Walking into Mistral around noon, I almost expected to see some sort of secret, daytime chaos that would explain how the restaurant pulls off its perfectly orchestrated dinners. But the restaurant was pristine and silent, sunlight poured into the room through large windows, and the kitchen hummed quietly in the background. In a few hours, the restaurant would be lit only by the tentacles of chandeliers and filled with the clink of forks on plates and the murmur of wait staff getting to know their guests.
I met with Shane Gray, Mistral’s pastry chef, and Mark D’Alessandro, the general manager, at one of the front tables at Mistral. I sat down for the interview and Chef Gray placed an elegant peach-blueberry cobbler in front of me, adorned with sorbet and spun sugar. “Betcha didn’t expect that!” he grinned. When Mistral opened in 1997, the South End restaurant founded itself on classic French dishes and an emphasis on hospitality. Clearly, neither foundation had cracked.
Chef Shane talks about an average day, citing methodical checks to staff and ingredients. Shane gestures to the mint garnishing the cobbler in front of me, “the amount of variables will blow your mind. The condition of the mint: the way it got here and who checked it in and it’s like that for every single item. Make sure we don’t run out of something. We have a fairly extensive menu. And then you add the front of the house, the linens and then the ” As the head chef Jaime Mammano puts it, “Perfect will be just fine”.
Shane explains that churning out consistently good food is why their tables are still full each night, 15 years later, “It’s because the Dover sole and the chocolate torte are the same as when they opened the doors.” And it’s clear that the staff exists to pamper their customers and provide this seamless dance between chef and server and table. “People look at that steak that’s $45 and freak out because of the cost”, Shane comments, but he says they forget that this is an experience. When you get up, your napkin is folded. Your glass is kept full. The diner has no task but to enjoy the food and conversation. “You can make that steak cheap, but are you really going to be pampered like that?”
Mark chimes in that though the element of hospitality is still often forgotten in calculating the appropriateness of a price of dinner, customers now are better versed in food than they were even five years ago. Mark explains that due to cooking shows and other media, diners are more menu-literate. Shane says that there is still education needed. After spending time in Paris, the differences in respect for chefs in France compared to the United States was obvious. “People still shop by price on a menu here,” he says, perhaps indicating that diners are missing the point: dining out is an experience to be savored, a time to check worry at the door with your coat, and simply indulge.
Of course, most evenings are not spent being catered to by the polished staff of Mistral, so for home baking inspiration, he recommends David Leibovitz’s blog and Parispatissiere.com. And when stuck in a pinch for a quick dessert, Shane suggests Zabaione, an egg foam dessert traditionally made with champagne but can be made with ginger ale, fruit juice, or beer. After imparting this last bit of wisdom for the home cook, Shane and Mark get back to work. But not before ensuring I am settled in to enjoy my cobbler. “Would you like some water?” Mark asks. I wave them off, telling them the gift of this beautiful dessert is enough. But, a glass of ice water and primly folded cloth napkin appear anyways and I dig into a perfect bite of sweet baked fruit, rich biscuit, and creamy sorbet. Clearly, Mistral will continue to help diners understand the art of being spoiled.
Mistral generously participates in Boston Bakes for Breast Cancer every May during the week of Mother’s Day. Thank you, Mistral, for your support and for the wonderful afternoon of conversation and cobbler!