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Waiting tables well requires talent. Anyone who’s ever suffered through a night of bad service knows this. But the thing about restaurant servers is that many of them don’t see their money jobs as their true calling. Take our waiter at Mimi’s American Bistro, who maintains that he got hired on account of saying something outrageous during his interview. By way of explaining his position in Mimi’s universe of floor talent he says, “I’m the funny one.”
And, to judge from the performance she gives under the spotlight soon after preparing a tableside Caesar, the waitress over there would be the tap-dancing one. At Mimi’s, the vocational veil under which members of the wait staff have traditionally hidden their natural-born gifts is gleefully stripped away. As a bartender explains it, “Everyone here has a talent.” In the interest of showcasing said talent, the restaurant is equipped with a PA system.
There’s also a piano. After one waiter finishes stirring the room with a number from Beauty and the Beast, another waiter, acting as MC, announces the performer’s name. Noticing that a party has just been seated in the singer’s section, the MC adds, “Table No. 33, he’ll be right over.”
The MC is our waiter, and he turns out to be proficient at the more mundane aspects of his job in a way that doesn’t make them seem so mundane. In reciting the evening’s specials, he seizes on the word “coulis,” repeating it just because he enjoys the way it sounds. He plays the waiter role with a cheeky wink, referring to my girlfriend as “the lady” and me as “the gentleman,” deconstructing the traditional, ass-kissy relationship between server and served so that we can all laugh at the ritual and enjoy it at the same time. In the end, I’d say that his tableside performance rivals even his torchy rendition of “My Funny Valentine.”
The food our waiter delivers is as amiable as he is, if a touch less flamboyant. Mimi’s food is people-pleasing food, which is to say that chef Taib Chbarat churns out mainstream dishes that won’t make you yawn. I haven’t found reason to say so much about a chicken breast sandwich in years, but Mimi’s is juicy and somehow poignant, substituting goat cheese for mayo and a baguette-crunchy roll for an ordinary bun. The hamburgers are similarly impressive; I’d revisit the place just to get my mouth around some more of those plump-cut wild mushrooms that slip out from between the toasted bun and the rare beef patty.
The “American Bistro” part of Mimi’s name is appropriate even though its menu strays far beyond hamburgers. But couscous has long stopped being exotic to most American urbanites, and Chbarat seems to understand this. Mimi’s serves couscous in a variety of waysvegetarian, or with beef, chicken, or lamb sausagenone of which are terribly elaborate. They’re all just well-prepared dishes composed of good ingredients. The same could be said of the roasted polenta, served in firm triangles next to a mound of herbed goat cheese and a multicolored swirl of sliced peppers. One night, the soup of the day is a thick purée of five different onions that we enjoy alongside a salad of walnuts, blue cheese, and grilled figs that hold their shape yet turn to jam in your mouth. Thick jus and some crisp eggplant-potato pancakes elevate pan-seared lamb chops from not-bad to pretty-damn-good.
At its best, Mimi’s proves that a decent meal doesn’t have to be complicated. At its worst, you’ll simply leave wishing you’d ordered what you had on your previous trip. By serving bouillabaisse only on Fridays, the kitchen ensures that its contents won’t taste like leftovers from the midweek fish special. So it’s a shame to find so much pristine seafood tarnished by a thick, salty broth. As a special one night, our waiter promises ravioli plumped with smoked mozzarella, but the ravioli that are delivered are so flat that it’s hard to tell if there’s any filling in them at all. Mimi’s meze platter includes great tabbouleh, redolent of lemon and parsley, but its hummus makes me wonder: What’s the point of hummus if it doesn’t leave you reeking of garlic?
The genius of Mimi’s is that food truly plays a supporting role in its lighthearted drama. If anyone can appreciate the artistic significance of a strong bit player, it’s a bunch of character actors who are bucking for their first break. The restaurant-as-theater concept could easily translate into narcissistic schtick, but Mimi’s staffers/performers tackle their multifaceted roles with an aw-shucks modesty. And I can dig a waiter who channels Liza Minnellijust as long as the chef doesn’t feel the need to try to drown him out. By the same token, ordinary chocolate mousse tastes a whole lot better when the guy who brings it sings “Happy Birthday” as if he were Marilyn Monroe and you were Jack Kennedy.
Mimi’s American Bistro, 2120 P St. NW, (202) 464-6464.
Readers who called in to bitch about how far away the Burrito Joynt is from their Maryland homes should plug this name into their Palm Pilots: Costa del Sol. You haven’t had enchiladas until you’ve had them at this Bethesda hole in the wall. Served “Salvadoran style,” the corn tortillas are fried to an oily, crackery loveliness before being topped with deep-seasoned beef, a little cheese, and cool cabbage slaw. They’re cheap and pretty small, so don’t think you won’t have room for a few of the cumin-flavored chicken tamales as well. They’re fabulous, too.
Costa del Sol, 4906 Fairmont Ave., Bethesda, (301) 656-2561. Brett Anderson
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