Playful as Mike Johnson's restaurant concepts are, I find myself contemplating his latest one actually two: Mira and Roxane, side-by-side restaurants that share a Clayton street address in frivolous metaphor. Their sibling yin-and-yangness reminds me of the Smothers Brothers' "Mom liked you best!" routine. Or, to use a less dusty reference, those awesome "I'm a Mac"/"I'm a PC" TV ads.
Mira: Hi, I'm Mira. You might remember me by my previous incarnation, Café Mira, which Mike Johnson opened in this very same location way back in 1996. I was the first restaurant he ever owned, I'm quite proud to tell you, and my name translates in Spanish to "look," as in "Look at that!"
Roxane: Ah, oui? Well, I am Roxane, in honor of Cyrano de Bergerac's girlfriend tres sexy! I am what you call zee zut, how do you say... zee "nouvelle fille of zee block?" Pardonne, we little French cafés possess no fingaires to make zee air quotes.
"I always loved the space for fine dining," Johnson says of the site he reacquired after short-lived Restaurant August fizzled there. "But it was too hard to make money doing fine dining, because the space was too big." A downtown-Clayton-lovin' fool (he owns tapas joint BARcelona on Central Avenue), Johnson had already encountered such a dilemma across the street at his erstwhile Figaro (now Barrister's), where, he claims, "We were always busy but still could never make it work."
His solution: Split the storefront, give each side a separate name, and voilà! An intimate high-end operation (Mira), cozied up alongside a casual-fare bistro (Roxane). The sidewalk seating is a contiguous one-and-the-same, while inside the spaces are connected by a short hallway and share restrooms and a kitchen. Though each establishment gets its own menu, a few dishes overlap, and customers may order freely off either list regardless of where they've come to eat.
Mira: My menu's got nine main courses and nine appetizers. You can't get a full-size entrée at Roxane just a lot of cutesy small plates, nothing much bigger than salads and sandwiches. Who'd ever consider "European-style" pizzas and "specialties" like spinach-artichoke dip or French fries I'm sorry, frites a meal? I am quite fluent in air-quoting.
Roxane: Why do zee French women not get fat? Because zee French women understand portion control, zee joie de grazing!
After high school in St. Louis and culinary school in New England, Johnson found employment at Emeril Lagasse's first restaurant in New Orleans, then moved on to restaurants in California wine country. He calls Mira's cuisine, which resurrects a number of dishes from the old Café Mira menu, "contemporary global," and says he likes to work with Asian ingredients and techniques, which he doesn't get much of a chance to do at his other ventures, the Cajun-Creole-Cuban Boogaloo in Maplewood, the Greek tapas joint Momos in University City and the dessert café Cyrano's in Webster Groves.
Mira ends up with a pleasant-to-read bill of fare that creeps toward but never crosses the line into self-conscious fusion. Entrées mostly stick to the straightforward protein/starch/vegetable structure, which permits the flavors and textures to do the talking: the barely seared softness of sesame tuna tataki singed with jalapeños, then given a soft landing on a bed of pineapple confit; a simple salad of baby greens given a boost with spiced peanuts, dried cherries and fried wonton strips; a pork tenderloin marinated in heady ouzo, anchored by a helping of saffron-feta risotto and a ladling of pomegranate-infused molasses. (The vegetarian option, a napoleon of polenta, grilled eggplant, squash and poached tomatoes, is equally clever.)
Maryland crab cakes are an appetizer that rarely surprises. But at Mira they're delightfully well rendered all meat, no breadcrumbs and a minimum of mayo. Even better, they've got inspired playmates on the plate: a pile of delicious roasted beets, an ample watercress garnish and an aromatic mango aioli. The same can be said for a cedar-planked salmon fillet beneath a sweet, sweet onslaught of fennel-potato purée, applewood-smoked bacon and apple beurre blanc. How refreshing to discover a salmon preparation that eschews austerity. Asparagus and goat cheese, hugged by a crisp fried spring roll casing, makes for a luscious appetizer.
Roxane: Excusez-moi? What am I, chopped liver?
Roxane serves three kinds of pâté daily (usually truffle, Champagne and port), all of them house-made and brought forth in enormous quantity on a platter containing lavosh, fruit and grilled baguette slices. Each day also brings changing varieties of mussels, quiche, pasta and artisanal cheeses. The menu is thoroughly Francophilic, so much so that those daily specials are listed on a large chalkboard (as the Parisian bistros do) that hangs above a wall of straight-backed booth seating. Fondue for two is available as a savory cheese course or a chocolaty dessert. Mira's seared tuna is reincarnated here at the center of a salade niçoise whose classic contents are deconstructed into individual piles around the circumference: snappy haricots verts, firm chopped tomatoes, sliced hardboiled egg and a spoonful of zesty tapenade that stands in for the standard black olives.
Like the crab cakes and the salmon at Mira, Roxane's hearty spinach-and-artichoke dip reinvigorates an overplayed product. Loaded with big chunks of marinated artichoke hearts, broiled with Parmesan and finished off with a warm breadcrumb crust, it's got a pungent, roasted essence and is nicely complemented by plenty of tall, handsome lavosh stalks. That detour into bar food is matched by a pit stop in the Italian countryside, in the form of a vertically stacked Caprese salad that pairs rich house-made mozzarella with sunny red tomatoes and, disappointingly, a thin drizzle of basil "essence" rather than whole leaves. There's also a foray into, of all things, German pizzamaking: a Flammekuche pizzetta, rustically and robustly topped with bacon, onion, Gruyère and crème fraîche.
On both sides of this house divided lie a faltering dish or two. A bowl of sweet and spicy Thai calamari and rock shrimp, which Johnson cites as a top seller, is dragged way down by uninteresting, breaded pieces of seafood and a chile-garlic sauce that tastes as blunt and off-putting as the duck sauce that comes with your carry-out chop suey. Speaking of duck, Mira's Muscovy duck breast was such a disaster on one visit that I can only hope it owed to an off night in the kitchen. Ordered as the waiter suggested, medium-rare, it was served overdone but with its layer of fat intact beneath the skin, which tasted so awfully salty that the whole thing seemed like some caricature of medieval cured meat.
Mira: As you know, Mike Johnson owns Cyrano's, which is famous for its desserts. Mike wanted to import a little of Cyrano's presence, which is why most of my desserts come from there. Roxane's do, too.
Though Roxane's full menu is available until around midnight seven days a week, Johnson says the witching-hour crowd is in it strictly for the sweet stuff. So many dessert options are there at Roxane, they're categorized under two distinct headings: eight "Continental Pastries" (seven of which comprise Mira's entire dessert list), and five "Desserts," including the aforementioned fondue for two, plus three flambés à deux: cherries jubilee, bananas Foster and strawberries Cyrano's. I have yet to find the true sweet spot among that baker's dozen of treats, though I'm sure it's there to be found. A bowl of roasted summer fruits sprinkled with toasted almonds, misfiled with the pastries, cries out for a scoop of vanilla ice cream. The Cleopatra vanilla ice cream topped with a huge cap of whipped cream, a few scraps of milk chocolate and not nearly enough slices of banana and strawberry made me wonder why it's become famous at Cyrano's. But I instantly warmed up to Roxane's chocolate chip cookies, and especially to their nonsensical accompaniment: mini grape-soda floats served in shot glasses with mini straws perfect for toasting Mike Johnson's unflappable sense of fun.