Share |

Mistral's in Manchester: French Fine Dining in a Beautiful Setting

Climb east away from the bustle of southern Vermont's shopping mecca, Manchester, and you'll quickly be in the Vermont you came here for: windy roads that climb and dip, signs for unspoilt National Forest acreage, ski areas and stellar views with no highways to ruin them. Your ears may pop and stomach stay a few inches behind on parts of the drive, but it's what makes Vermont so... well, Vermont. After buildings become sparse and trees dense, on the North side of VT 11/30, the small blue sign for Mistral's will appear.

The number of times I've passed the sign since living in Bennington on and off since 1997 are impossible to count. Each time I've had the same thought: I've got to go there sometime. Sometime was last night and surprises—the good kind—came at every turn, including the one my husband missed when turning into the restaurant. The signage is small and the road, Tollgate, nearly impossible to see in daytime because it takes a quick descent. At night it's even more hidden. Slow down; drive past and turn around if necessary.

I made our reservation by phone but there is also an online contact form to make reservations. Every table was full when we arrived so be sure not to simply drop in. Mistral's has limited hours, so I'd recommend calling in advance of when you'd like to dine if you are visiting from out of town.

We arrived about a half hour early. There were two reasons for this. First, I'm a staunch practicioner of the pre-dinner drink. Many restaurants don't plan for this when timing reservations so I find it easier to show up and grab a seat at the bar.  Second, the weather has been unpredictable and with the darkness and roads we didn't want to be late.

Parking is along the road, with river sounds and woods all around. I cannot even imagine the beauty of this during daylight hours. Upon entering it was brought to our attention, thanks to 24 framed certificates, that Mistral's has been recognized by Wine Spectator for their wine list every year since 1994. My money is on this trend not ending any time soon.

If you love wine, place Mistral's on your list of restaurants to visit. The by-the-glass selection is varied and interesting, but where Mistral's really stands out is their bottle list. They have a Chateauneuf-du-Pape for about $100. But look right below it and you'll find Gigondas (or as I call it: the poor man's CdP). Not any Gigondas, but a 2012 Château du Trignon (a CdP producer). These bottles will peak soon, as evidenced by the steal of a price, but perfect for those wishing to enjoy an excellent bottle at a reasonable price. Other gems on the menu include 2013 Gewurztraminer and several Haut-Medoc selections. Cheryl Markey has curated one of the best wine lists I've seen in the area that allows anyone to try wines we don't often see here.

Speaking of Cheryl, she was on premises last night and accomodating. She offered to seat us but was happy to let us sit at the bar where we chatted with Betsy, a former Mistral's staffer who was helping out last night. We talked about wine, beer, travel and plenty of other topics while Kris and I perused the by-the-glass options. I settled on the 2012 Tempranillo which was beautifully tannic and concentrated, as to be expected from a 2012 Rioja. A great way to start the evening. Kris opted for the Gnarly Head 2015 Petite Syrah. This is blended with Zinfandel and Merlot yielding a beautifully complex, big boy. Seriously. We both said, "That's a big boy!" after taking our initial sips.

Something else needs to be said about Mistral's and its relationship with wine: The use of the right glasses and the care that is obviously put into those glasses makes this a destination for anyone looking to really enjoy a dinner paired with premium wine. I didn't see a single scratch, not even the typical light one, or water spot and great care was made with every pour to use the appropriate glass. The staff at Mistral's understands exactly how to handle wine service.

While at the bar we took in the space. It's divided over three rooms, the bar being the one in the middle. Lighting is dim (hence the quality of my pictures) and, for the most part, the space is understated. The aesthetic is a little behind the times but it's not enough so that matters. Also, this is the perfect example of how restaurants are, and should be, about the experience of the meal. We may have pointed out a few questionable stylistic decisions but quickly forgot about them.

At a few minutes before 8, Cheryl checked in to see if we wanted to hang our coats and took us to a table along the read wall along the windows. We were right above the snow-covered river, and both of us couldn't get enough of the view. Luckily we were seated perpendicular to each other and could both enjoy it.

Diners were on the older side, as we expected. This is not a place for large groups of friends to laugh it up. There is a time and place for that and we're often in the midst of it. But Mistral's is truly a fine dining location and as such it is more subdued although all diners seemed to be having an excellent time. While there's no written dress code, diners were definitely dressed for dinner, stylish and only two were in jeans (this is unusual for Vermont). I was glad I donned a dress. It's definitely easier to fit in erring on the side of formal here.

Our server, Dave, may have been the best part of our evening. That's saying a lot because the entire experience was exceptional. He was knowledgable, friendly, and so much fun. The service was impeccable between following all the little rules (more on this later) like serving the wine properly and clearing from the right with the right, but never stuffy. Fine dining. French fare. We feared we were in for a pretentious meal, but we were not. Chef Dana Markey and Cheryl have found a beautiful balance of award-worthy food, quiet ambience and a complete lack of airs.

We really enjoyed having Dave, our server, as a part of our time at Mistral's. Dave added really nice touches to our meal. Upon my asking, "Is that crème brûlée?" he immediately answered, "Yes and there's only two left, would you like me to reserve one for you?" Why yes, yes I would.

For wine, we selected the bottle of Gigondas and were glad we did. Dave presented it beautifully and from the first sip to the last it was an excellent pairing for the flavors of our dinner. The versatility of the by-the-glass selection would allow for pairing courses but we had been in a CdP mood and excited to see a Gigondas on the bottle list. And it was a great bottle. In a year or two it won't be so it was nice to get it while it's still an excellent choice.

We started with the porcini and portobello mushroom ravioli. Dave suggested he give us four, split on two plates. I thought this was nice. Eating off the same plate at a place of this caliber would be likely make me feel uncomfortable. I didn't realize it was because we may have gotten into a brawl fighting over them. They were that good. When Dave came by after a few bites he said, "Yeah, I didn't want you to fight over them." Dave gets it. The pasta was obviously fresh and the balance of flavors from mushroom plus a simple broth and addition of diced tomatoes just melted in our mouths. The mushrooms retained some toothiness, giving a nice balance but the pasta itself was almost creamy, in the really good way that super-fresh pasta is. 

All dinners come with a simple salad of lettuces and celeriac that was the only disappointment. Diners can upgrade to a warm beet and spinach salad, which I recommend.

I ordered the filet with roquefort ravioli and cabernet sauce off the menu. The steak was expertly prepared from the sear lines on the outside to just the right amount of pink inside. The ravioli was flat, which was perfect because the amount of roquefort was enough to flavor the dish without overpowering. The sauce was incredibly light, a welcome change from most sauces. It kept things light and didn't overpower anything. A creamy sauce wouldn't have worked with the roquefort rav. The dish was plated with onion jam and mushrooms providing a perfect umami to complement the dish. There were also carrots, which were delightfully sweet and balanced the flavors nicely. One stalk of broccoli rounded everything out. I'm a broccoli fan but more would have been too much here. The plating and balance of vegetables is the perfect peak into Chef Dana's kitchen: one where every detail counts.

The lamb special (rack of lamb, thyme cabernet sauce) was also excellent. The rosemary and cabernet sauce added depth and the meat was beautifully seasoned, allowing the earthy flavor of the lamb to take center stage. The vegetable accoutrements were the same as the steak and the perfect accompaniment to the dish.

As our dinner stretched on, with us chatting and enjoying every bite, we also particularly enjoyed the music selection that cannot always be heard. It's kept low but as others cleared out we could hear it more. Someone had selected a playlist or station chock full of late 90's/early 00's adult contemporary that fit the decor perfectly and was a really fun touch.

We ordered one dessert in addition to the crème brûlée David kindly reserved. I'm a fan of crème brûlée and am pretty much guaranteed to order it if it's on the dessert list. If you go to Mistral's, please order it. The custard was divine. It was so smooth and rich but somehow also airy, almost like mousse. The sugar had varied levels of doneness and was still warm. Many places prepare and then keep these desserts in the fridge. Not at Mistral's. It had just gone under the torch. The differences in textures and lack of the often completely overdone, sharp-glass shell, made this a truly authentic crème brûlée.

You might not think of pasta when heading out for French fare but I absolutely recommend getting ravioli if it is on the menu when you visit Mistral's. Be it as an appetizer or part of a meal, the ravioli is show stopping. But, quite honestly, almost everything is. One thing I really appreciated about Mistral's was the attention to all of the old rules for formal dining. Two setting were removed from our four-top before we were brought over vs. having them removed once we were seated. The table was set perfectly. The wine was served at the correct temperature and quantity. Many restaurants, even those who are touted as fine dining establishments, have forgotten the beauty of these norms which do nothing to add to the quality of the food but simply elevate the experience and put attention on details. Mistral's is all about the details: every last one of them.  The only thing I would have changed about last night? Going when it was lighter out—I have got to see the view when it's lit by the sun.

Your rating: None Average: 5 (1 vote)

Recommended Reading

No related items were found.