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[whitespace] Showman Suppers

Mistral presents a local farm-food extravaganza

By Paula Harris

SET THE TABLE, set the stage. That's the motto master showman Michael Hirschberg, energetic proprietor of Santa Rosa's Mistral Restaurant and Wine Bar, and his equally star-struck staff seem to have taken on with unabashed theatrical glee.

"Dinner here is like a performance, it's akin to theater," says the boyish and bustling Hirschberg, who routinely plans ambitious themed dinner events for the popular restaurant as if he's a Broadway artistic director. "The audience--uh, the customers--walk in and ready or not, the show is on the road. The players must remember their lines and hit their marks."

Mistral puts on about 10 themed dinners each season. Sometimes the meal features a specific wine varietal, or is geared around a certain winery, or maybe transports patrons far away from the restaurant's functional business-park location to immerse their senses in the exotic cuisine of some distant land.

And the culinary show seems to be playing to raves.

For example, a Sept. 17 "Sonoma County Farms Dinner," a six-course extravaganza showcasing local farm products paired with five Sonoma County wines at $65 per person, appeared to be almost a sellout. I even overheard a woman at the next table tell her friend, "We should stand up and cheer, 'Michael, Michael!' "

Indeed, this particular dinner, a generous meal with full glasses of topnotch vino, rendered at a pleasurable relaxed pace, was a standout. The seemingly never-ending feast featured Bodega Bay chili pepper rockfish with Asti olive oil and preserved lemons, with 1999 Geyser Peak sauvignon blanc; Imwalle white corn risotto with Hog Island kumamoto oysters, with 1998 Matanzas Creek viognier; heirloom tomatoes with house-made mozzarella; grilled CK lamb chop and cannellini beans and greens, with 1997 Hamel syrah; baked Redwood Hill crottin (aged goat cheese) with arugula and roast plums, with 1998 De Loach "Barbieri" zinfandel; and Timbercrest fig ice-cream "Newton," with DeLorimier late-harvest semillon.

Some pairings have been truly inspired, such as corn and oyster rice with floral honey-scented viognier; perfectly balanced intensity of grilled lamb and syrah; roasted plums with jammy zinfandel; and fig and caramel flavors of dessert superbly amplified by late-harvest semillon.

Mistral chef Scott Snyder and Hirschberg obviously take great pains to continually come up with imaginative new pairings in order to keep the Wine Country's jaded diners alert.

"Sometimes the dish comes first and we search for the best wine to pair with it, and sometimes the wine is first and we have to create a dish to go with that," explains Hirschberg, who also teaches a class on food and wine pairing at Santa Rosa Junior College. "The pairing is our great passion."

DINERS CAN TRACE the roots of Hirschberg's food-and-wine pairing dinners to 1985 and his former restaurant, the upscale Matisse in downtown Santa Rosa. "In the old days it was more of a showpiece winetasting event--a six-course meal with wine. Matisse only had 12 tables and it got a bit highbrow, but it's now evolved into more of a fun thing."

At Mistral, where diners can have an eating experience that's as elegant or as casual as they want, the dinner events are diverse. One set is a seasonal multicourse meal dedicated to a specific wine varietal; for example, a meal featuring chardonnays during the heat of August, another with cabernet sauvignon and comfort food when the night air grows more crisp.

Another theme features a specific winery. But forget about having to endure some stuffy winemaker giving a speech on how to toast barrels or harvest grapes when all you really want to do is gorge and guzzle. "People are out for a nice meal, and they want to relax, and [winemaker speeches and such] are an intrusion," says Hirschberg. "We don't want to be teachy-preachy and force information down people's throats."

Viticulture's educational component is covered during the restaurant's wine seminar series, when the dining room gets transformed into a classroom of sorts, a panel of experts discusses all things vine and wine, and customers participate in a blind tasting and optional buffet. "In these, the focus remains on wine education," explains Hirschberg. "But in the dinners, the focus is on hedonism!"

WZHEN THE STYLISH, contemporary Mistral opened five years ago (as a new incarnation of Hirschberg's Ristorante Siena, which operated in the same location), the Mediterranean-inspired menu spanned France, Italy, Spain, Greece, and Morocco, but was not entirely successful.

"Not everyone was as familiar with those cuisines as they could have been," says Hirschberg. So now the regular menu focuses mostly on southern French cuisine. Not that that's restricted Hirschberg and Snyder. They get their kicks trying out exotic, authentic recipes for the periodic and very festive ethnic-themed dinners.

A recent "Supper on the Sahara" dinner, for example, featured Algerian brik stuffed with spiced lamb; Moroccan seabass with charmoula; Tunisian salads; chicken tangine with lemon and olives served with couscous; and almond, hazelnut, and pistachio creams.

On Oct. 15 and 16, the restaurant will feature a six-course Harvest Fair gold-medal-winner dinner, spotlighting eight of the triumphant wines. "I have to get hold of these wines really soon for the dinner," muses Hirschberg, who is one of the wine judges this year. Nice job that, being a wine judge. "It's not so easy," he remarks. "You have to spit out every drop as if you were sampling rat poison, otherwise you'll get blasted."

So why does Hirschberg stage these regular ambitious dining adventures? To keep customers on a flavor frenzy, tantalizing them with ever more exciting dinners, just like those crazy restaurateurs in the movie Big Night (another of Hirschberg's special dinner themes, by the way)?

Nope, it's because Hirschberg gets hellishly bored. Bored?

"Yes, I get bored easily," he admits. "I have a very low attention span. I always want to do something new all the time. I just can't imagine serving caesar salad and grilled fish every day of the week."

But after five years at Mistral isn't he fed up with it yet?

"Oh no," the affable Hirschberg replies with a laugh. "Hey, that's why I keep doing all these special dinners."

Curtain up.


Mistral serves lunch weekdays, dinner daily, at 1229 N. Dutton Ave., Santa Rosa. To get information on upcoming events or to make reservations, call 578-4511.

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From the September 21-27, 2000 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

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