Restaurant reviews are snapshots in time, an editor told me not long ago as I struggled over a rating. Not what happened five or 10 years ago or what the future might hold, but what's going on right now. And right now, the critical darling Mirabelle is only a two-star experience.
In 13 dishes during three visits, I came across too many overcooked proteins, too many sauces and garnishes that overpromised and underdelivered, and service that was spread too thinly to back up the accolades I've heard and read about the place since it opened in 1998.
Two of my occasional dinner guests are fans of Mirabelle, one for nights with wine and jazz, another because he said it reminded him of the old Castle Hill Cafe without the long waits for a table. That's a flattering comparison, and it makes sense, because Mirabelle owner Michael Vilim and co-founder Cathe Dailey also ran Castle Hill at the time of Mirabelle's birth. Echoes of that relationship endure. Mirabelle and Castle Hill (now called Corazon at Castle Hill) still share menu favorites like Mexican and Asian chicken salads and a lunchtime dish called Lucinda's Basil Cheese Torta.
But whatever magic that sister-restaurant symbiosis once held has worn off for me. I liked the old Castle Hill, but Mirabelle reminds me more of Streat, the international street-food concept Vilim started last year. You'd never confuse the settings — Mirabelle has an amber-saturated suburban charm; Streat is an urban lunch counter built for speed — but both step on themselves as they crowd together flavors and styles.
Asian, Mexican, Italian, French, Indian, Cajun. At Mirabelle, you're seduced with all kinds of dialects from a fluently written menu. Take this entry, for a pork chop ($23.95): "Cinnamon-soy marinated char-grilled Asian pork porterhouse with sake-laced green apple relish, yakitori-seared bok choy, jicama, eggplant and mushrooms with ginger-spiced sweet potato mashers." Or this, for lamb ($24.95): "Braised lamb fore-shank with chianti lamb reduction, citrus mint gremolata, creamy Parmesan polenta and wilted kale with smoked onion vinaigrette."
What I kept coming back to was, "These words describe this?" The pork was like sawing through a raw pineapple, all crust and fiber. The lamb was overcooked, dry and sinewy, with a bitter edge sharpened by kale that was way too sweet. The more subtle elements got lost, their flavors mingled into gray, like paints swirled together.
Much brighter but no less compromised was a Szechuan chicken salad ($11.95 lunch/$14.95 dinner), a tumble-down meat-and-greet of purple cabbage, yellow corn and field greens with no real spice, just a pool of sesame-ginger dressing and fried wonton pockets saturated with oil.
My enthusiasm for an "exotic mushroom sautee" ($8.95) wilted into a homogenous mass when it seemed all the exotica had been cooked away, even if the accompanying Gorgonzola focaccia bread was spot-on. An unlikely flavor union of bacon-wrapped redfish, cashew curry and mango relish ($22.95) worked well except for fish made lumbering and dense by overcooking. A blackened shrimp appetizer ($8.95) brought flavor and technique together — Cajun spice, sharp Gorgonzola cream, well-cooked shrimp — but a Brillo-wy blanket of fibrous leek "hay" gave the dish the out-of-time look of '80s hair.
What I'll say in Mirabelle's favor is that entrées are conceived with vegetables and starches, and when they work, the value is right. Mushroom bread pudding and sautéed green beans rounded out a beef tenderloin with nutty Gruyère butter for $26.95, and a pork tenderloin crusted with sage and topped with sweet green apple purée and fig slaw with mashed potatoes and green beans made a solid lunch plate at $12.95.
Three more dishes that worked: Creamy and cool pâté with duck and mushroom ($6.95) was mild and reassuring, served simply with bread, cornichons and Dijon mustard. Duck and sausage gumbo ($4.95 for a cup) was unapologetically swampy brown and just as complex. Beignets ($7.95) stuffed with apples, chestnut and currants in a barely corporeal sabayon cream, challenged only semantically by their closer resemblance to fried pies.
But true harmony — all of a restaurant's strengths expressed in one trip — was an elusive commodity on my dinner visits. One night seemed to suffer from a vacuum created by one of Mirabelle's signature wine dinners. In the tight world of the wine illuminati, Michael Vilim's a made guy, and his connections make possible the well-priced multicourse and multiglass dinners that fill the restaurant's big private dining room from time to time (see the information box for the latest dinners). We felt the energy sucked out of our side of the place as the staff filed into the party room with tray after tray. I wanted to be in that room, because our night was a mixture of benign neglect and long, cricket-chirping interludes between courses of uneven execution.
On the up side, Vilim's connections and an almost philanthropical drive to make good wine more accessible combine for a wine list that's big, smart and almost untouchable for value. An example? That $24 bottle of 2008 Markus Molitor riesling, the one that pairs so perfectly with wasabi and apple-mango relish on an appetizer of lobster crisps ($9.95), is marked up less than $10 from its common retail price.
I don't know what precipitated another night's languor, when the dining room was busy but only one side of the private room was occupied. The long waits didn't make for a better pork chop or lamb shank.
You might argue that this isn't fast food. And you'd be right.
But on that second visit, the waitress at the next table obviously knew it hadn't been one for the highlight reels. Her table included a low-key local celebrity. They were seated the same time as we were, experienced the same delays through dinner and were finishing up at about the same time. She offered apologies and free dessert. Our guy didn't. There are advantages to being known at a restaurant, whether it's for who you are or how often you spend your money there. I felt like a usurper in the company of regulars.
One advantage of the drawn-out dinner? By the time our rich, three-layer chocolate torte ($7.95) came, our Spanish red wine that had started out so hot and tannic had breathed itself past adolescence into more civil adulthood. At Mirabelle, most fittingly, the wine had the last word.
8127 Mesa Drive, No. A100, 346-7900, www.mirabellerestaurant.com
Hours:Lunch 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Mondays-Fridays. Dinner 5:30 to 9 p.m. Mondays-Saturdays, until 10 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays.
Prices:Soups $3.95-$7.95. Appetizers $6.95-$9.95. Salads $11.95-$15.95. Main courses $17.95-$26.95. Desserts $4.95-$7.95. At lunch: appetizers $4.95-$7.95, salads $8.95-$11.95, sandwiches $9.95, main courses $9.95-$13.95.
Payment:All major cards
Alcohol:Wine and beer. The wine list carries more than 50 whites, including six sparklers, at $14-$90 per bottle and 18 by the glass at $4.50-$9.50. The list carries more than 65 reds at $18-$135 per bottle, with 17 by the glass at $6.50 to $11.
Upcoming wine dinners:World Cup Wines: Kermit Lynch tasting at Streat (3211 Red River St., reservations at 628-0288) at 6:30 p.m. Saturday with 10 wines and food courses for $25. Aquitaine Bordeaux dinner with Jean-Michel Calvet at Mirabelle (reservations at 346-7900) on Jan. 24 for $65.
What the star ratings for upscale dining mean:
: Food, service, atmosphere and value suffer flaws on every level.
: Serious room for improvement, with a few bright spots.
: A good overall experience. Clear mission, solid execution.
: Excellent across the board. Perfect in some areas, with only a few small distractions.
: An extraordinary restaurant experience from start to finish.