Without blood, it’s just a stew. Stir in the ferric liquid and the French will happily inform you that you’ve made a civet — a term generally used to describe any stew or sauce thickened with animal plasma. At MIMI, a contemporary bistro doing some wondrously archaic things, chef Liz Johnson’s civet calls for veal stock reduced with pig’s blood until murky and syrupy like molten ganache. Sporting a deeper, more sinful flavor than demi-glace, the throwback sauce glazes three parcels of blood-sausage-stuffed freshwater eel that have been grilled over charcoal. As if the plump, slippery bastards weren’t decked out enough, Johnson tops each with lozenges of silky cured foie gras and floral quince confiture. It’s a fascinating, vexingly harmonious combination of uninhibited richness amalgamating fat, fruit, and viscera.
Much of Johnson’s cooking is just as genuinely, profoundly intrepid. Though only 25, the peripatetic chef has already racked up a decade of global experience, including stints along the East Coast and in Denmark and Japan. From MIMI’s modest, subterranean kitchen, she deftly modifies classic French cuisine in truly audacious fashion, serving darkly caramelized tarte Tatin with a diner-meatloaf-size slab of blood sausage on the side as a shareable, $16 mid-course. Completely upending (or confirming) your expectations of a Francophile chef, Johnson dives deep into decades- and even centuries-old recipes. Her handwritten daily menu looks like the scrawling of a time traveler gone mad, with herbaceous and mustardy sauce ravigote pooling under hard-seared calf’s brain.
You can even, at MIMI, partake of something known as la mique. For those unfamiliar with this southwestern French specialty, the product of peasant roots, mique is essentially a poached, pork-fat-fortified dumpling that recalls a savory bread pudding. Johnson turns the time-consuming pauper dish princely by sousing the carbohydrate brick in madeira cream, which turns up to stunning effect elsewhere on the menu here: On any given night, the chef might mingle sweetbreads and morel mushrooms with the boozy sauce as an accompaniment; the next, she’ll simplify with a one-two punch of madeira and Périgord truffle.
And speaking of delicacies: If the restaurant has sourced live soft-shell turtles at the time of your visit, you should do whatever you can to get your hands on one. Johnson, who spent time cooking in Charleston, makes a bouillon from the bodies, adding extra-funky Kentucky cured ham. It’s brought to the table in a sturdy tureen, the turtle’s shell clamped on top and fastened by a rim of braided, burnished dough. The $40 soup-for-two includes individual portions of mique wearing thick curls of that Kentucky ham like derby hats, along with shavings of foie gras and pickled hon-shimeji mushrooms. Inhale the gently sweet aroma as one of the kitchen crew removes the shell, exposing spine and ribcage. Then spoon the bouillon onto your mique and marvel at the ensuing depth of flavor. In these vegetable-obsessed times, it’s invigorating to encounter such a gutsy embrace of time-honored cooking techniques, offal, and game meat.
MIMI’s starry-eyed owners — Louis Levy, brothers Evan and Daniel Bennett, and Camilla Deterre (“All under thirty,” Evan stressed) — have encouraged Johnson to do as she pleases. In turn, she’s given New York City an utterly brazen carnivore’s panoply: Venison is cooked over straw; sea urchin nests atop perfectly crisp sweetbreads in scallop-butter sauce; slivers of monkfish liver and tender abalone come doused in a mahogany-hued roux lush enough to raise anyone’s blood pressure. And while there’s nothing French about it, Johnson’s fritto misto reaches admirable heights thanks to a thin greaseless crust and another duo of Japanese ingredients: shishito peppers and shirako, or cod sperm.
Occasionally, Johnson will ascend the restaurant’s rainbow staircase with one of her staff to set unraveled spirals of orange peel aflame with Grand Marnier, which she also pours over whole aged birds for $80 duck à l’orange. Intended for sharing, the offering certainly grabs the dining room’s attention. Rosy, crisp-skinned hunks of citrus-perfumed breast sit next to quince and still more of that blood sausage — this time stuffed inside sweetly spiced pain d’épices crepes. Between presentation and payoff, the dish would amaze even if its creator hadn’t only just become eligible to rent a car.
There’s lighter and simpler fare at MIMI, too, like Bibb lettuce dressed with Champagne vinaigrette (one of the few bones thrown to vegetarians) and cleverly assembled, refreshing seafood crudos. Of the latter, my group most enjoyed squares of turbot fin, slightly firm from flash-torching, which arrived tossed with pomelo (a grapefruit-like citrus) and shiso leaf vinaigrette, and an appetizer of Japanese striped jack set against blood orange supremes, brown butter, and chopped sorrel. Follow those plates up with elevated bistro standards — mustardy roast chicken, anchovy-spiked lamb loin — and it’s possible to have a less sanguinary, but no less electrifying, meal here.
Johnson’s cooking is aided by engaging and knowledgeable service led by Levy and Daniel Bennett; well-composed cocktail standards from Evan Bennett; and Deterre’s keen visual eye. An actress, model, and designer, Deterre dressed up the cozy Sullivan Street space with navy velvet banquettes and marble wall accents in a way that’s oddly unobtrusive — comfortable rather than clubby. Bathroom wallpaper depicts charmingly amorphous, abstract nudes, hand-drawn by artist Alba Hodsoll. Like their chef, these young owners have blended classic and modern elements quirkily but seamlessly.
Desserts at MIMI likewise showcase an aesthetic flair. Johnson smokes the custard in her crème brûlée and spoons it over a base of soft plums. Her bulky triangle of chocolate cake comes with a snowy orb of ice milk. And should an owner or staff member lean in during dinner to whisper about the $20 soufflé-for-two, don’t pass it up. The chef flavors hers with banana and appears tableside to crack the top (emblazoned with “MIMI” in powdered sugar) before pouring in an aromatic cascade of earthy and sweet black truffle crème anglaise — a quintessentially French way, at meal’s end, to “put a little English on it.”
185 Sullivan Street, 212-418-1260