I grew up in the area around Princeton, New Jersey -- an ivy league town with mostly bush league restaurants. Princeton excelled (and still does) at good old-fashioned American college grub. Chuck's Spring Street Cafe has always had some of the best buffalo wings on the planet. Hoagie Haven has been the cheap go-to spot for hoagies and cheese steaks and various late-night drunk foods, for decades. And Thomas Sweets is the sentimental favorite for ice cream concoctions. But when it comes to fine dining, there's always been a dearth of destinations, especially considering the fact that Princeton is a top university town, smack between the food metropolises of New York City and Philadelphia, and the community has a lot of wealth. But apparently, not the most exciting palates.
I'm happy to report that there's been a wonderful addition to Princeton's dining scene, and it's called Mistral. It's not brand new -- it's been open for more than five years now. But that's time enough to prove it's not going anywhere, that it's found a home in this central New Jersey town. The project began as an outgrowth of another local newcomer-hotspot, Elements, which opened in 2008. Executive Chef Scott Anderson is an autodidact who spent part of his youth in Japan and worked in the kitchen of one of New Jersey's top dining destinations, The Ryland Inn. The Chef de Cuisine Ben Nerenhausen also grew up overseas, in Pakistan and Egypt, followed by college in Wisconsin, Culinary school in San Francisco, and a stint as sous chef at the famed Restaurant at Meadowood in Napa, where he met Anderson. The chefs' excellent techniques are apparent, and their food is clearly informed by their time outside the U.S., with heavy Asian (particularly Japanese) and Mediterranean influences on the eclectic menu.
Atmosphere: The setting here is comfy and somewhat cozy, a cross between ski chalet in B.C. or the Swiss alps and a Japanese mountain spa. Lots of natural materials dominate in wood, slate and stone. There is now an outdoors dining room contained within a walled area with a long and narrow gas fireplace in cooler months. The dishware is mostly a collection of hand-thrown ceramic ware with rustic, earth-toned glazes which perfectly complement the food style. There's an open kitchen in the main dining room, for those who like to watch their meals being created and plated. (Personally, as a chef, I loathe an open kitchen, so I tend not to watch out of sympathy for the chefs working).
Food and drink: As stated, the dishes run the gamut from Mediterranean influences (Italian, Moroccan, Spanish, French, and Middle Eastern) to Asian (Japanese predominantly, but sometimes Korean, Thai, and Indian flavors find their way onto the menu). These are plates mostly made for sharing -- not in a "small plates restaurant" kind of way that can bug me beyond belief, but in an "I need to try all of these dishes" kind of way -- and the result is a meal that feels interactive. As my Dad says after each visit, "It's a really fun way to eat dinner!": to the point, and I agree. Mistral used to be a BYO establishment, but now they have a small but interesting wine, beer, and cocktail list...and a new bar next door, to boot (something that's very exciting for the sleepy, decidedly un-hopping bar scene in this college town).
The food is too varied to explain it simply, or to do it justice, and the menu changes seasonally and is constantly evolving, so what I highlight here may not be available again. But I will say that far more dishes are hits than are misses (and the misses are never failures, they're just perhaps not as interesting or exciting as I might have hoped given my high standards for the place). So herewith, a collection of the eclectic dishes I've enjoyed at Mistral...
Falafel salad, black sesame, sprouted grains, carrots.
Charred squid, green curry, coconut, peanuts, puffed rice.
Roasted sweetbreads, gnocchi, corn, chanterelles, black truffle.
Charred hanger steak, beets, bone marrow, dried currants.
Cornmeal bucatini, shrimp sausage, egg, and herbs.
Short rib, scallions, sticky rice.
I've always been so eager to try so many dishes that I've never had room for dessert! Servers bring a plate of brown butter biscotti with the bill, and you can always wander just around the corner to the Halo Pub for some old-fashioned ice cream.
66 Witherspoon Street