February 20, 2006

No place like foam

Hamachi1.JPG Parsnip soup w scallop1.JPG
Mistral's ever-changing menu features hamachi, parsnip soup with scallop

The best chef in Belltown, hell, the best chef in Seattle, William Belickis, no longer has a menu. He and his kitchen crew at Mistral ring improvised changes on a classic framework. Last time I was here, there was a 5-course "market menu," a 7-course "chef's menu," and a 9-course "Mistral Experience." There were printed menus and a printed wine list; you could pick your bottles or let the servers pour a glass to match each course. That was then.

Now there's only a brief, uncertain conversation with the waiter, who explains that you've really got one choice: 7 courses or 8. Like a symphony, like an opera, you’re in for a predictable structure: an appetizer (amuse-bouche in French, incorrectly called "amoozay"), a soup, one or two fish courses (that's your choice, remember?), foie gras, a meat course, a cheese plate and dessert.

That's like announcing the team's starting lineup: enough to make you head to the ballpark. Ya gotta know the players; the excitement is the game itself. And what a game it turns out to be!

William serving a guest.JPG Pintade w spinach1.JPG Mistral on Urbanspoon
William Belickis serves a guest; guinea-hen with spinach

The amuse is a piece of sushi-grade hamachi atop shavings of hearts of palm, bits of grapefruit and a gram or two of microgreens; the subtle flavors and contrasting textures are brought together by a remarkable froth with the tangy bitterness of celery.

Celery bubbles? Indeed. More below.

Mistral, 113 Blanchard, 206-770-7799

Now, depending on your relationship to the waves of culinary fashion, bubbles are the next big thing, very in, or already so 20th century. Dude named Ferran Adria, restaurant called El Bulli, north of Barcelona, came up with the notion of foam…turning food into air, if you will. The point is to simultaneously challenge and satisfy your senses; haute cuisine, like fine art, is both intellectual and emotional. You just want dinner, go order a pork chop. Just don’t try it here.

You probably shouldn't try the foaming thing at home, either. You can get fine, stiff and stable bubbles by adding gelatin and shooting your liquid with nitrous oxide, or you can sprinkle in some soy lecithin and use your immersion blender. Using the latte attachment on your espresso machine or your whipped cream charger would just make a mess.

The foam reappears in several of the courses Belickis serves. The kitchen's classic brown butter and parsnip soup comes with an orange crescent of carrot foam next to a seared scallop. Silky snapper features rice beans. A breast of pintade (guinea hen) sits atop salsify surrounded by a saffron emulsion and a swatch of spinach. Wait, wasn't this supposed to be a second fish course? And what's that being served at the next table?

Duck liver w apple crisp1.JPG Oregon lamb w swiss chard1.JPG Mango sorbet 1.JPG
Duck liver with apple crisp, Oregon lamb with swiss chard, mango sorbet

Turns out the chef's menu can vary not just from one evening to the next, but from table to table, depending on the kitchen's rhythm. Nothing's cooking ahead of time, so it's literally "Let's do something with these chanterelles." No amateur hour, though. Chef de cuisine Charles Walpole at the stove, currently assisted by Stacy Fink and Juan Sanchez, has been with Belickis for over two years now.

Artisanal duck liver, seared on just one side so it doesn't dry out, is served atop a comice pear with a dried apple chip and just enough crumbled ginger snaps to evoke an aroma of winter. Oregon lamb is served on a bed of fingerling potato puree and swiss chard. A panoply of artisanal cheeses is followed by a palate-cleansing dessert of mango sorbet atop a slice of pound cake flavored with Meyer lemon.

William (does anybody actually call him Chef Belickis except for the maitre d'?) used to stay in the kitchen, one of the shyest chefs in town. How'd this guy ever get hired at David Bouley’s in New York, let alone start his own place? Now it's clear: it's the modesty of a master. The shave and haircut help, too: he looks ten years younger than he did two years ago; he has a new confidence in the dining room, he seems excited to be ferrying plates out from the kitchen, pouring wine
for his guests.

When I first moved to Belltown, I would peek behind Mistral's curtains and mourn there would be a mere handful of diners at one or two tables. Traffic picked up though. Mistral was doing 100 covers a week two summers ago; the last few weekends have been sold out. No question, William’s modesty, patience and confidence are paying off.

Oh yes, the damages: 7 courses go for $75, 8 courses for $90. Five matching wines are $70, or $100 for a "captain's flight." You'd easily pay three, four, five times as much in New York Paris or Tokyo, but you'd be no happier.

Posted by Ronald Holden at February 20, 2006 10:11 PM