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Review: Mimi's of River Ridge

Ian McNulty on a restaurant born again ... with the addition of chef Pete Vazquez

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Buzz that something new was afoot out at Mimi's of River Ridge led us to this erstwhile Creole-Italian restaurant, so we weren't too surprised to find thick-cut strips of calamari served with chimichurri and anchovy dip. Instead, it was an entree special that raised eyebrows at our table.

  It was bo ssam, a Korean specialty of raw oysters nestled in crisp lettuce cups topped with pork belly, served with sticky rice and garnished with sour red pepper sauce. Combining the cool, briny squish of the oysters and the rugged, salty crunch of the fatty pork was unusual but also intuitive. Serving the Far Eastern oddity at Mimi's, however, was downright revolutionary.

  In business for more than 30 years and run since 2001 by chef David Whitmore, Mimi's has been a reliable if unremarkable moderately priced Italian restaurant, a place where the occasional crawfish cheesecake was the exception and veal Parmesan was the norm. In late fall, however, Whitmore partnered with Peter Vazquez, the former chef/owner of Marisol, which never reopened after Hurricane Katrina.

  Today, Whitmore runs the restaurant and Vazquez is in charge of the kitchen. It still looks like the same old Mimi's — an outdated but comfortable dining room with drop ceilings tucked into a strip mall. On the plate, however, this is a completely different restaurant.

  Fans of Vazquez's edgy, boldly flavorful style will recognize his imprint here. He combines the precision of a French cooking school, the lustiness of a Mediterranean house party and the pungent exoticism of an Asian grocery shopping spree. It's understandable if Mimi's staff appears a bit breathless after reciting the night's specials. Many of the dishes require extensive elucidation and still elicit questions from the mostly curious, sometimes rapturous and occasionally baffled guests.

  In the seven months since his arrival, Vazquez has tempered his initial menus with a few more accessible dishes. Diners can still start with a Caesar salad, but that might mean squandering the chance for an appetizer of steamer clams in thick, spicy, smoky tomato broth imbued with pork jowls, or house-made pappardelle bundled around snails in New Orleans-style Bordelaise. There's veal piccata now, but also a veal rack interspersed with ravioli filled with buttery, assertive taleggio cheese and slabs of grilled king mushrooms, all laid over bright streaks of salsa verde. Various terrines — all chunky, laden with nuts and fruit, a Vazquez specialty from way back — rotate onto the menu.

  There's cheesecake, but also a sugar-dusted dark chocolate waffle with house-made ice cream. A gratis plate of truffles and toffee arrives after dessert and before the check — a final, superfluous but fully welcome reminder that this new Mimi's aims high.

  With crowds in town for Jazz Fest, it pays to know about a few offbeat places that are out of the way. Mimi's is not only out of the way, but when everything is clicking here it can deliver meals that are out of this world.

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