A French toast

You have to admit, the French are a pretty daffy bunch. Just when you thought socialism had gone the way of Pia Zadora feature films, the French gleefully gave it political mouth-to-mouth this June, filling the National Assembly and the prime minister's post with Socialist driftwood. And don't get me started on their tendency to get all dewy-eyed over Jerry Lewis.

Yet, this isn't to say that the French haven't made their share of contributions to civilization. Parisian architecture, for example, is so laden with aesthetic considerations it brings tears to the eyes, especially when stacked up against the bulk of American urban architecture, which seems to take design cues from TV dinner trays.

But gastronomy is where the French have made their most profound impact, exerting influence over virtually every cuisine on the planet. I mean, it takes special genius to create, with a blend of butter and herbs, gastro-paradise out of a snail--a creature the rest of us season with a heavy dose of salt and watch melt in our gardens. The French look upon food with desperate seriousness. They don't eat so much as they carefully apply cuisine to their gullets. To be among the lowest of the lowbrows in France--say on the order of a Chicago Cubs fan in this country---is not necessarily to be ignorant of the latest trends in literature, fashion, or painting: It's to be a culinary klutz.

French cuisine often gets so intimidating that arriving at a high level of appreciation seems beyond reach. Look through an expensive food magazine sometime and see if you can find a picture of a famous French chef who isn't wearing a self-satisfied scowl. Somehow, French culinary artistry is undemocratic and anti-American--not at all conducive to the hell-bent lunge at the fast buck. The breadth of this food is hard to translate to a nation that will open a bag of mesclun mix, spray it with olive oil-flavored Pam and slip it down without thinking twice. It's not crudeness necessarily; it's time. We've got Web pages to browse, cell phone batteries to drain, sport utility vehicles to gas up.

And this is why when it comes to expressing world-class cuisine to people with Chevy Tahoe payments and stacked videocassettes of missed Seinfeld episodes, "interface" is almost as important as food. By interface, I mean comfort, approachability, graciousness, and something that is painfully lacking in restaurants these days: joy.

La Mirabelle has all of these things; it gently lets you fall in love with French cuisine (bistro food) without even the slightest stink of snootiness. And it's a good thing, because locked in a shopping center on Midway at Trinity Mills, La Mirabelle is in an area ripe with unswanky strip malls and $500-per-child tax credits. It's a comfortable space--once occupied by the Bent Tree Steak House--steeped in simple elegance with hardwood floors framing a carpeted dining room space, a faux fireplace with a bull on the mantle, and half-moon shaped booths covered in floral-splashed fabric. The tawny-colored walls hold 18th and 19th century paintings.

Chef-owner Francois Fotre, who opened La Mirabelle with chef-wife Catherine earlier in the year, says he's trying to create the atmosphere of a small French hotel. To me, though, it felt more like a model town home in a hastily assembled North Dallas development: It's somehow too immaculately staged. Hailing from Alsace-Lorraine, Fotre was classically trained in France before he came to the States to work at Maxwell's Plum in New York. He later opened Tavern on the Green as executive chef in 1976 before moving to Texas, where he held a variety of posts, including concept chef for Brinker International and chef at the Stonebriar Country Club in Frisco, where he worked with his wife. It's the sheer force of this roving cook's genial personality that is perhaps the best thing about La Mirabelle. Far from offering gratuitous, heartburn-inducing greetings, Fotre stops by each table with a thick helping of sincerity, offering suggestions, explanations, and hearty smiles. Plus, he actually listens to you; his eyes never twitch this way and that as you're speaking.

Despite Fotre's roots, the first thing you'll notice about his abbreviated menu is the near complete absence of Alsatian cuisine. There's no chicken in Riesling, venison stew, or that classic Alsatian dish, choucroute garnie (sauerkraut with pork sausages and ham hocks). While he periodically offers an onion tart, Fotre claims many Alsatian dishes--especially those with sauerkraut--would be a tough sell to Dallasites. I disagree. Bavarian Grill in Plano packs diners in with sauerkraut-heavy sausage dishes, and it seems hard to believe a well-prepared choucroute wouldn't do the same. He says he'll experiment with some of these traditional dishes in the fall via invitation-only events. I'll be waiting.

But even if he doesn't, he offers much to hang your tongue on. Like all chefs, Fotre claims he uses only the freshest possible ingredients. Blah, blah, blah. How many times have you heard that load of headcheese? But after I sampled the mozzarella and tomato salad--alternating red and yellow tomato slices and cheese sprinkled with basil leaves, pepper, kosher salt and a Champagne-kiwi vinaigrette--I threw a question at him: Why can't this town get good tomatoes? Although the yellows were slightly mealy, this question wasn't meant to include this offering, as these were the best tomatoes I've had in as long as I can remember. To make matters better, Fotre uses Italian mozzarella made from buffalo milk that, instead of being firm and rubbery, is soft, succulent and flaky with a punchy brine tang. On the tomato question, he claims it takes a constant hounding of suppliers--in effect, educating them with a big stick--to get fruit with decent flavor.

His harassment obviously works, because the cold tomato soup, seasoned with basil, garlic, onion, salt, pepper and thyme, filled the mouth with an addictive set of simple, lively flavors. Leave it to a Frenchman to sniff out good produce in the land of steers.

I don't know if Fotre also harasses ducks, but his foie gras was rich and delicate with elegantly focused flavors and a sweetness derived from a splash of sauternes wine. It's served on a salad of Belgian endive, walnuts, watercress, tomato, onion, and diced potato drizzled with vinaigrette. The salad was fresh and appropriately bitter, providing a near perfect contrast to the slightly sweet foie gras. The downside to the whole assembly was the toast points, which, a bit too singed, tended to annihilate some of the more delicate liver flavors.

To get some kick out of those blah, blah, blah, fresh ingredients, La Mirabelle also tosses in a little theater. They do table-side culinary performance art with such things as Caesar salads, flambe, chateaubriand carving, and Dover sole filleting with a pair of table spoons. (Doesn't this seem a little bit like doing your taxes with an abacus?) It yielded, however, one of the best pieces of finned flesh ever to beg for a swallow. Soaked in a lemon-butter sauce spotted with garlic and capers, the fish was flaky, tender, tangy, moist, delicate, fresh, flavorful--I'm running out of adjectives. It was served with an aged basmati rice that was soaked overnight and cooked in chicken stock with a little butter and turmeric. The stuff was lively, fresh, almost airy in the mouth. How does he get rice to do that?

Other main-stage stuff that danced included the rack of lamb, which, while served exceedingly rare, was firm and tender without the stringiness that often plagues flesh this shade of pink. It was drenched in its own juices with only the addition of roasted garlic, which means your mouth clutched only the mild richness of the meat. It also included this square of thinly sliced potatoes spiked with nutmeg that made the fresh potato flavor scream. Quail came paired with sweetbreads (the thymus gland of a calf) sandwiched in puff pastry. This was an interesting combo. While the quail was moist, rich and chewy, the sweetbreads--drenched in a rich mushroom-bumped brown sauce--were mild and delicate, if slightly rubbery.

The wine list was difficult to grasp, and I'm not sure I can put my finger on exactly why. It seemed to have mainly token regional representations--a little California, a little Alsace, some Loire Valley, a little Rhone, some Bordeaux, etc.--and not much depth. I had my heart set on a Burgundy or a pinot noir and somehow settled on a Chateauneuf-du-Pape (La Fiole). Instead of being big and generously flavored, it was mild and delicate. After exhausting that, I was at my wits' end. So I asked Fotre for a recommendation from his private reserve selections, an unlisted assortment that includes pricey Burgundies like Domaine de la Romanee-Conti and a few Bordeaux. He poured a 1993 Cháteau Pouget, a fourth growth from Cantenac-Margaux. It was silky with a delicate richness that paired with our lamb and sweetbreads far better than my original selection.

The desserts seemed to stumble a bit. While the raspberry sorbet was supple, flaky, and surging with fruit, the creme brulee lacked the appropriately caramelized sugar crust across the top. No matter, you can top off your dessert with a stroll to the tiny bar area where you can yank a stogie out of the cigar coffin. How hip.

The service, while pleasant, had a few glitches, the most annoying of which was the reluctance to quote prices on specials and wine recommendations (sticker shock on the check is a bitch). On one visit, our server didn't seem to have even the most rudimentary grasp of the menu.

But these are just minor itches. The best part about La Mirabelle--named for a small yellow plum grown in Alsace--is you won't find any of those grossly exaggerated idiosyncrasies and stereotypes I babbled about in the intro--just fine cuisine in a comfortable, largely unpretentious atmosphere. After all, have you ever met a French person--Socialist or not--who's actually heard of Jerry Lewis?

La Mirabelle. 17610 Midway Road at Trinity Mills. (972) 733-0202. Open for lunch Tuesday-Thursday

11:30 a.m.-2 p.m. Open for dinner Monday-Thursday 6-10 p.m., Friday and Saturday 6-11 p.m.

La Mirabelle:
Cold tomato soup $4
Caesar salad done table-side for two $15
Dover sole $27.95
Rack of lamb $25


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