Restaurant Review: Bay View’s Mistral Redefines ‘Cinema Dining’ at the Avalon Theater

Mistral is named for the tempestuous wind of southern France. But here, it’s like a warm breeze.

Menu creation is a tricky thing. Huge menus can overwhelm diners and challenge the kitchen crew. A focused lineup of dishes the chef does well makes sense, but it’s difficult to balance with the desire to offer something for everyone. Mistral, the Mediterranean spot in Bay View’s Avalon theater, opts for welcome brevity – just six starters and six entrées.

Taking a cue from owners Jane Schilz and Lee Barczak, executive chef Joe Schreiter took a deep dive into Middle Eastern, North African and Western European cuisines. To the French demi-glaces and gastriques Schrieter excels at, he adds colorful culinary layers, with a great balance of flavors (sweet, sour, savory).

Mistral MKE

2473 S. Kinnickinnic Ave.

HOURS: Daily 5-10 p.m.

SERVICE: Welcoming, attentive.

RESERVATIONS: Recommended Fri-Sat.

Seared halloumi
cheese (left) and Tunisian brik with ahi tuna (below), from Mistral, whose dining room is shown at right; Photo by Chris Kessler

While a Marvel Comics flick might be playing in the theater, diners are cocooned inside the 32-seat dining room-bar. The rich colors, upholstery, heavy curtains and dark wood create an elegant but not stuffy atmosphere. Schreiter keeps the portion sizes manageable (filling but not belt-loosening heavy), so that a starter, entrée and dessert are affordable.

A good starter lead-off, the beautifully tender duck wings appetizer ($11) combines the skin-on meat, thickly brushed with sherry/black garlic BBQ sauce, and Israeli couscous seasoned with spicy Indian garam masala, sweet golden raisins and pine nuts. A little garam masala can go a long way, and it does in this well-balanced dish. I love the firm texture and roasty flavor of charred octopus, but here it was overcooked, some pieces chewy, but its companions – a creamy romesco sauce, gnocchi-like fondant potatoes and bold, salami-like chorizo – save this starter plate ($13). For its fitting marriage of flavors and texture, I like the seared halloumi cheese ($11) – a mild, semi-hard lamb, goat and cow’s milk cheese – served with tossed frisee-almond salad, honey vinaigrette and Moroccan-spiced jam. The salty but mellow cheese, seared golden, lends itself to a small-plate centerpiece.

Photo by Chris Kessler

Of the entrées, the mushroom Bolognese over cavatelli ($17) is the way to a vegetarian comfort-food lover’s heart. The thick mixed-mushroom-tomato sauce is hearty without heaviness, but it could use a sprinkle of salt. Schreiter’s Tunisian “brik” is a take on the North African phyllo pastry, served here filled with sweet potato hash and topped with a pristine fillet of seared-rare ahi tuna ($23). The silky harissa vinaigrette adds heat that complements, not overpowers. Most intriguing – and satisfying if you like yin-yang pairings – is the firm Pacific halibut with sour pickled cucumber, mellow green chickpea hummus, roasted cherry tomatoes, pumpkinseed oil and toasted sesame ($24). The mild fish and creamy hummus temper the sour pickles. A natural ending is the Mistral trio ($6), a house-made truffle, apricot stuff with mascarpone and pistachios and a buttery amalou (almond-honey) cookie with saffron pastry cream.

Sophisticated movie theater dining seems like an anomaly. The strong, cold French mistral wind, for which this restaurant is named, is the type to blow you over. And in its own way, this place does just that with its bright plates.

Photo by Chris Kessler
Photo by Chris Kessler

“Balmy Bay View” appears in the August 2018 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.

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Ann Christenson has covered dining for Milwaukee Magazine since 1997. She was raised on a diet of casseroles that started with a pound of ground beef and a can of Campbell's soup. Feel free to share any casserole recipes with her.