A mistral is a strong wind that blows only in southern France, accompanying the sunny, poetic accent of people from the south. In 1985, the popular, nostalgic song “Mistral Gagnant” by Renaud was a huge hit in France, suggesting we all stop to enjoy the little moments of beauty in life, moments when time was not moving too fast (and kids were not growing up too quickly).
The toll gate part of Mistral’s at Toll Gate alludes to the restaurant being at the last tollgate standing in Vermont, a gateway to a better road connecting the mountains and Manchester, charging half a penny, for example, for “clean sheep” to pass. In the 1940s, The Toll Gate Lodge rented cabins on the site. In 1988, chef Dana and wife Cheryl Markey opened the doors to the restaurant, its flavorful French food harkening to the winds of Provence and the message of “Mistral Gagnant” — slow down and enjoy a fine meal.
What of the food itself? Let us linger first on the appetizer, Coquilles St. Jacques. Its history — the last, I promise — celebrates the apostle James, symbolized by the scallop shell. Mistral’s classically prepared Coquilles St. Jacques features scallops, and mushrooms in a creamy wine sauce and gratineed Swiss cheese. It was so scrumptious that my friend Jack tipped his shallow bowl and spooned up the sauce’s last drops.
Everything served at Mistral’s is made to order — with one exception: the artisan dinner rolls, and they were tasty — a slight crunch opening to a soft warm yeasty center.
The duck liver pate with truffles was silky smooth and luscious. However, you might be disappointed if you were truffle hunting; shavings were few and far between.
The roasted duckling lured me this night — I admit being especially partial to duck — and I ordered it for my entree. Mistral’s selection comes from Crescent Duck Farm, the last purveyor of duck on Long Island. Arriving at the table, it looked cooked to golden perfection. Its crusty skin carried just the right amount of salty unctuousness, and one bite had me pointing at the duck with my fork and nodding — a culinary standing ovation. The duck meat was tender and delicious, given a touch of sweetness with dried blueberries. This was among the best duck I’ve ever eaten.
Jack’s entree was Atlantic salmon cannelloni — salmon stuffed with lobster and vegetables with a Beurre Blanc sauce. We were both wondering about the cannelloni, which seemed more metaphorical than literal: We didn’t really note the pasta. Despite that quibble, we both found the dish delicate and tasty.
Mistral’s is a multiyear recipient of Wine Spectator’s Award of Excellence, last winning the award in 2018. As expected, the wine list was comprehensive, with a surprisingly strong section of California reds. I selected the 2019 Mount Veeder Napa Valley Cabernet ($85), a dry cab whose fullness still did not overpower the salmon or duck.
Jack is not a dessert person, but fortunately, I am. The Godiva chocolate cake and cheesecake were delicious — no, I didn’t eat both — each light and not too sweet.
The ambiance of Mistral’s is dominated by the creek, on this night flowing swiftly outside the picture windows, a dramatic flourish of natural beauty complementing the beauty of the haute cuisine. Inside, however, Jack used the word “tired” to describe the decor, and I couldn’t disagree. We ate fairly late on a Thursday and were the last party to leave, the restaurant not being overly crowded, so having a conversation during dinner was easy.
If you’re looking for a romantic dinner, you might be happy with the flowing water. Other restaurants — Mystic, Social House, Silver Fork, to name three — have a more sleek, updated decor. If exquisite food is your goal, Mistral’s is right up there with the very best in Southern Vermont. For traditional French food, it is your best choice.