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French Re-Connection

The Food at Chez Mimi Is Simple and Nostalgic

September 08, 2002|S. IRENE VIRBILA

Above the kitchen doorway, Chez Mimi is spelled out in cornflower blue tiles. From behind the desk in her cluttered office, where cookbooks lean together like old friends, Mimi (short for Micheline) Hebert presides over her namesake Santa Monica restaurant.

A generously sized woman given to capacious dresses and a Louise Brooks bob, she spends the night fielding phone calls and writing out bills. Old customers and friends may lean in the doorway to chat a minute, yet Hebert all the while keeps a careful eye on the kitchen. The French-Canadian turned up in Los Angeles back in the late '70s as the chef and part-owner of the little French cafe Chez Helene in Venice.

Hebert eventually bought out her employers and moved Chez Helene to a pretty brick cottage in Beverly Hills. Next to the pretensions of restaurants like Bistro Garden, Chez Helene was a breath of fresh air, a simple French restaurant where you could find a good roast chicken, a fine gigot, or a proper tarte tatin. But every restaurant has a life span, and after 11 years in the same location, when Hebert got an offer good enough, she sold out with the idea of taking some time off to write a cookbook.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday September 15, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 8 inches; 307 words Type of Material: Correction
Restaurant address--The address for Chez Mimi ("French Re-Connection," Restaurants, by S. Irene Virbila) in the Los Angeles Times Magazine on Sept. 8 was incorrect. The address is 246 26th St., Santa Monica.

It never happened because soon after, she found an even better space on 26th Street in Santa Monica, a trio of cottage-like dining rooms with a courtyard patio that joins all three. That was nearly five years ago, and Hebert has never looked back. At Chez Mimi, she's serving more people than ever, especially during the summer, when she fills both inside and outside every night.

She may have moved two times, but, curiously, Hebert's menu remains the same, even though it purports to be seasonal. She serves cassoulet in August, and onion soup, too. Her kitchen is unwavering in its devotion to an ideal of French cuisine entrenched in the past. Safe to say she's never been tempted by nouvelle or any other current that's swept through French kitchens in the past 30 years.

At Chez Mimi, she's serving the kind of French food restaurants served in this country as Julia Child published her first cookbook. Mimi's pate, for example, is reminiscent of Julia's chicken liver mousse, which graduate students by the hundreds conjured up in the their blenders from chicken livers, onions, butter and a touch of Cognac. Hebert's onion soup, crusted with a wad of oily cheese, is the sort that countless little bistros around Les Halles, the old marketplace in Paris, used to serve in the early hours of the morning.

Some of her nostalgic dishes are delicious. I love her chilled cucumber soup swirled with cream and garnished with scissored dill, or the soothing vichyssoise. Escargots are tender and big, with an ineffably earthy taste. They're served in plenty of the standard garlic and parsley butter. Her mushroom salad is simply sliced brown button mushrooms marinated in a lovely vinaigrette and set on a few leaves of lettuce. It's so unusual now to get a salad that doesn't have a riot of ingredients that this one stands out. She lets the mushrooms speak for themselves.

Among the main courses, poulet Chez Helene, roasted chicken perfumed with lemon and rosemary, is as homey as it gets. Her gigot d'agneau, roasted leg of lamb, isn't a bit rosy, but the taste is perfect, served simply in a splash of natural juices. Calf liver is excellent, still pink in the center, served with mashed potatoes and carrots.

One night, I order truite aux amandes simply because you never see it on a menu anymore. But the trout, sad to say, is overcooked and doesn't have much flavor, it still has lovely bits of crisp skin and is showered with handfuls of golden toasted almonds.

Hebert is not the kind of chef who spends a lot of time searching for the perfect product. It's all basic, fresh, but nothing special. She relies more on the genius of French cooking to accomplish that sleight of hand of turning the mundane into the delicious, which works sometimes and not others.

The cassoulet, even if you had an appetite for it in the August heat, is an oddball version dominated by so much tomato it tastes as if an entire can of tomato sauce had been tipped into one serving. The taste is more like cassoulet crossed with Boston baked beans. The best part is the rich pork sausage.

Bouillabaisse is more of a warm weather dish, and though she gets the elusive taste of the broth right, everything in it is woefully overcooked--the lobster, the chewy mussels, the fish. It is not her proudest moment.

For the most part, the wine list is uninspired. The regular list doesn't give the vintages for white or red wines. It's better to head straight for the two-page "special limited selections" insert in the middle, which not only lists the vintages but describes the style of the wines and which dishes they might best accompany.

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