
Mistral’s decor has also been renovated (yet again). They still have the old striped banquettes, but the look is airier, more casual and Mediterranean, and the views of the water are even clearer than before. The venue remains one of the most comfortable and romantic fancy restaurants in this area. Better yet, you need not dress up fancy, nor bring a thick wad of bills. Prices for entrées top out at $29 — meaning, it’s a lightweight splurge rather than a wallet-buster.
The one flaw that evening, in a restaurant known for romantic serenity, was a huge party of 20 hyenas, seated up front near the bar (to keep them somewhat out of the way). Their periodic outbursts of hilarity managed to drown out not only quiet table conversation but the singer-pianist belting ’em out at the bar. There was no pause, not even when the group received their dinners. Yeah, I’m a sourpuss, I’m a spoilsport, but I wish every restaurant had a soundproof purdah room to isolate large parties whose revels disturb the quieter pleasures of fellow diners. But observing this group proved instructive. The need to feed diners like this, who are paying no attention to their finely crafted dinners, explains why some of the food is less venturesome than I’d expect from this chef.
The cocktail list is genuinely creative, with a wide range of fresh flavors, rather than the usual booze-candy and commercial mixes. My Pisco Sour (Peruvian brandy, lemon, egg-white foam) was sourer than the typical tea-time (5:00 p.m.) rendition in Lima, but it grew on me. Emmy’s beautiful blue Mystique (blackberry vodka, Cointreau, blue Curacao) was on the sweeter side but still clean. Michelle’s Lavender Drop (citrus vodka, lemon, muddled lavender) strikes an ideal balance, to my taste. And Jim’s more macho Park Avenue (bourbon, vermouth, Angostura bitters) was fine, too. Lots more temptations on that list. They run $14 each, about the same as most appetizers, but for once you get flavor as well as alcohol for your money.
“This menu’s got Patrick’s name written all over it,” I told my friends. “Every item has a host of garnishes, most of them labor-intensive and matched to the main ingredient.” The extensive organic gardens of the resort also make their presence felt in a new attention to fresh-picked herbs and vegetables. The amuse, for instance, was an architectural arrangement of skewered heirloom cherry tomatoes balanced over a shot-glass of “tomato water,” which I think is the strained liquid surrounding the seeds. It was terrific, like snacking while wandering in a garden.
The most arresting and, let’s face it, awesome starter wasn’t on the menu at all, but a special lovingly described by our excellent waiter, Rick: a foie gras napoleon, layered with eel (yes, eel!), celeriac, and caramelized apples between two sheets of puff pastry. For this invention, Ponsaty won an award for “best appetizer of the year” years ago while he was working in Spain (at one of the top avant-garde restaurants there). I was delighted to discover that the foie gras wasn’t merely sautéed, but a section of a torchon (foie gras poached in a cheesecloth wrapper), lending both solidity and sensuality, with its baby’s-bottom “bite-me!” texture. The eel fell right into line in this odd combination, a taste of salty earthiness as a subtle anchor, which, along with the braised celeriac, established a sober side beneath the riotous sweetness of caramelized apple.
The on-menu appetizers take the opposite tack. Rigorously light enough to be a line of divine diet food, they tantalize rather than satiate. They include several interesting vegetable salads, plus one with Dungeness crab that sorely tempted me.
Our favorite was ahi tuna tartare, which is getting to be a bore on local menus except when the best chefs bring some imagination to it. The neat inch-high rectangle of chopped raw red tuna came with a quietly spectacular aspic of sliced cucumbers, a single Kumamoto oyster meat in the center. (I thought aspics were extinct, except for those ghastly Jell-O molds that some Americans inflict on each other at holiday dinners — but this dish proves that aspic is still a valid culinary art form.) Garnishes included fresh-picked herb salad, delicious even if naked of dressing, dill crème fraîche, and a sweet orange tuile cracker. It was all intensely bright and clean, a spa weekend in a few bites.
Maine lobster consommé is the opposite of a bisque — a thin, savory broth infused with more fresh garden herbs, with a couple of lobster mousseline dumplings afloat (that is, lobster bound with egg whites). This literally fits the definition of “appetizer,” making you hungrier for whatever’s next.