Disneyland in Roseville

Last year I spent 72 hours completely saturated in the Disneyland experience, never once leaving the compound. We slept, dreamed, stood in line and ate Disney. My son particularly enjoyed the animatronic gorillas and parrots at the Rainforest Café. But these days, you don’t have to travel to Anaheim to dine in a theme park.

Witness the popularity of Mimi’s Café, a Tustin-based chain with three restaurants in the area. Mimi’s Café recently won several reader’s choice awards in a local magazine. While the restaurant certainly has a distinctive ambience, the food is nothing special. This is the kind of place my parents go to after church Saturday evening.

Décor aside, it’s no better and no worse than the other chains that litter the stretch of roadway between Stanford Ranch and the Roseville Galleria. Mimi’s calls its mix of French and New Orleans style eclectic, but bewildering would be a more accurate description. Is it an Alsatian bistro? A Creole joint deep in the French Quarter? Who knows?

The restaurant itself is plopped at one end of a half-built shopping center across from the Galleria. The main dining area is a double-height room mimicking a square in New Orleans, right down to a fake wrought-iron balcony complete with bistro table and chairs. There is also an attractive bar area, as well as comfortable booths.

The menu, rather than reflecting the décor, ranges widely through standard chain-restaurant territory: Tuscan grilled chicken, pot roast, quiche, Chinese chicken salad, even blackened chicken tacos. Mimi’s Café also offers a children’s menu with a more extensive selection than is usual. All children’s meals are $3.99 and include a drink and dessert, a “cup of dirt” (chocolate pudding topped with Oreo cookie crumbs and a couple of gummy worms) that garnered high praise from my kid.

We ordered the Jazz Fest ($8.75) appetizer, which comes with Cajun popcorn shrimp, chicken strips and stuffed potato skins, as well as a trio of sauces: cocktail, buffalo and ranch dressing. The plate was also garnished with three different melons and an orange wedge. As is typical of chain restaurants these days, the portions were enormous. The shrimp and the chicken sported similar coatings of crisp crumbs, although I could not detect any hint of Cajun spice on the shrimp. The buffalo sauce was appropriately vinegary and spicy and proved a good counterpoint to the chicken strips. The potato skins were less successful; they were stuffed with a bland and skimpy mixture of bacon, green onion and cheese. I found one lone and puzzling pine nut in the mix.

In keeping with the Creole theme, we ordered the pasta jambalaya ($10.95), and then switched gears with a chicken potpie ($9.95), one of the chain’s most popular entrées. All dinners come with fresh bread and your choice of the daily soup or French onion soup, or a green or Caesar salad. We never received any bread.

The entrées were, to put it bluntly, safe. Or to put it even more bluntly, they were bland. If I order something billed as pasta jambalaya, I expect it to be spicy. Now, it’s true that 10 years of marriage to the hot sauce king has dulled my sensitivity to heat. But only an escapee from Del Webb’s Lincoln Hills development who’d never eaten spicy food in his life would characterize this jambalaya as such. The portion was enough for two normal appetites, a heaping plate of penne pasta tossed with shrimp, Cajun sausage and chicken in a tomato sauce with celery, onion and bell peppers. The chicken was all white meat cut into perfect cubes, which made me uneasy. Why were the cubes so symmetrical? What did they do with the other pieces?

The potpie was an exercise in bland perfection. The crust was a beautiful golden brown and covered an attractive mixture of all-white chicken chunks, carrots, peas and onions in a white cream sauce. Again, I searched in vain for a definite flavor to assert itself. Some fresh dill would have worked wonders.

The safety factor also marred the New Orleans bread pudding. It was good, made with French bread, cream and raisins. But the whiskey sauce would have benefited from less butter and more whiskey to give it some punch. I also deducted points for the eggshell pieces I had to pick out of my serving.

There were a few glitches in the service. This may be picky, but in most restaurants, water is automatically brought to the table. That was not the case here. There was also a substantial delay after our appetizer was served, and then my soup was brought at the same time as my potpie. But our waitress was friendly and gracious, accommodating numerous requests and questions.

In the end, the French Quarter décor didn’t do much to erase the palate-numbing cookie-cutter cuisine. Maybe if they added a Mardi Gras ride, or some animatronic nutria rats …