Restaurants usually get a lot of review attention when they are new. That is especially true if a well-known chef like Chris DuPont is one of the principals. Indeed there was a flurry of activity when DuPont the chef combined talents with Corey Hinkel the baker and opened Mix downtown in February. And the reception was good enough.
In fact, however, these new restaurant reviews are sometimes not too revealing. New places are still working out the bugs. Lord help you if Bunny finds too much salt in her gravy, or if the country girl sends her dish back and asks for it to be microwaved. And even if the new crew is on track they have not yet proven they can sustain the course, develop some crowd-pleasing mainstays, or adapt creatively.
That is why Bunny and I recently veered a block off of 20th Street to see how Mix is getting along these days.
First, let me say that Mix poses a serious challenge to more established Birmingham bakeries. Surprisingly, Birmingham may be one of the best places to get a good baguette, a product of a singular French alchemy that is amazingly difficult to reproduce in its simplicity outside an arrondissement. And Alabama hasn’t got any, as Bunny mercilessly reminds me. So grab a croissant to go. The true French of Paris the country girl will never knowif she doesn’t mend her ways.
As to restaurant review basics, Mix offers a varied lunch menu of soups, salads, sandwiches, and even pasta. But let me digress before I bore both of us with trivia.
And that’s not hard with Bunny around, because she was adamant she only takes her pasta al dente, and she’s sort of like the fake Italian kid in Breaking Away. She doesn’t get off on French (though she is not a Spanish hater like the country girl), so I flustered her with all my talk of confit de canard, my favorite Paris Bistro fare--though I will take it here in Birmingham with a Don Baltazar Petit Verdot any day. “What is it exactly?,” Bunny demanded to know, when it comes to the duck confit pasta on the menu.
I told her, confit, if you must inquire, ingénue that you are, is prepared in a centuries-old process of preservation that consists of salt curing a piece of meat (generally goose, duck, or pork) and then poaching it in its own fat. There are two basic styles in my experience. In one, the duck leg skin is dry and crispy as if deep-fried, while the meat is searing hot and moist. In the other style, the poaching and layering of fat, sometimes congealed, predominate and the moistness permeates through and through. And Mix’s version favors that latter tendency with the texture and consistency of braised meat in a stew.
The pasta itself was thick and rich and appropriately chewy, but I could not stop myself from telling Bunny I think confit goes better with pommes de terre à la sarladaise. But the duck meat is exceptionally savory.
I like to finish a meal like that with a salad, and the Mix greens are exceptional, too, as you would expect from a restaurateur who came to Birmingham from Springville with a longstanding commitment to fresh local ingredients before slow food was cool. The salade also carried nice accents of dried cherries and my favorite flavor, ¡almendras! Sorry, I get carried away--that’s almonds.
And the greens carry over into the blackened chicken sandwich, which stands out for the fresh arugula, one of my favorite examples of bitter produce-second only to fresh dandelion greens. I am not a big fan of blackening anything, it’s true, as it tends to disguise good meat in my opinion, but no matter here because the other star of the combination was the lemon aïoli. And the blackening, like most Mix procedures and ingredients, is subtle, and not severe.
I wouldn’t waste my time telling the country girl, but Bunny--who is at least sincere, if also a little acerbic--also wanted to know, what is aïoli. It’s made by slowly whisking oil into egg yolks and garlic. This one is lemony, but of course lemon is the main added ingredient of home-made mayonnaise, anyway, so Mix has not strayed too far for even the inanely literal-minded. I won’t say who.
The egg-yolk emulsion was added later. When aioli was first described in historical writing by Pliny the elder (that old guy knew his way around the dinner table, and is the source of an amazing number of original food descriptions), the smashed garlic was merely beaten up in oil and vinegar, which caused the garlic to swell up surprisingly in a foam without any help from chickens. It is believed the French first added the eggs, and even a little Dijon mustard. This is the sort of thing I look forward to discussing with Chris DuPont, but not Bunny, and the country girl is not speaking to me.
I also enjoy the meat loaf sandwich.
It reminds me more of a firm, dense, dry version of a country pâte. Bunny exclaimed it was not like what grande mère made in rural Carolina, but this is not a crumbly meatloaf that calls for two cups of ketchup. Sorry.
The flank steak sandwich with truffle cheese was the least expected. The toasted bread had a savor of rye and the medium rare flank steak was cool as the cucumbers with which it was topped. It is a leaner, more nouvelle cuisine version of your steak sandwich. There you go with your fancy French again, bickered Bunny. At least she doesn’t make up things to fight about out of thin air like the country girl.
If you want to be truly amazed, go for a tried and true BLT, only substitute for bacon some big fat slabs of pork belly. Yes, like a bowl full of jelly fat. It brings a smoky salty Asian flair to this Southern staple. I would swear they snuck in five spices, too. I want to go back to try the same thing with a fresh farm egg on an English muffin.
Even Bunny noted the clean décor that is perfect camouflage for the minimalist pencil drawings of Amy Pleasant. None of the country girl’s granny art from Sears here. I almost forgot to mention Mix has really good gumbo, subtly spiced with a perfect Cajun filé. That’s better known as the dried and ground leaves of the sassafras tree to the country girl. It’s all academic.
Mix has added something else to the DuPont enterprise’s business model, catering. Bunny was planning to serve a late lunch-in-bed to her tenure committee. She said tell Mix to fax over the lunch catering menu. Only at Mix there is no such thing, I retorted. They will make you work harder for your pleasure, and so will they, prying to determine what you really want and presto, voilà. They have not only the sandwich, soup and salad flair of Mix to rely on but the entire repertoire of Chef DuPont’s café with his signature dishes like fried oysters and okra in cayenne butter sauce and seared sea scallops with goat cheese soufflé. And they had this for lunch today: sautée of gulf flounder with caper and lemon meunière.
That takes us to the only way Bunny, the country girl from Trussville, and my ex-wife agree--stop with the French already!, they all three say.