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  • Houston Has A French Complex—And We Like It

    Houston, Texas Published by Houston Food Finders, Author: Phaedra Cook

    Way back in 2001, brothers David and Sylvain Denis opened a little French restaurant called Le Mistral. In an interview for My Table magazine a decade later, David Denis, who is also the chef, said, “Lawyers would drive over wondering ‘Is this really it?’ when they saw it was in a strip center with a gas station in the parking lot.”

    In 2008, the brothers had grown the business enough to afford to move it to a larger, freestanding building at 1400 Eldridge—just down the street from the original location. Since then, they’ve never stopped expanding and it is fair to say that they’ve made a veritable French dining complex on that patch of land. That’s impressive, especially at a time when French cuisine is having to modernize and reaffirm its value through initiatives like Good France.

    Next door to the restaurant is Foody’s Gourmet, a multipurpose spot that combines bakery, patisserie and coffee shop. It’s a lovely hangout for an espresso and pastry, or for running in and grabbing a crusty baguette and container of French onion soup to take home.

    At happy hour, the place to be is Rouge Wine Bar, located in the back of Foody’s Gourmet, with several featured selections from Sylvain. He doesn’t go to competitions or solicit media attention—but he is, in fact, one of Houston’s top sommeliers. As might be expected, there’s a good selection of Bordeaux and Burgundy at Le Mistral. You can taste Sylvain’s pairings for yourself, not just at Rouge Wine Bar and Le Mistral, but also at Artisans in midtown at 3201 Louisiana.

    A pairing example: try a slice of opera cake with his pick of Mas Amiel Millesime ‘85, a wine comprised mainly of black grenache. It’s aged outdoors in clear vessels called demijohns before spending a year in oak casks. It’s ideal with dark chocolate, as the deep berry tones seem to just wrap around and soften the more strident notes.

    Then, of course, are the offerings at the restaurant itself. On weekdays, Le Mistral always offers a deliberately affordable “express lunch” for $10. For example, diners can start with a soup or salad before moving on to a pasta dish, like housemade tagliatelle with smoked salmon, Chablis cream sauce and fresh basil.

    There’s a three-course business lunch that’s also a remarkable deal at $20. One example is a soup or salad starter, followed by a Chilean sea bass kebab, with thyme-tinged rice pilaf, and julienned and sautéed zucchini, moistened a bit with a bit of saffron au jus. The end is always a fine little dessert, such as hazelnut ice cream covered in meringue with pistachio sauce.

    When truffles are in season, they are served as part of multicourse dinners, in a la carte entrées and shaved on fresh at the diner’s option.

    It is almost a given that that truffles might make an appearance at the Chef’s Table, unless the diner prefers otherwise. Chef’s Table dinners are hosted in an intimate dining room just off the kitchen and cost between $80 and $120 per person. (Drinks are not included.) Custom meals are created according to the diner’s preferences; something that Ryan Hildebrand of Triniti recently mentioned is a system he is adopting as well. The day of the “chef driven” tasting menu seems to have come and gone; “diner driven” menus have endured.

    That is much like Le Mistral itself, which will be 16 years old in October.

    The restaurant industry is undeniably hard and risky. Enduring establishments like Le Mistral prove that if the market exists, having a successful restaurant over the long-term is entirely possible—even if you have to start up next to a gas station.

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