We knew we were on foreign soil when we passed Exit 6. That bit of the Interstate heading towards Atlanta on I-85 marks the entry to The Hellscape. Exit 9 is one of the portals, the Chantilly Parkway another. They take you to Eastchase, a giant strip mall complex that has supplanted the indoor malls and serves as the hub of the greater sprawling East Side of Montgomery — the land to which the white people have fled and built a great many big boxed retail stores and whatever outlets that might be construed as “fancy.” It is a land of McMansions and traffic lights and the familiar hallmarks of monocultural sprawl. It is the Chamber of Commerce tested version of Montgomery, smoothed of any Rosa Parks or Davis Cafe edges – the Prattville Syndrome. It is globalization, hairspray, megachurches and, despite the economics of it, SUVs.
Our reason for crossing the Rubicon? Mimi’s Cafe. Gift certificates were indeed received as, well, gifts. And thus, they must be spent. The horse must not be looked in the mouth, and all that.
Mimi’s has a wait for tables while delightful places on the west side regularly go out of business. It is a restaurant by focus group: a simulation of “upscale dining,” (our server described the Mimi’s niche as “Upscale family dining without the upscale price”). It seeks to be inoffensive and yet “just slightly classy,” in a way that emulates the trappings of “restaurant” without the burdens of well-prepared food or anything other than strip mall-style mass production. It wants to be unique. It expresses this desire in the most American way possible – by staking out intellectual property. The menu reveals that Mimi’s is participating in a fast casual dining trend – the trademarking of menu items and categories. At Mimi’s, we have “Just Enough® Petite Citrus Salmon,” part of the Petite Treats™ section of the menu.
The SWH Corporation, parent to Mimi’s, is doing pretty well for itself in an era of declining receipts at fast casual-type restaurants. Mimi’s springs fully test-marketed with an hilarious mishmash of incoherent corporate mythology. It’s named after a French woman the founder had a one-night stand with during World War II. But they flipped a coin about whether to name the restaurant Mimi’s or Gigi’s. Guess she wasn’t that memorable. Judging from our experience, this apocryphal French woman must have been awfully good in the sack to make up for her horrible cooking. The restaurant is decorated with pseudo-Parisian wall art of the kind that can be purchased at Target or Michael’s or Hobby Lobby. And yet the origin story explains that the place is meant to evoke New Orleans cafés. We have eaten a lot of food at a lot of places in New Orleans. We have never ever seen a sign that says “Le Bistro.” We have, even at the diviest of dive bars, never been served food entirely devoid of flavor.
We had fifty dollars to spend. We began with the “Mimi’s Trio” of appetizers: some artichoke cheese dip, some cheese wads crusted with irregular breadcrumbs (these were substituted for the chicken “fingers” after we explained that we did not eat meat; no explanation was given for the soupçon of ham that garnished the oily cheese paste/dip), and some fried zucchini. We had been at our table only five minutes when five different flavor sauces arrived in varying containers. We are not major food snobs, but have learned over the years that a restaurant’s food quality tends to vary inversely with the number of flavor sauces you are offered. Kitchens that refuse to season their food and leave that task to diners are showing a despicable cowardice that is epidemic in the “fast casual” genre.
The zucchini in particular seemed to have had all the flavor sucked from it. Not just that, but the potential for flavor was eradicated, so that even ranch dressing couldn’t make it taste like anything but a semi-liquid sponge covered in crunch patty giblets. We are thrilled when the appetizers leave our table, partially consumed, and we’re not entirely sure what to say in response to our server’s cheery “How was it?” I want to say that it was a horrible, greasy, flavorless ordeal, but am worried that this is the kind of comment that will derail the rest of our visit. And we still have a lot of money credits to spend.
At the outset of our visit, we thought that we might make two trips to Mimi’s with our $50. However, once the Trio has mercifully been whisked away to the hazmat pile, we decide to blow all of the money so we will never have to come back (even though we do have a friend who works there and she’s really great). We order Bloody Marys. These arrive before our main course. They cost $6.50 each, and suffice mostly to demonstrate the Archimedean principle of displacement: when you pull out the entire stalk of GMO-giant celery jammed into the massive tall glass, the place where more vodka would have made this an actual cocktail emerges. Minus the tree of celery, the glass is 3/4 full. And since it’s a hyper-style trendy urban chic “taller than your head” glass and not something anyone would actually make a drink in, that’s not much liquid to consume. We would have gotten more of a buzz if we had drunk the artichoke dip.
Our entrees arrive. One is a veggie sandwich: steamed sort of veggies on focaccia bread in which the bread has been painted with some sort of oil. When opening the sandwich, there is a neon yellow glow emitted from the oil. It is both dazzling and disconcerting. The other entree is the veggie burger. It is nothing remarkable. It is a dry and crumbly patty on a too-large bun. It can be eaten. The highlight is the fruit placed around the focaccia sandwich plate as garnish. Mmmm. Grapes. And a bit of pineapple too! Rejoice! We shall not want for food!
Three of the six desserts on the chalkboard start with the word “Mimi’s.” Two of the desserts, clearly designed as little tasting platters, as billed as an “essemble.” We are pretty sure they meant “ensemble,” but this is actually perfect as a snapshot of the corporate aesthetic – the priority of style over substance. Who cares if it’s spelled right? It’s a foreign-sounding word and it looks cool written in pastel on the dry erase board on the wall. People accustomed to eating at Shoney’s will think it’s right proper and just order the one with chocolate in the title. Maybe ice cream. Whatever. Shovel, shovel, shovel.
Bottom line: We barely ate anything yet feel both full and gross. The obvious plus side is that the trip didn’t cost us anything (other than gas money, some hours of our lives, and some nameless part of our souls that dies every time we participate in that kind of evil). And the other obvious plus is the classic when it comes to bad restaurants: Now we know. There were no back-slapping congratulations for each other as we fled the Hellscape with our suspicions confirmed. Merely gratitude that we had survived and are now able to issue a warning to others in hopes that they may be spared.