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RESTAURANTS : Mimi's: Big Portions, Low Prices and the Food's OK

May 13, 1988|Max Jacobson

Looking for a sure-fire formula for success in the restaurant trade? Air this one:

1) Find a prime location, preferably adjacent to any glitzy suburban mall.

2) Erect one stucco, country French-style house, with an abundance of cute little windows and surrounding flower beds.

3) Decorate the inside to resemble the interior set of a movie studio filming "An American in Paris"--awnings, posters and trompe l'oeil storefronts.

4) Stock the menu with every moderately priced item you can think of. Make sure many of them have some not-so-subtle references to France ( poulet Dijon, "les hamburgers").

5) Hire a troupe of attractive young waiters and waitresses for their upbeat approach to the restaurant profession ("I've never tasted it before . . . but it's really, really good").

6) Go public. Mimi's Cafe has 10 different locations, all of which are more or less identical. The interiors are identical. The menus are identical. Most important, the lines to get in are identical. I've been to four of them and each was packed to the rafters.

Why this apparent devotion? "Good food, big portions, excellent service," I heard on one sunny Saturday afternoon. "The best brunches around. . . ." "My kids love it."

It's hard to quibble with those kind of reviews. But don't blame me for trying.

I brought my family to the restaurant, and we didn't mind the wait either . . . at least until we were seated. Then the waiting began all over again. It took nearly 15 minutes for the waitress to bring a single beverage, and it was more than half an hour before the real food arrived. "Maybe they don't want to be thought of as a fast-food restaurant," a visiting nephew observed.

Anyway, we all needed time to make sense of the large menu, which combines a quirky mixture of such dishes as Chinese chicken salad, pot roast, tostadas and mesquite-broiled fish with an assortment of soups, salads, appetizers, breakfasts, burgers, sandwiches and desserts.

Mimi's sees itself as something more than a coffee shop, and less than a dinner house, so it is tough to zero in on what exactly it is that they specialize in. The answer is marketing. They do a bang-up job at that.

Because there is more than a hint of France to everything about the restaurant, you may bring to table the hope that the food is going to taste French. No such luck. The food tastes more like what the French think American food tastes like: too much sugar, too much salt, too much--period. Portions are generous, and some dishes are worth coming back for, but overall I would give the kitchen about a C+.

Appetizers like P.P's Cajun chicken wings are described on the menu as being so good that even Yankees love 'em. Maybe it doesn't help that I'm a Red Sox fan, but I found them oily and messy. Ditto an over-cheesed quesadilla.

Soups are somewhat better. The onion soup is passable, but it is too sweet and is topped with too much cheese. Stabbing it with a fork is the most efficient way to get at the broth.

Salads are rather standard, with good homemade dressings, including a just-right herb and a barely-too-sweet honey mustard. With the salads come a frozen fork--my wife's was so cold she couldn't pick it up. I had Chinese chicken salad, big enough for three, with so little of the advertised sesame oil in the dressing that you would have to be a physicist to detect it.

Things look up a bit when it comes to main courses. The mesquite-broiled fish is fresh and fine, an excellent value. Pot roast, served after 4 p.m., is surprisingly good, flavorful and tender.

Grilled creole sausages--a smoky one, and a veal one ("boudin blanc," the menu reads)--taste like the ones you can get from your grocer's shelves, and are flanked by a mound of sugary red cabbage. Mimi's apricot chicken, which my niece loved (even though she thought it was dessert), is prepared teriyaki-style with a soy glaze, apricots (and sugar) mixed in. The hot bread served with main courses is a big bonus.

Mimi's bakes its own muffins--honey bran, blueberry and buttermilk spice--and does a credible job. Breakfasts are the best deal here because these muffins come with all the egg dishes and because the fresh juices taste like they were squeezed to order.

Eggs Houssard ("seriously, the best" reads the menu) are, seriously, hardly different than the Eggs Benedict, despite a reputed crown of marchand de vin sauce which tasted to me like a reasonably competent Hollandaise with a soupcon of wine. However, the "tavern ham" used in the Benedict, which is the same as the "grilled ham" used in the Houssard, is terrific, meaty and smoky. Now if they could find a way to keep the English muffin from getting soggy. . . .

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