Mmmmm… Mirko.

April 8, 2008

An all-purpose skeptic by nature, I am not one to try a new restaurant in town until I’ve heard a bit about it, from a trusted source. So when we saw a new place open in quaint Watkinsville, there not only wasn’t much to bid me to enter (I’d heard no first-hand experience), but I conjured up my own list of reasons why I probably wouldn’t like it. In short, I was judging a book by its cover.

All I knew about Mirko was that it was a “pasta place.” And that the pastas were homemade, and you “picked your own toppings.” These tidbits became negative fodder for me for entirely personal reasons; the first being that I generally don’t order pasta at restaurants — even restaurants I love. I find I’m usually disappointed, in a similar manner as when I order a risotto; the dish becomes too much, too repetitive, by the time I’m halfway through the bowl. The second notion I conceived was a bias against the nature of the you-pick-it menu. I imagined a Cheesecake-Factory-esque free-for-all, a democratic food society, where everyone has a vote, and the “chef” is at the mercy of the masses. People, good food is created when The Chef is a dictator.

But Tim had been wanting to try it — he’d heard somewhere that it was good. So a call was placed to our friends Dana and Alex, to see if they were up to meeting us there in, say, half an hour? Not only could they meet our spontaneous demands, but they mentioned that Mirko is one of their favorite eateries. My skepticism began to wane. Dana (my uber-talented painter friend, recently featured in American Art Collector magazine!!) and Alex are kindred spirits in the food world, and they have yet to steer us in a wrong restaurant direction. Oh, Alex said, the line is always out the door. We hoped the impending springtime tornadoes would keep everyone at home.

They didn’t. And the line was, in fact, out the door, the entire evening. If there is one drawback to eating at Mirko, it is the extremely limited seating. The way it works is that you order your food at the bar, then are directed to a table (there is bar seating available for parties of 1 or 2, which can get you in faster). Since we had a larger party (4 adults and 2 children), we waited a good 20 minutes. Which is normally not that inconvenient, in situations that are minus a hungry toddler and supplemented with glasses of wine. But we had the former, and not the latter, and were squeezed into a 4×8’entryway with 25 other hungry souls. Was it worth the sardine-like wait?

Indeed, it was. My first glance at the menu told me it would be; I knew from the paper-in-hand that we were dealing with a bona-fide Italian chef. “Off the boat,” in the words of Alex. You do get to choose your pasta and sauce; but what excellent choices they present. Homemade pasta, in a variety of shapes and colors, to be matched with fresh, classic sauces, created from many years of Italian culinary experience; starting as child, Chef Mirko di Giacomantonio began learning from his grandmother the art of his region’s cuisine, and then followed with years of work at restaurants in Italy. The list of starters speak of the same culinary history; my mouth was watering at the prospect of the Carpaccio Cipriani (thinly sliced raw beef with Worcestershire, capers, and shaved parmigiano) or Tartara di Tonno al Limone (classic tuna tartare with lemon, capers, red onion and olive oil), but I remembered that a pregnant state is not optimal for consuming raw meats and fish. So I “settled” for the Indivia con Mele e Pistacchi (Belgian endive, Granny Smith apples, raisin and pistachios with lemon and olive oil). Goodness, my, gracious. The slightly bitter endive, challenged by the tart apples and sweet golden raisins. It was crunchy salad perfection.

And then, the pastas. I couldn’t resist one of “Mirko’s Special Dishes:” the Tortelli di Zucca e Amaretti (butternut squash and Amaretto filled ravioli with radicchio, mascarpone and marjoram sauce). Beautiful, perfectly-formed ravioli, covered in a delicate cream sauce. The ravioli was exceedingly sweet, and would’ve been too much to get through on my own, but the half-plate I consumed before switching with Tim was the perfect amount, especially with such a light starter. Tim ordered the Fusilli with Gamberi e Zucchini sauce (he chose a sauce, and asked for a recommendation on a well-matched pasta). This was shrimp, zucchini, diced tomatoes, garlic, white wine and olive oil, with a little kick — we guessed from red pepper flakes. The shrimp were buttery and light, and the zucchini aptly cooked to the point of tender but not mushy. The seasoning was perfect, and the added heat kept it from being too mellow. It was nice to eat both entrées, with the slightly acidic and fresh shrimp sauce balancing out the richness of the creamy ravioli.

They offer a limited variety of secondi (entrées), including a seafood stew, a grilled tuna loin, and chicken scaloppine. Alex had the tuna, and raved about it, most specifically about how perfectly rare it was cooked. They also offer a small selection of desserts — we took home the Mousse al Cioccoloato, which was rich and divine — and of course your choice of espresso, cappuccino, or coffee.

But the very best part of all this? Well, the Mirko website clearly states that, “It is Mirko Pasta’s mission to bring delicious food to your table the real Italian way—homemade, simple, healthy and affordable.” And it is, really, affordable. My salad was $6, and our pastas were $9 and $8, respectively. The entrées were $12 or less, and desserts are $4. According to my calculations and tastebuds, that makes Mirko the cheapest, best meal in town.

I believe the menu changes every so often, making Mirko a place where you are likely to always find something new. There is a new location open on the east side of Athens, and the website states plans for one on Baxter, and one in Atlanta near the Aquarium. I admit I get nervous when restaurants start expanding, but we can only hope that Mirko stays loyal to the good food and mission that’s making it, right now, a great place to eat in Athens.

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