Mistral Kitchen's Winds of Change

With a wide range of dining options, a new, all-embracing Mistral sweeps into Seattle.
Sara Dickerman  |   May 2010   |  FROM THE PRINT EDITION
Mistral Kitchen’s William Belickis takes on an ambitious and risky experiment in dining­; at right, bluefin tuna crudo

The smell of duck fat beckons, but the air is cool—and so is William Belickis’ demeanor as he sears foie gras on the large griddle, or plancha, of his customized Jade range. Tall, pale, with ebony hair, Belickis is dressed in a short-sleeved, dishwasher-style shirt. He is an unflustered master, with time, despite a mini-rush, to deliberate on what kind of salt to send out to a table that has requested it (he chooses an Alaska sea salt, gathered from the bow of a friend’s boat). Just a few months into operation, his new space, Mistral Kitchen, is functioning pretty much as a revamped version of his old restaurant, Mistral, where for eight and a half years the David Bouley–trained Belickis personally cooked high-end tasting menus for the most fastidious diners in Seattle.

Mistral Kitchen is meant to be much more than its predecessor. The former incarnation in Belltown had serious devotees, but Belickis wasn’t one for PR, and his restaurant was too spendy and capricious to command the zeitgeist. His new space, between downtown and South Lake Union, is designed to expand his audience by appealing to the hungry masses, not just the fine-dining elite. As such, it hosts a cluster of concepts: his aforementioned domain, called the Jewel Box, an intimate greige space where diners eat tasting menus of four to eight courses; the superpremium Chef’s Table—sandwiched between the Jewel Box and Belickis’ own spotlighted cooking station—where he cooks and hosts the evening meal; and Mistral Kitchen itself, which serves more casual à-la-carte food.

Mistral’s remaking is one more sign that serious dining of the tasting menu/white linen variety is going through a major restructuring here (and across the country). Diners want fantastic food, but they don’t always want to sit for hours in a quiet room, pondering the Madeira sauce. Thierry Rautureau has opened a more populist space, Luc, to augment his beloved Rover’s. Lampreia as we know it has closed, and the talented, mercurial chef-owner Scott Carsberg is opening Bisato, a cicchetti-style restaurant, in its place. Longtime Herbfarm chef Jerry Traunfeld has reapplied his talents in the casual restaurant, Poppy. Belickis is trying to have it both ways: to continue to craft finely wrought tasting menus to a clientele he cultivated at Mistral, and also to seduce more carefree, casual diners into his world ($5–$15 for small plates; $20–$35 for entrées). The big gamble, then (and it’s a huge gamble for Belickis, who owns the restaurant with his wife Meagan), is whether he can craft a confederacy of restaurant concepts within one grand space, without emphasizing the gap between the luxury diners and the more frugally minded. After several meals there, I’m still not sure he can.

The various elements are joined in a sinuous snake of a space designed by  world-class architect Tom Kundig of Seattle’s Olsen Sundberg Kundig Allen. At the point of the triangular building is Belickis’ show kitchen, with the Chef’s Table just steps away inside its own low partition. Behind it, and a partial wall, Jewel Box diners eat in quiet pairs and foursomes in a room of minimalist cool. Waiters glide among the tables, their footsteps muffled by carpeting. The Jewel Box ($60 or $90 per person, not including wine) and Chef’s Table (where I have not eaten; $200 per person, including wines) are billed as separate concepts, but they are linked in luxury, like the business and first-class sections of an international flight.

About a bowling alley’s length from Belickis’ perch is Mistral Kitchen per se. Here on “the casual side,” as it’s often called, the palette is darker, the lighting brighter, the music livelier. One can even dine, as a glamorous threesome did recently, without taking off one’s sunglasses.

In the casual kitchen itself, things are hotter (literally) and more crowded than at Belickis’ station. One evening, I elbowed up to several other patrons at a kitchen-side counter. Just in front of us, Yutaka Saito, owner of the late, great Belltown sushi restaurant bearing his name, showed a young cook how he seasons a piece of raw bigeye before plating it. And a strong young cook with a fireproof Mohawk worked the hottest station in the place: an igloo-shaped woodburning oven from the same oven makers who brought a little bit of Naples to the Via Tribunali chain, and a pit-like tandoor into which he cast meat speared on 3-foot metal spikes. If a restaurant could be judged on equipment alone, this place would be a legend already. There are no stoves in the city more covetable, and no porcelain or flatware more elegant.

Belickis has invested in talent, too. There is Saito, who has been training his kitchen staff in the ways of seafood. Neil Robertson, the analytical pastry chef who has previously worked at Canlis and for French chefs Joël Robuchon and Guy Savoy at their restaurants in Las Vegas, wittily de- and re-constructs classic desserts (tiramisu is a mascarpone mousse with espresso granité and banana caramel). And Belickis has found a rising star in historically minded bartender Andrew Bohrer, late of Bellevue’s Chantanee, who practically bursts out of his tailored vest as he enthusiastically discusses the origins of tiki drinks.

Bohrer first made his talents known to me when I anted up $100 (including wine) for the eight-course meal at the Jewel Box. Sometime after the foie gras course (served crisp-skinned on a pear-Riesling purée), he came into the dining room wheeling a little cart of the sort a magician might use. He described the drink he was preparing as Armagnac mingled with kisses of Lillet and allspice dram, and served with a dash of Laphroaig single malt. Just before he poured the cocktail, he took a block of ice and carved it into a faceted, fist-sized jewel. A little nutmeg grated atop the mini-iceberg was not for us to consume, he said, but to enhance the aromatic component of the drink. The fanfare could have been a little much had it not been such a delicious drink, which, in the end, is just the right balance you want to strike when you order an extravagant eight-course menu.

Belickis isn’t a natural showman like Bohrer, but his food is marvelous. His scrupulous cooking makes for dishes with a crystalline, almost gem-like appeal—no murky flavors here, no overuse of butter or fat to blur the edges of a less-than-perfect dish. On one night, Belickis built our Jewel Box meal into a crescendo, each plate more satisfying than the next. Arctic char was nestled in a bright caponata with a cooling splash of yogurt and a smoky swirl of paprika oil. A rosy squab breast was perched amid a goth-dark composition of black trumpet mushrooms and huckleberries. And the last meaty course, a succulent lamb chop, apparently sourced from paradise, was paired with mashed potatoes so creamy they were more sauce than starch. The wines, from offbeat Washington whites to classic Bordeaux reds, were a treat as well. It was a lovely meal, even if the pace was languid bordering on narcoleptic: We spent some four and a half hours at the table, and the first 40 minutes without so much as a cocktail nut to nibble on.

Beyond their partition, the Jewel Boxers can’t really see the Mistral Kitchen diners, or vice versa, but most everyone can see Belickis in his kitchen. He wants to be the conjunction of all his concepts, and, as such, he makes a point of personally cooking two or three things on each night’s Mistral Kitchen menu. But even beyond those items, there is no doubt that his restrained culinary vision—light on starch, heavy on seafood and sun-bright vegetable flavors—has driven the bistro menu into impressive territory. Take as evidence the fantastic lamb that had been roasted in that fiery tandoor, or butternut soup as smoothly napped as Ultrasuede.

But it still seems as if Belickis has yet to totally focus his talents on his casual space and cultivate a vivacious atmosphere where the food is as spirited, bodacious and frisky as one of Bohrer’s cocktails. Some of it is due, I think, to the isolation of the chef’s kitchen: Belickis might be able to see the action in Mistral Kitchen from his panoptic perch, but he can’t eyeball a bruised endive leaf, or a soupy kale gratin. He can’t taste and correct a turnip and foie gras dish whose undercooked vegetables make it seem oddly pinched and miserly. And there’s something a little aimless in the atmosphere at Mistral Kitchen: It needs a jolt of joie de vivre—from Belickis or from an authoritative surrogate—if it is going to serve as the essential watering hole it wants to be. With gleaming design, top-flight equipment and talented people, Belickis has created the ultimate chef’s playground and there’s no reason diners on both sides of the Jewel Box divide shouldn’t have equal access to the fun.


COORDINATES
Mistral Kitchen
South Lake Union
2020 Westlake Ave.; 206.623.1922; mistral-kitchen.com
Brunch Sat.–Sun.; lunch Mon.–Fri.; dinner daily $$–$$$$