Review: Bistrot Mirabelle

 
By Mike Sutter | Fed Man Walking | 03.29.12
 
UPDATE 06.27.12: Bistrot Mirabelle has closed. Details in a letter from owner Brian O'Neill: "Bistrot Mirabelle is closing today (June 27). We will be closed until Labor Day. In that time, we will begin the process of opening a new restaurant with a new name that is American in both theme and food, and that caters to our Northwest Hills neighborhood. Thank you to all who have come to visit us over the last eight months. Your support and kind words have meant the world to us. Please feel free to talk with us via email at bonjour@bistrotmirabelle.comWe will post up our new name, menu and timeline as soon as they are complete. 
 
UPDATE 05.12.12: Former Shoreline Grill chef Dan Haverty has replaced Mirabelle chef Clint Bertrand.
 
If you had any doubts about what Brian O’Neill would do with Mirabelle after he bought it from founder Michael Villim in October, read his e-mail to me after he saw me shooting photos of the exterior: “Noticed you may have been taking pic of old roof sign when you were leaving. Being replaced in a couple of weeks. Last link back to old Mirabelle.”
 
The old Mirabelle was started in 1998 by Villim and fellow Castle Hill Cafe founder Cathe Dailey, and for years its meritage of Caribbean, French, Cajun, Indian and Italian cooking commanded strong support from customers and critics. In January 2011, the most I could coax out of three trips to Mirabelle was two stars, a demotion born of flavors that crashed into each other, distracted service and uneven cooking. Cinnamon, soy, sake, green apple and ginger might make a concerto somewhere else, but they seemed more like a bittersweet symphony in the sunset days of the old Mirabelle.
 
 
O’Neill took the shell and part of the name and created Bistrot Mirabelle, with a French menu developed by chef Clint Bertrand, whom he recruited away from a kitchen job in Austin that paid the bills but did little to challenge the skills he developed in California at Conduit, A16 and Jeanty and in Austin at Vespaio and Asti.
 
Bertrand’s menu makes room on Mondays for cassoulet, a dense peasant stew of white cannellini beans, housemade pork sausage and confit duck leg quarter. My first exposure to cassoulet came at a well-regarded South Austin bistro where they charged $34 for it and packed it with pork belly, lamb and duck for a bland, tan mess like canned pork ‘n beans.
 
Bertrand’s version pulls in stock flavored with tomato, carrot and garlic, then adds shredded beef short rib for texture. The French-trimmed duck’s leg suggested a long roast, but the bird was tender enough to pull apart with a spoon. The dish was baked to a searing bubble in a bowl hot enough to use as a branding iron, crowned by a crust of bread crumbs and cheese. In the thick of it lay nuggets of guanciale made from hog jowl that Bertrand cures in-house. That extra step infuses the dish with pork’s finest ethers. The dish started at $19.99, but a revised menu puts it at $13.95, a solid value.
 
Where the cassoulet is a town square, the mussels are a bistro table, well-cooked shellfish in a simple broth of white wine, garlic, shallots, butter and herbs, finished with a handful of french fries for $8.95. A daily fish special ($15.95) was lightly dredged in flour, pan-fried and plated over asparagus and sugar snap peas with an emphasis on snap and finished with hollandaise sauce thick to the point of congealed, a textural hitch on the down side, but on the up side, the density concentrated the flavor.
 
I met and interviewed O’Neill and Bertrand in October when I was shooting the restaurant’s exterior to report the sale. O’Neill’s a restaurant lifer, and he figured out who I was when I visited Max’s Wine Dive for a Statesman review in 2009. He was Max’s general manager at the time, a job he’s also held at Uchi, the Belmont, Annies Cafe and Chez Zee since moving to Austin from Boston. With my face being familiar to both the owner and chef, I can’t say whether you’ll have the same service experience I did, but it was cordial on each of my three trips, formal without being stiff. And I saw this: A very young hostess kept an eye on an older customer, and when her party got up to leave, the hostess retrieved her walker, discreetly snapped it open and helped the lady to her feet. I used a walker briefly after knee surgery, and restaurant people scurried from me like I had the zombie virus. Small courtesies matter more than you think.
 
The new interior is deep red rather than the dijon yellow of the old Mirabelle. The decorative art and ridged glass railtops are gone, replaced by a steamer trunk’s worth of French poster art and photography. The private dining rooms are still set off by their own doors, and just like the old days, one room was filled during a recent lunch with a civic group, a demographic mirror of the afternoon clientele, represented mainly by residents of the mature Northwest Hills neighborhoods nearby.
 
Bistrot Mirabelle has already tasted change in its young life. A menu that started with separate rosters for lunch and dinner has become one menu with a core of Southern French dishes and a kinetic roster of daily specials unified by tighter values. A $27.95 steak frites dish that pulled in New York strip with bearnaise thick enough to stand an espresso spoon has become a more modest $15.95 version with hanger steak and fries, bringing it closer to its roots as a modest meat-and-potatoes staple.
 
Under the old dinner menu, I was uncomfortable with the value of bouillabaisse at $24.95, with firm redfish and salmon along with shrimp and mussels in a tomato broth finished with butter. I caught a few decaying notes from the mussels in an otherwise decent bowl. Now that dish is a Thursday-only special at a more modest $15.95.
 
Among Bistrot Mirabelle’s core dishes is coq au vin ($14.95), which turns dark meat chicken into a tender braised stew of sorts without robbing it of the loamy character that makes the leg and thigh the best parts of the chicken. You can taste the component elements of the braise: the mirepoix of onion, celery and carrot in an aggressively reduced stock fortified with shallot, bacon and dark mushrooms, whose rubbery character was one of two textural issues in a full-flavored bowl. The other was too many small, loose pieces of chopped bone that challenged my table manners in the way that unchecked pinbones do in a roasted fish. Do I use my fingers or my napkin when the bones wind up in a bite?
 
Fries come with the coq au vin, as they do with steak frites and mussels and every sandwich. The kitchen would have my approval to put them with everything if decorum allowed, because the house-cut potatoes are neatly trimmed to hold the ideal ratio of crunch-to-fluff, a tribute to the art of the handheld starch.
 
I wondered if a pate of duck liver with fig jam ($8.95) might be a carry-over from the old Mirabelle, like the hacked chicken salad or the sausage-and-duck gumbo. Rather than a soft-spread ramekin like it was before, it’s a sturdy terrine that draws its strength primarily from a firm iron hand. Bertrand sends it out with a barely-pickled chop of cucumbers, dijon mustard, toasted ovals of crostini and fig jam with a taste and density like it had been scooped directly from a dried fig, with just enough sweetness to draw the liver’s iron backnotes like a magnet.
 
Salade Nicoise ($13.95) might throw you off with aggressive olive oil and lemon notes. It’s a tumbled construction of poached and flaked tuna, cubed potatoes and green beans on torn lettuce topped with crumbled and halved boiled eggs. Working through more classics, we tried Wagyu beef steak tartare ($12.95) with a deconstruction of its elements in neat pools beside it: shallots, black pepper, salt, dijon and capers. In their incorporated form, they gave the tartare a classic flavor profile, and a petite quail egg took care of the silky side, but the beef hadn’t been trimmed well of connective tissue, and a few bites took impolite bubblegum turns. I don’t see it on the new menu.
 
At $5.95, desserts are among Bistrot Mirabelle’s strongest value points, led by a mound of meringue the size of a tennis ball over lemon pudding cake the glowing yellow color of that same tennis ball and a well-executed creme brulee with a firm custard beneath a thin shell of toasted sugar. A chocolate tart was like the center of a truffle, but the crumbled cookie crust tasted stale. The kitchen added a layer of complexity with semi-sweet olive-oil ice cream, but its richness competed with rather than complemented the dense tart. I’d have liked something sharper, maybe acidic, to amplify the chocolate rather than mute it.
 
Fans of the old Mirabelle will miss Villim’s freewheeling wine list. There’s just no substitute for his ability to bring together adventure, value and volume. I'll suggest a $9 glass of Bordeaux blanc at lunch, a bottle of earthy red Chateau Carmes Cantillac Bordeaux ($43) and a French 75 cocktail ($9) in-between. The better to raise a toast to the Mirabelle that was, and another for what lies ahead at Bistrot Mirabelle.
 
 
Bistrot Mirabelle
8127 Mesa Drive, Suite A100. 346-7900, www.bistrotmirabelle.com.
Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday-Thursday. 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday. 5 to 10 p.m. Saturday. Brunch 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sunday.
Rating: 3 stars (out of 5)
 
(Photos, in descending order: Bistrot Mirabelle's new interior; cassoulet and mussels and frites; duck liver pate; coq au vin; chef Clint Bertrand, left, and owner Brian O'Neill. Photos by Mike Sutter © Fed Man Walking)