I was prepared to dislike Mimi's Caf, the Springs' newest Creole-inspired restaurant north of the Academy/ Woodmen intersection and minutes from frantic Corporate Center Drive and Chapel Hills Mall. After all, a franchise restaurant with French pretensions seems a pairing as unlikely as Eminem and Ellen DeGeneres.
Check those stereotypes at the door. Unlike many chain restaurants, Mimi's abundance does not betray a lack of fresh ingredients or thoughtful preparation. Instead, this relative newcomer (opened this past December) offers surprisingly good "handmade" American food -- in scandalous amounts -- with only a whiff of Creole regionalism. The eclectic menu of reasonably priced entrees strays from Thai to Chinese to Italian; some items, like the Fromage Burger, appear to be thinly veiled attempts to market traditional American fare as a Gallic cousin. But when entertaining a diverse crowd, my bets are on Mimi's for offering something that will appeal to everyone from the 4-year-old to the 74-year-old (and the finicky family gourmand won't get in a snit, either).
This growing enterprise was started in California in 1978 by Arthur Simms, a director of the MGM commissary during the '40s and a man with a romantic past. A WWII veteran ace flyer, Simms dedicated Mimi's to a fetching French woman whose town he liberated from Nazi occupation. Presided over today by Simms' son, Tom, Mimi's now boasts 50 locations in Arizona, California, Texas, Nevada and Colorado.
General Manager Mike Vinik describes management's intention as "creating a place where guests feel they can have all the comforts of home -- wonderful pot roast, for example -- but with someone else to wait on them and do the dishes." The bustling trade at the door attests to the appeal of this "home-replacement" attitude.
On a Tuesday night, our party was asked to wait 10 minutes in a pleasant bar with comfortable chairs and a fireplace. We were offered drinks, but not water, immediately upon being seated. When our gents received a warm beer and cold coffee, respectively, an attentive waitress quickly replaced them. Service was prompt, even eager, and boxes of our plentiful leftovers were thoughtfully marked with the restaurant name and date.
Appetizers can easily serve as rib-stretching meals. The Thai Chicken Wrap appetizer consisted of white grilled chicken, steamed rice, shredded cabbage, cilantro and won ton noodles dressed up in a sun-dried tomato tortilla. It came with piquant mango chutney and a spicy peanut sauce that my brother-in-law declared tastier than some he had sampled in Singapore.
My sister, who crafts a superb homemade French onion soup, found Mimi's version uninspiring -- made with better-than-bouillon beef broth, but in need of a tad more Gruyre cheese. She was happier with the fluffy Broccoli and Cheddar Quiche baked in a wheat crust. The Caesar salad had the right garlicky essence and generous shreds of real Parmesan, the entire effect abetted by pepper grinders left at the table for use at the diners' discretion.
Jambalaya -- curiously made with penne pasta instead of rice -- radiated a subtle heat that will tease cayenne lovers without intimidating more tender tongues. I was happily sated with less than half a plate of the unusually fresh shrimp, succulent chicken, lean pork loin and authentic andouille sausage bathed in a Creole tomato sauce with celery, onion and bell peppers.
My husband's Bouef Francais arrived as vellum-thin layers of tender beef piled on a grilled sourdough French baguette, the sultry au jus accompanied by a barbecue sauce that was smoky and not overly sweet. Even the rib-eye steak was right: charbroiled perfectly to order and flanked by roasted potato quarters and slices of a whole red onion and tomato.
The dessert cart was as redundant to our appetites as cleavage in a Madonna video. Deciding to share one irresistible delight, we passed over the Warm Apple Cinnamon Cobbler, the ice cream Maui Pie, Black Out Cake and Warm Chocolate Praline Bars for the New Orleans Bread Pudding. Served warm enough to melt real whipped cream, it was concocted with chunks of hefty French bread, lots of eggs, cream, vanilla and raisins, drowned in a golden whiskey sauce faintly reminiscent of butterscotch.
Fine and fresh ingredients are also the rule in drinks. The Mocha Latte uses only Ghirardelli Sweet Ground Chocolate and White Chocolate. Wine selections are mostly Californian -- except for one interesting Spanish choice -- and Mimi's offers a concise list of microbrews, including a moody Blackened Voodoo beer from New Orleans.
In keeping with the something-for-everyone approach, Mimi's also offers healthy entre options, an extensive children's menu and all-day breakfast selections.
Overall, our party was impressed, but I was left with a question that has haunted me for some time: Why do waitresses of the 21st century still assume that men pay the check? The young lady looked shocked when I took the bill.
My other complaint is superficial: Mimi's dcor should be refined to match the food's quality. The green-checked tablecloths and lace curtains are fine, but deep-six the plastic, cartoonish menus and garish Streetcar Named Desire trappings.
A little of that homey pot roast and -- who knows? Stanley and Stella might have had less anxious and unrequited appetites.