Dining » Restaurant Reviews

French Impressionism

Mimi's Café is a long wait from Paris.


I'm an impatient fellow. I think my time is too valuable to stand around waiting for anything except superb concert tickets, the payout for a lucrative bet at the racetrack or the chance to be a contestant on The Price Is Right.

That's why I've never understood why some diners wait as long as two hours to get a table at the Cheesecake Factory, where the food is tasty but hardly remarkable. I mean, after two hours, wouldn't you expect four-star cuisine rather than oversized burgers, mashed-potato omelets and a 1,560-calorie slice of cheesecake? If I'm not working, I'll happily go to a less-crowded joint rather than endure a trendy boîte's packed bar. Yes, I prefer civilized restaurants -- the kind that take reservations.

Johnson County's current hot restaurant, the one-month-old Mimi's Café, isn't uncivilized, but it's not going to start taking reservations until November. The corporate policy, issued from its California headquarters, is that the free-standing restaurants don't take reservations for the first two months they're open, and only for parties of six or more after that. Why should they? The minute the newest Mimi's -- number 66 in the fast-growing chain -- opened at Oak Park Mall, customers were happily waiting 90 minutes for a table.

But the wait times seem to be decreasing. I waited only forty minutes on a busy Friday night and just twenty minutes when I dragged three friends for a late Sunday supper.

The delay is relatively painless, thanks to a spacious waiting area where a bartender or a manager will, upon request, gladly run out with a cocktail or an appetizer. It's also a perfect place to eavesdrop on hilarious conversations. One young couple gazed in awe at the décor. "It looks like it belongs, you know, on a mountain!" marveled the male. "Yes! In Paris!" echoed his mate.

Huh? A mountain at EuroDisney, maybe. The brand-new building is done up in a quasi-cottage style, with cream-colored stucco walls and lots of rustic (phony-looking) knick-knacks, some reminiscent of the Shirley Temple version of Heidi, others from Irma La Douce. Rooster-inspired plates, cookie jars and gee-gaws clutter one area; in another hang French signs and posters and, ooh la la, a painting evoking the spirit of both the Moulin Rouge and Hanna-Barbera.

"What exactly is this restaurant supposed to be?" my friend Bob asked our waiter, an apple-cheeked youth nattily attired in a black-and-white-striped bistro apron. The kid was thrilled with a chance to rattle off the company line.

"We offer classic American homemade food with a little of the flavor of France and New Orleans," he said. Mercifully, he didn't go into the corporate myth behind the name, which weaves together a tale of World War II, an American spy, a French girl named Mimi and artichoke hearts.

Puccini's Mimi, the heroine of La Bohème, wouldn't recognize the "French flavor" of the décor or the menu at Mimi's Café. Despite Gallic-sounding names for a couple of dishes, the place is a straightforward American diner. But local patrons can sing an aria or two over the restaurant's primary lure: Mimi's gives frugal consumers a lot of coup pour le mâle. For prices comparable to Applebee's, TGI Fridays or, yes, the Cheesecake Factory, the portions are huge, the service is genial and the stuff that comes out of the kitchen actually tastes good.

There's not a meal that costs more than $14, and dinners include a petite salad or one of three hearty soups. A delicious French onion steams under a thick blanket of mozzarella cheese, and the creamy corn chowder tastes as if the corn had just been husked. But this isn't some rural luncheonette or country café. The appetizers cost nearly as much as a dinner entrée and aren't nearly as filling, though I did find that a crock of taupe-colored spinach-and-artichoke dip took the edge off as we waited for a table. The pile of Cajun popcorn shrimp wasn't particularly generous, but everyone seemed to love the greasy, crunchy miniature crustaceans, freshly netted from some bubbling deep fryer. They weren't a bad snack, but the flavor was hardly Cajun -- the golden breading was no more spicy than the wedge of watermelon on the same plate.

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