In French the word “mistral” means wind.
More specifically, the word is a noun used to describe a cold, dry, northerly wind that blows through the Rhône Valley and South France to the Mediterranean coast, mainly in the winter.
The neighborhood bistro
In Sherman Oaks, California, Mistral is the name of a warm and charming neighborhood French Bistro that settled down at 13422 Ventura Boulevard, in 1988.
The locals call it a gem. New and frequent visitors call it quaint and romantic. Restaurant critics have lauded its delectable cuisine and impeccable service for the past 20 years.
The magic behind Mistral is owner Henri Abergel, a man whose casual elegance and warmth is barely eclipsed by his welcoming smile and brilliant eyes. His long term staff of 35 employees – from his Maitre D’ and chefs to those who bus the tables and serve the food – are truly the wind beneath Henri’s wings, and one of the main ingredients of his long standing success in the San Fernando Valley.
That success was a turn of fate and resulted from a detour Henri took after he arrived in the United States from his native country of Morocco (city of Marrakech) to attend high school and later college at UCLA. While in college he studied biology and economics. During the evenings he worked at a famed French restaurant in Los Angeles.
Henri became “taken in” by French cuisine and the restaurant business, and he left school to work full-time at the restaurant. After a 14-year tenure in management at a second top French restaurant in Los Angeles, an opportunity came to open his own bistro.
“It was tough going in the beginning, took a lot of hard work and long hours,” said Henri reminiscing about his early beginnings. “But now, on any given night, at least 70 to 80% of the patrons that dine here are repeat customers,” said Henri adding that many patrons, especially new ones are surprised to find a taste of Paris right here in Sherman Oaks.
Demystifying French food
Henri says the biggest misconception many people have about French food is that it is rich and laden with heavy, creamy sauces, and infused with lots of butter. For Henri it’s really all about employing the proper use of French techniques in cooking.
I must admit that after watching the 2009 movie Julie & Julia starring Meryl Streep and Amy Adams – and subsequently purchasing Julia Child’s book Mastering the Art of French Cooking – I was pretty much convinced of that.
“But the truth is in French cooking we use olive oil, we steam vegetables, and often we shear meat and seafood without butter,” explained Henri. “We still do a few cream sauces, but most are light sauces with olive oil and lemon.”
On the left side is his regular menu and you will find French favorites like New York Steak “Au Poivre,” Escargots a La Bourguignonne, and an array of salads, pasta dishes and grilled salmon and roasted chicken selections. But the right side is always a new menu which is printed every day. It often features fresh seasonal vegetables Henri hand selects from Tapia Brothers Farm, a local farm in Encino, California and the creation of new entrees frequently inspired by memories of his mother’s home cooking.
“I and my 3 brothers and 6 sisters grew up in an Orthodox Jewish family. My mother cooked every meal, and she baked bread in the morning,” said Henri.
“I have a lot of memories of the diverse spices she used and many of the dishes she made with chicken, lamb, fish, rice and vegetables. My mother never wrote down her recipes, but I cook from smell and taste memories. Those influences are definitely in many of the dishes we serve at Mistral.”
One of Henri’s great pleasures has been participating in an annual fund raising event at his son’s school. Anxious parents vie for an opportunity to donate in hopes of securing one of ten coveted spots for a cooking lesson followed by a private lunch at Mistral. Henri beams that his item always sells out quickly, usually within hours after the fundraising book has been distributed to the parents.
“It’s always a great gathering. We share stories about our children, I talk about my life, then my chefs show them how to make some of the dishes we will serve them for lunch,” said Henri. “Lastly, they sit down with a nice glass of wine and a delicious lunch they played a role in preparing.”
Pièce de résistance (or the main dish)
Henri offers his Free Range Chicken with Dijon Mustard Sauce Recipe, a favorite of the school parents and his patrons. I was honored to have his chef prepare it for me. I must say it was light, delicious, flavorful, succulent, cooked to perfection, and oh so French. And he had me at hello with the use of fresh tarragon, my absolute favorite herb.
Henri uses a half, deboned, free range chicken. He says the butcher at many local specialty markets can do this for you. His recipe contains approximate ingredient measurements and it has been adapted for home cooks.
So enjoy this jewel of a recipe and stop by Mistral and see why it’s the gem of the neighborhood. Just click on the link for restaurant hours. Bon appetit!
Free Range Chicken with Dijon Mustard Sauce
½ deboned, free range chicken (skin on)
2 heaping teaspoons Dijon mustard
1 cup heavy cream
1 teaspoon of each: fresh chopped tarragon, chives, parsley
Salt and pepper to taste
Set oven to 450 degrees Fahrenheit.
Salt and pepper chicken. Heat corn oil (a few tablespoons) in a sauté pan. When oil is very hot, place chicken in pan, skin side down. Cook until golden in color, about 3 minutes. Turn chicken and cook other side until golden in color. Place chicken in 450 degree oven and cook for 18 minutes uncovered.
While chicken is in the oven, add Dijon mustard and heavy cream to a sauce plan. Bring to a boil and reduce heat for 4 to 5 minutes.
Remove chicken from the oven after 18 minutes. Pour sauce on to a plate, add chicken and serve.