There are branches of mathematics and philosophy which maintain the best way to understand the world is to think of things in terms of sets. They conceive of everything as overlapping circles, and any given individual or phenomenon exists within that football-shaped space [()] created when circumferences intersect. The downstairs dining room at Mim’s on Commercial Street is one of Portland’s best places to ponder life from the perspective of set theory. There is a curving wall of windows to one side (which makes the yellow-painted restaurant slightly resemble a wedge of cheese from the street) and another curving chest-high wall that sets the dining room off from the host’s station and the bar. Together they leave the attractive and unusual dining room within just the sort of oblong that set theory invites us to look for.
Mim’s is part of the shrinking set of restaurants owned by Natasha Durham, who used to run Natasha’s a few blocks away. Mim’s is worth reconsidering since Durham has been able to focus her full attention on the place, including shutting it down for a brief hiatus, and hiring a new chef. It also has upstairs and downstairs patios, and summer is arriving.
The staff at Mim’s seems to exist at the narrow intersection of the set of polished waitstaff and the set of friendly, scruffy, guys from some campus’s pot-head fraternity. They are patient with questions about wine and generous pouring tastes. They don’t write down your order, and they fix mistakes quickly and happily. The new chef, cooking close enough to the dining room to be easily observed, exists at the spot where chefs who are kind to their waitstaff overlap chefs who have ponytails.
His food is also pretty good if not exhilarating. The menu sticks to classic French preparations that are straightforward to the extent that any dish involving complex French sauces can be considered straightforward. We wished the sauce had been just a bit more assertive in the mussels à la Pyrenees. A generous portion of big, plump, juicy mussels were served attractively with slices of grilled baguette. The sauce, with a bit of the creamy and mustardy taste of stroganoff, was quite nice when you scooped it into a shell or let it soak into the bread. We wished the mussels themselves had been touched a bit more with the garlic and herbs that stewed beneath them.
When it comes to main courses at Mim’s, it would be nice if the subset “vegetables” were to intersect with the subset “entrées” a little more automatically. It’s too easy to miss the fact that with a few exceptions you need to order a vegetable as a separate side dish. If you don't notice until your entrée arrives, it’s a bother to ask about the sides, order one, and wait for it while your food cools. When we asked the chef to send out whatever side he recommended that night, we got a nice serving of fiddleheads, lightly sautéed and seasoned. They were great.
In the duck two ways slices of grilled breast commingled with confit, across the rectangular plate from a glob of pureed potatoes. The breast seemed expertly prepared and was terrific in the slightly sweet and pungent sauce spotted with little dark juicy mushrooms. The confit was far chewier than you would have expected. Pan-roasted chicken also offered a dualistic experience. It came with a breast that might have benefited from a more interesting sauce. The leg offered more skin, crisp in spots, still soft in others, that made the dish a bit more interesting.
The important question raised by Mim’s, especially dinner there, is whether there is an overlap between the set of Commercial Street spots that appeal to tourists and the set of restaurants locals might choose for a nice meal. Though Mim’s was a bit underwhelming, it has enough strengths that on a nice night in the summer, I think there is.
MIM’S | 205 Commercial St, Portland | Sun-Mon 9 am-3 pm; Tue-Sat 9 am-3 pm & 5 pm-close | Visa/MC/Amex/Disc | 207.347.7478
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