I’m unsure if I am getting jaded or if culinary school and the concomitant research and reading and cooking on my part is making it harder and harder for me to be impressed by what restaurants are dishing up or out. I really don’t mean that in a snooty way though I know it rings of the “food snob” in the worst possible way.
I think it really stems from my mostly penny pinching nature and the disappointment I feel laying out hard earned money for something I could produce better and more economically at home. Going out to dine, not just grabbing take out, needs to wow me. I need to feel pampered and to have something for dinner that is different and a little edgy or exciting. This doesn’t mean I want nitrogen frozen foams or vanilla beurre blanc on every blessed thing. (Though I will officially keep the verdict out on the molecular cuisine until I sample some for myself.) I want really nicely done food that isn’t just grilled fish on mash, a cocktail that is unusual but not so alcoholic my taste buds are deadened, a server who knows his or her stuff and isn’t overly solicitous and a dessert that tastes sinful but doesn’t make me feel like I had a bowl of lead shot with my after dinner coffee.
Enter the Mirror. On the three occasions I’ve been there, I’ve eaten my way around the changing menu and found some nice surprises, a few disappointments and a place I can count on if I need to feel a little pampered without taking out a loan. It’s in a gentrifying area of town that has hip sorts of businesses abounding including the barbershop/salon next door, an all organic coffee house and a purveyor of the best popsicles on earth. The crowd is younger and hipper and is subject to lots of Nashville Musician Hair. The restaurant decor is fairly simple as it’s a big room filled with bijou-sized tables, a bar backed with huge glass jars of infusing liquors and a small den-like alcove at the front that I assume is a lounge area. One wall is dominated by a massive mirror mosaic that chunks up the light and the faces and saves it from feeling like you are eating in a dance studio with all the attending guilt of not being able to hold your foot up on the barre and down that mojito.
The first go at the Mirror was with the Scorpio Chicas and our server commented that it was like an episode of Sex and the City. I didn’t have the quick wit at the time to tell him that unlike that departed show, for the first time, all of us were happy and settled and had cause to celebrate. I celebrated with a hibiscus margarita that if I hadn’t been feeling somewhat reluctant to get more than tipsy I would have rolled around in. I love hibiscus and it was the perfect compliment to the tequila and made a lemon-lime margarita seem hopelessly over. Ms. Te had a pineapple marg which was nearly as good though much sweeter and the Patron Saint of Roommates had a blueberry martini. I’m not into ‘tinis but it was rather good.
The best things about the Mirror are the tapas and small plates menus because you can try a few things without that restaurant bloat feeling. From the tapas I’ve had the housemade chips with white truffle oil, the blue cheese polenta fries, a taste of the grilled portobella and the marinated soy shrimp. The chips were a pleasant surprise as I expected they might be too oily to enjoy. They had that great earthy perfume of white truffle and the trashiness of chips. The blue cheese polenta fries were a bit of a disappointment as they are touted on the ad that runs on the Food Network here in town. They were just kind of flat. I know you can pack a tremendous amount of flavor into polenta and these just aren’t packing. The shrimp were divine but a little messy as they are peel and eat in a tiny bowl. I wouldn’t recommend them as first date food unless you already know where the evening is going because you are either going to look like a slob constantly wiping your mouth and fingers on your increasingly filthy napkin or you will be full on Tom Jones pub chicken scene and we all know where that leads.
On the small plates menu I have consistently gravitated toward the Warm Goat Cheese Cake Salad. It is a bed of mesclun with a deep fried medallion of goat cheese, candied pecans and balsamic vinegar dressing. I could just go there and eat it and be content. I’d be more content with that and the hibiscus margarita but they haven’t had the hibiscus infused tequila lately.
I’ve only gotten an entree twice. The first time I met Keifel there when my sis and her college friend were in town and he ordered the maple seared salmon for me. It had carmelized sticky threads over it and a potato cake underneath that I think had caper berries in it. The server never did answer that clearly, but it tasted for all the world of caper berries and I’m going to go with my palate on this one. There was also a beautiful mustard sauce that perfectly hit that need for something sharp against the creamy potato, sweet maple and savory fish. On my last visit, I had the chicken. I know better than to order chicken but I was a bit under the weather and honestly, if a restaurant can’t do chicken, it shouldn’t be doing anything else. It was good but nothing outstanding. Keifel got the pork with macaroni and cheese both times and loved it. The pork is very juicy and perfectly cooked, which is difficult to do with the contemporary super lean pork available.
Then there is dessert. I usually get coffee and the Mirror does serve good coffee. It’s sad how many places do everything right and then serve you four hour old coffee that has been stewing on the hot plate and tastes of acrid, burnt acorn soup. On the first visit, the Chicas split three desserts. We ordered the Cassis pot de creme, the choclate soup and the berry shortcake. The pot de creme was inspired. I love black currant and it marries perfectly with chocolate. Plus the pot de creme comes in a lovely silver cup that just gilds the decadence of that particular lily. The chocolate soup is fun and has a good chocolate hit without being overwhelming. The shortcake was underwhelming, especially in comparison to the two chocolate powerhouse desserts. Plus, it’s hard to make a biscuit and whipped cream something exciting. On the second occasion, I went back for the chocolate soup as the pot de creme was mint on this visit. Sis got it and I had a taste. It had the same rich body as before with a hit of Andes mint candy on the finish. My sister’s friend got the gingerbread creme brulee which had great crack, my very favorite thing about creme brulee and the thing that gets neglected most, and the creme part was nicely spiced though a bit out of season in July. On my last visit Keifel and I split the key lime brulee. It was a terrible disappointment. The brulee was burnt and too thin and the creme was too thick, almost dry. I picked at it around the least burnt bits and Keifel had a taste and made that face he makes when he is completed unimpressed.
Despite a few bumps, I’ve been consistently pleased with the service and the food. It’s good value as well as you can tailor your ordering to your level of hungriness without having to waste or take home a doggy bag. It’s fun place to people watch, especially if you go later and it is more people drinking that eating. It isn’t somewhere I would pick for a romantic dining experience as the floor layout offers no privacy and the din is almost too loud to talk over. If you want to chat over dinner, go early — 6:30ish.
I have been pleasantly surprised there if not completely wowed… but hey it’s not easy and that cassis pots de creme and the hibiscus margarita were damn close.