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By PETE TITTL, Contributing columnist
I've written in the past that so many national restaurant chains were hit by the economic distress of the past six years that they've been rethinking their business practices. Too many had become like Taco Bell food-assembly operations, paying kitchen staffers $14 an hour to reheat food pulled out of plastic bags that were shipped from a company plant. Considering the high quality of what people can buy at Vons and Trader Joe's, why go out?
California Pizza Kitchen was one of the first to change its practices, and now the Irvine-based Mimi's Cafe chain has made similar moves, trying to recapture the restaurant's appeal as a French cafe with fresh vegetables, made- on-the-premises soups and sauces and a much simpler menu, streamlined so the kitchen can handle the changes and still provide quality that will lure people out of their home kitchens. Though the early results based on our visits are mixed, it's a smart trend that some chains still aren't following. With the attitudes toward freshness in food ingredients shifting, I think that folks who resist this shift are on the wrong side of history.
Something to dish?
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4025 California Ave.
Hours: 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday through Thursday and 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Reservations recommended.
Prices: Breakfast: waffles, $6.99 to $8.99; "griddle," $5.99 to $7.49; specialties, $8.29 to $8.99; eggs Benedict, $9.79 to $9.99; omelets, $8.99 to $9.79; two-egg breakfasts, $6.49 to $8.99. Dinner: appetizers, $3.99 to $9.99; salads, $6.99 to $12.99; specialties, $10.59 to $17.99; steaks, $17.99; burgers, $7.99 to $10.99; artisan sandwiches, $8.99 to $10.79.
Payment: MasterCard, Visa, American Express and Discover accepted. Personal checks not accepted.
Amenities: Wheelchair accessible; beer and wine served; some vegetarian options.
Here's what Mimi's added to the menu:
Le Burger de Madame ($10.79), on a brioche bun, with cheddar cheese, bacon and a fried egg, with the beef "sourced from a small farm in Merced, California," according to a company news release.
Pomme Lyonnaise Benedict ($9.89), traditional eggs benedict made on crispy potato galettes topped with sauteed spinach, bacon, sliced tomatoes, poached eggs and traditional hollandaise sauce.
Bacon apple waffle ($7.49), three petite waffles topped with bits of bacon, chunks of apple, syrup and "French-imported orange zest."
Bouillabaisse ($12.99), a classic French soup made with shrimp, scallops, mussels, potatoes, tomatoes and white wine.
Tournedos du boeuf ($17.99), made with "homemade mashed potatoes and your choice of small-batch bordelaise or bearnaise sauce made exclusively for Mimi's." (Note that doesn't mean it's made in the kitchen).
Mediterranean salade with herbes de Provence chicken ($11.79), made with roasted chicken, minced bits of crunchy prosciutto, feta cheese, cucumbers, fresh tomatoes, red onions and more.
We visited first at breakfast and found it as crowded as it is at dinner. Bakersfield loves Mimi's, though I've already heard reader complaints about some menu items getting tossed over the years at the restaurant. We ordered the waffles and eggs Benedict.
The eggs were the winner here, well-designed and executed, the potato discs quite charming (this place does do potatoes well) and it comes with a fruit bowl. Like almost everything we sampled on these recent visits, the portions are quite French reasonable rather than American overgenerous. For example, I ordered the waffles without the $2 add-on of eggs and breakfast meat, and if you're a veteran of the old Friendly Cafe in Oildale, you'd be appalled that a man would be expected to start his day on such a skimpy breakfast. So be warned if you're a growing boy who likes ample portions.
They say bacon makes everything better, but I was skeptical about those waffles (Apples? Really? Orange zest?). They won me over. The waffles themselves were not exceptional, but the combinations of flavors and textures from the toppings (sweet, smoky, crunchy, soft) were quite intriguing.
On to dinner, where my companion's salad was as expertly executed as those eggs Benedict, though the chicken was a largely inert, charmless presence in the bowl. I had some of the best chicken I've ever eaten in my life at a humble Paris cafe a long time ago. Maybe they should get some free- range chicken from Merced to make that work better.
But the real puzzlement of the whole experience was my tournedos du boeuf dinner. The waitress never asked how I wanted the beef, so she apparently sized me up as a well-done kind of guy (NEVER!) and brought the two pieces of beef to me that way. Sliced horizontally, each was about the size of a hockey puck -- another warning to those with big appetites; I'd say the beef was 6 ounces, tops. And I ordered the bordelaise sauce. On the company's website, the beef is resting in a sea of the sauce. Here, it was hidden below one filet in what must have been maybe a tablespoon portion. It's as if they had to reduce the sauce themselves, blew it, were running low, couldn't just open another plastic bag of the stuff and had to ration it out carefully all night to whatever misguided soul happened to order it. The sauce was good, but nothing like what Valentien serves.
I can say good things about the rest of the food on my plate: mashed potatoes and green beans. The mashed potatoes were rich-tasting (no butter needed) and my companion couldn't keep her fork out of them. She was diving in all night. The green beans were those ultra-thin French variety, just a bit of minced garlic, perfectly firm and steamed. Wow. How can they get those so right and the beef so wrong?
We visited again just so I could try the Madame burger. My companion selected the salmon with lentils ($13.99). The burger was great --juicy beef, thick slice of cheddar, ordinary bun and fries, but something I'd order again. My companion's salmon was the best thing we sampled on any visit: a grilled Atlantic salmon resting on a bed of lentils prepared with bacon and spinach and what seemed like a liberal dosage of butter. It was healthy-ish and tasty, as well as an exceptional value at that price. But I don't think it's new, so maybe some of the old is worth keeping.
Some good ideas, a good direction, but the execution just isn't there yet.