Updated: Monday, June 5, 2017, 3:01 AM
Scott Anderson, the "New Jersey naturalist" chef who at various times has served his food draped over logs and bird nests, was exactly where I expected him to be when I called recently to talk about the "why" of his latest venture.
He was not leaving the keys to a Bentley or Jag with the valet in front of Neiman Marcus at King of Prussia Mall, right next to where he recently opened an airy new branch of his Princeton restaurant, Mistral.
No, Anderson was out in the woods, foraging for post-rain porcinis along Stony Brook in Central Jersey. That is to say, he was about as far as one could be - spiritually, at least - from the beeper-lighted lines of zombie diners, soulless food courts, and deep-fried buffalo chicken spring rolls that have come to typify American mall food.
"The initial dialogue in my head was probably what you thought it was," Anderson conceded. "Am I really going to do this in a mall? What am I doing? But if the culture of the mall changes -"
If the mall culture changes, will the Forever 21 crowd actually go for the Thai-spiced funk of char-grilled squid in fish sauce over green papaya salad and a bracing glass of Gascogne gros manseng? A dewy fillet of day-boat halibut with dandelion greens? Or a warm lamb tartare over crispy grains and ramp oil topped with pink sumac tahini yogurt?
I've heard many variations on Anderson's hopeful note over the years from a host of big-name chefs who believed the integrity of their great dining brands - a transformative force everywhere else in American culture - could flip a switch and finally sway the shopping masses to their tables with the gravitational pull of a half-off sale at Nordstrom. It always turns out to be much harder than anyone anticipated.
So call me a skeptic as I step aside for the group of strawberry martini ladies stumbling off the escalator from Grand Lux Cafe upstairs, for wondering whether a restaurant can be too good to survive at a mall - even King of Prussia, one of the largest luxury malls in America. Wads of disposable suburban income have not proved a reliable prelude to a sophisticated dining scene.
Not that Mistral is playing strictly to the fooderati. Not in the least. In fact, there's a burger on the menu at Mistral, chicken wings and Caesar salad, too. They just happen to be outstanding versions of those tropes, the crunchy wings shined in pineapple-Fresno chili glaze beside a silky avocado dip; the charred half-pound burger of chuck, brisket, and flap umami-amped by a sweet and savory house-cured bacon jam.
There's no compromise on the part of talented chef de cuisine Craig Polignano, who worked alongside Anderson at the Ryland Inn before eventually becoming the Ryland's exec chef. This breezy and distinctly different adaptation of the Princeton original - a casual grazing concept beneath his high-end Elements tasting room - may well be an ideal template for the diverse needs of a mall community, with multiple small plates, snacks, and sandwiches for quick-bite visits to complement the option of more involved larger plates, and at relatively fair prices, with entrées hovering in the mid-$20s and most of the menu at $15 or less.
For $7, not much more than an Auntie Anne's pretzel combo, you can get a plate of grilled sourdough with honeyed ricotta and pickled ramps; for $10, a bowl of tempura-crisped maitake fronds and asparagus tumble over charred onion-miso puree and truffled vinaigrette.
With cerulean-blue tile work wrapping the central bar in a Mediterranean vibe, Mistral's signature windswept tree cast in a dramatic white frieze along the back wall, bare-wood table tops, a fireplace lounge, and open kitchen, there's a certain Crate & Barrel chic to architect Ed Eimer's design for the space that looks like it belongs. There's even a patio, with a view of the high-rent valet lot for those with an irrepressible al fresco urge.
Mistral has a bar program to make you want to linger, with polished classics (a Boulevardier or Aviation) and signature cocktails with a smoky mezcal twist (Oaxacan Lotus; Piña la Plancha). There's also a serious little wine list that avoids clichés, plus a certified advanced sommelier in Steven Gullo, who can wax convincingly about the minerality of a Corsican Niellucciu rosé or explain why the lagrein is ideal for the Sichuan-roasted pork belly. The outgoing service team here can elaborate further on any dish in detail.
But it is ultimately the food, including that great pork belly, sliced into tender ribbons aromatic with five spice and chili oil beneath Chinese long beans, that should earn Mistral its faithful. More of that pork belly, though roasted with slightly different seasoning, adds heft to the already bacon-rich dashi broth of Polignano's lip-coating ramen.
Mistral's menu draws on a wide range of international inspirations, from ricotta tortelloni in Parmesan broth with English peas to a grilled lamb meatball pita with feta that is one of the better sandwiches. Roasted chicken thighs are all-American with creamy grits. The warm lamb tartare shows North African tones of cuminy fenugreek and harissa puree. That colorful dish, with dabs of sumac-pink yogurt rising atop a mound of minced meat and crunchy grains beside a vivid green pool of ramp oil looks like an edible riverscape from one of Anderson's foraging expeditions.
But the Asian influence here is a common thread. Green coconut curry lights up the skate, whose wing is cleverly rolled into a tube that highlights two textures, the pan-crisped exterior and the fish's luxuriously moist inner flesh. Pork riblets get a Korean gochujang marinade and come with scallion pancakes and butter lettuce leaves that, when the meat is pulled apart, make for perfect roll-ups.
There were a couple of mild disappointments. The reheated confit meat for the Thai duck salad was unpleasantly chewy. The smoked salmon rillettes were more cream cheese than fish.
But these were blips amid a series of striking hits. A flatiron steak was perfectly juicy beside the 20-layer crisp of a potato pavé. An absolutely gorgeous tuna tartare, mounded at the edge of a plate dotted with a circus of colorful sauces - ginger lemon, yuzu crème fraîche, truffled miso vinaigrette - was even better mashed together and scooped up with black squid ink rice crackers.
For dessert, there was a moist medjool date cake à la mode and a "bowl of chocolate" with multiple cocoa temptations - mousse, brownies, Oreo crumbles, and ice cream - plus the salty bonus of house potato chips for scooping to ensure a properly decadent post-shopping splurge.
Then again, perhaps Mistral won't need to rely on fancy junk updates to succeed. That char-grilled calamari, sliced into ribbons and tossed in a very funky, spicy, basil-lit green papaya salad that I suspected might be too challenging for King of Prussia's palates, has turned out to be one of Mistral's biggest hits, the chefs tell me. So, maybe I'm wrong about the unchangeable nature of mall culture to embrace real food and a genuine restaurant. I hope so. Anderson and his talented team at Mistral have bet on it.
Next week, Craig LaBan revisits Mica in Chestnut Hill.