Mimi's Seafood-Italian Restaurant
10160 Jefferson Hwy
Harahan, LA 70123
Napoleon's Rating - ****/*****
Mimi's of River Ridge has been around for quite some time, but if you haven't visited in a while you're in for a surprise. The menu, previously known for its fairly standard Creole-Italian fare, has been completely recast with regional Italian specialties, contemporary cuisine and some global influences, ranging as far from the expected Italian template as Korean and Japanese. That's the handiwork of chef Peter Vazquez, who earned a following for this sort of cuisine at his pre-Katrina restaurant Marisol and who joined Mimi's owners David Whitmore and his wife An Vu-Whitmore late in 2010.
The restaurant still looks like the same old Mimi's, even if it doesn't taste remotely like it anymore. It's tucked into a strip mall with a cluttered entranceway, drop ceilings and satellite radio playing nostalgic soft rock.
The servers often have quite a bit to explain here, thanks to the often unfamiliar, unorthodox menu, but they do it well. There are many nice touches along the way too, especially the house-made chocolates and toffee that often come out as a final, complementary taste after dessert.
Not everything at Mimi's is exotic, but the new approach from the kitchen has reenergized even the standards that many locals expect when they dine out for Italian. For instance, you can start with calamari, though in this case the squid is cut into long strands and served with aioli. There's a Caprese salad and a Caesar. But then there's sauteed escargot, not your typical Italian appetizer, here bathed in butter and garlic served over house-made pappardelle pasta. The steamed mussels are bulked up with smoked pork jowls in the broth and the bruschetta is smeared with chicken liver. If you remember the big, chunky, robust terrines Vazquez prepared back at Marisol you'll recognize them here too.
There are a few concessions on the menu to mainstream Creole-Italian tastes, like a short list of "classics." Lasagna, cannelloni or chicken parmesan all benefit from house-made pasta and good cheeses, though they're really just the safe haven on a menu that does so much more. Grilled swordfish slathered with pesto, ravioli with mushrooms and roasted pork and a veal chop with blue cheese and green peppercorn sauce is more like it. The specials, however, are where things get really interesting. On a weeknight it could be honey-braised beef short ribs over serrano pepper polenta, veal chops interspersed with taleggio ravioli or skin-on roasted salmon over edamame puree, with a little salad of roe balancing on top. The weekend specials are where the most unusual -- and typically the most exciting -- dishes turn up, often featuring fish we rarely see on menus and a mix of Mediterranean and Far Eastern flavors. One of the joys of this place is not knowing just where in the world the specials will begin or end.
Desserts change nightly and -- as by now you may have guessed -- they go way beyond the typical tiramisu. Recent examples have included chocolate torte with butter cream frosting and ice cream done in the style of a Mounds bar, only with rum-roasted bananas mixed in.
The wine list is heavy on Italian bottles, fittingly, and it features an interesting range. All bottles are half price on Wednesdays, which is a great invitation to try something new and perhaps a little out of your comfort zone under normal circumstances.
Prices have changed in step with the menu, which could be another shock for those expecting the same old Mimi's. Most entrees are over $20, and many of the appetizers are between $8 and $10. This is appropriate, and perhaps a little low, for this caliber of cooking and menu sourcing. Still, if you choose a weeknight when one of the special deals is offered on wine or dinner, the meal can be a real bargain. Tuesdays through Thursdays a two-course meal is $20.
The transformation of Mimi's has been dramatic, and those who show up expecting to gorge on red sauce and mozzarella will find themselves in the wrong restaurant. This is finely done stuff that alternately reinterprets Italian tradition or departs on creative and exotic flights. Either way, it's satisfying, refreshing, sometimes stunning and altogether welcome.