There are two Mimi’s in the New Orleans area, and the one you associate with the name probably says a good bit about you. Mimi’s in the Marigny serves tapas in a bohemian atmosphere until late in the evening. Dance music and shirtless hipsters are not uncommon. Mimi’s Contemporary Italian Cuisine, on the other hand, is located in River Ridge, and the atmosphere is far more sedate. Music piped in over the speakers when I dined there last reminded me of the music I used to blast in my car stereo as a teenager in the mid-`80s. In other words, “classic rock,” and played at nearly the same volume.

It was the one incongruity to my experience at the latter Mimi’s, which is located among a small line of shops at 10160 Jefferson Highway in River Ridge. The strip-mall location belies a comfortable interior decorated in muted browns, with white tablecloths and dim candles on the tables. Two large boards list specialty drinks, wines and an expansive cheese selection.

When owners David Whitmore and wife An Vu bought Mimi’s some years ago, it was a traditional “Creole” Italian restaurant. Whitmore, who is himself a chef, made some gradual changes, but nothing as dramatic as bringing Chef Pete Vazquez into the kitchen. Vazquez is one of the best, most inventive chefs to ever cook in New Orleans, and his departure after Katrina was a loss. Although Marisol, his restaurant at the foot of Esplanade Avenue, didn’t suffer as much damage from the hurricane as other establishments, issues with insurance prevented it from re-opening. That’s a shame, because it was one of my favorite restaurants.

While away from New Orleans, Vazquez worked in private security and took jobs cooking where he could find them. He put up a series of videos on YouTube demonstrating some of his techniques and recipes. When I heard from his ex-wife, Janis, that he might be returning to New Orleans, I anticipated that he’d open his own restaurant; maybe something small, and not necessarily in the Quarter or Uptown, but someplace he could serve the eclectic food I remembered from Marisol. 

I was not expecting that he’d end up at an Italian restaurant in River Ridge, but he’s been there since November of last year, and if he feels limited by the focus on a single cuisine, it’s not apparent on the plate.

That’s not to say that Vazquez isn’t free to stray from Italian cuisine now and again. The amuse I was served at a recent meal was a spicy hazelnut falafel over a sumac-laced yogurt sauce one would expect to find in a middle-eastern restaurant. Specials occasionally show Vietnamese, Thai, Indian or other influences, but the majority of the menu is Italian. With Vazquez doing the cooking, Mimi’s has to be counted among the best Italian restaurants in the city.

Antipasti on the menu as I write include fresh Maine steamer clams in a tomato-chile broth with batons of smoked pork jowl. It’s a substantial dish, and at $10 it’s a bargain. Sautéed escargot come over house-made pappardelle pasta in a green sauce of parsley, garlic, butter and lemon zest. The snails were tender; each earthy bite a perfect balance with the citrus in the sauce. My father, who ordered the dish as his entree after starting with fried chicken livers served with pepper jelly, assumed the restaurant had simply increased the size of the dish to make it more suitable for a second course. There must have been two-dozen snails in the bowl, he decided. When the check came, he realized that, no, he’d been charged for the appetizer – $9. The portions are simply generous.

Fried baby artichokes are now the only way I will eat that form of the vegetable. I find that when baby artichokes are grilled or marinated, even the relatively tender outer leaves remain tough. These were crispy, light and served over a truffled mayonnaise that did not overwhelm the artichoke’s inherent flavor. If you have read my work before, you’ll know that anything “truffled” is usually going to piss me off. So when I say this was a good dish all the way around, it’s pretty high praise. Even my 9-year-old son enjoyed it, and while he is a somewhat adventurous eater, this was exceptional.

There are a number of salads available, including shrimp Rémoulade with deviled eggs; a garden salad of mixed lettuces, cherry tomatoes, cucumbers and a lemon-garlic vinaigrette; and a Caesar with shaved Parmigiano Reggiano and focaccia croutons.

Entrees include crisp-skinned Scottish salmon served with a chiffonade of fresh basil, a broth of tomatoes and clams and roasted fingerling potatoes. Braised lamb cheeks show up as dark morsels of tender meat in thick, house-made farmer’s pasta with fava beans and shaved ricotta salata. The roasted rack of baby veal comes with grilled king mushrooms, salsa verde and ravioli filled with
Taleggio cheese. You can order sides of roasted Yukon gold potatoes, mushrooms in garlic-parsley butter, spicy rapini and caramelized Brussels sprouts.

There’s also a $20 two-course menu on Wednesday and Thursday that starts with a salad and offers choices such as pork and cabbage stew, roasted duck with mashed potatoes and French green beans, stuffed cabbage rolls with red sauce, fish Calabrese-style, lasagna Bolognese, and chicken in a Creole brown sauce over house-made spaghetti that my son ate with vigor.

The restaurant is open for brunch on Sunday from 10:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. with a menu of standards such as shrimp and grits, house-cured salmon over a potato waffle with mascarpone cheese and pepper jelly, eggs Benedict and steak with eggs. (The steak is a veal hanger steak, but what do you expect at this point?) Vazquez also offers “worldly breakfast plates,” and two on the current menu are “Sunday in Saigon,” which is steamed broken rice with roast pork, steamed egg cake, Vietnamese hogshead cheese, fried eggs and nuoc mam dipping sauce. “Don Pablo’s Breakfast Nachos” are corn tortillas with a chipotle queso sauce, pork carnitas, scrambled eggs and pickled peppers.

In addition to brunch, the restaurant is open for dinner Wednesday through Saturday from 5 to 9 p.m. Call 737-6464 to make a reservation or to ask about the current specials. It’s great to have Chef Vazquez back in New Orleans. From my recent experience in River Ridge, he hasn’t lost a step from his days at Marisol.