Looking back, it seems obvious that Mirror, once the sexy culinary kitten of 12South, would ultimately age into a homey neighborhood joint.
When Colleen and Michael DeGregory opened their chic little one-room eatery in 2000, they were pioneers. 12South was still a fledgling neighborhood, and the DeGregorys' gastronomic haven—with its mirrored mosaic wall, billowing white curtains and raised lounges planted with real live grass—real live grass!—was a dining destination known for its exotic and playful menu of tapas.
That was back before The New York Times published an article about 12South, highlighting Mirror's blue cheese polenta fries and cucumber martinis and describing the up-and-coming stretch of road north of Gale Lane as a place that "has yet to give way to a proliferation of strollers and joggers."
Fast-forward a few years, and the strollers ultimately arrived. All those young urban hipsters who found affordable real estate in the once gritty neighborhood ended up breeding and settling down.
In a recent email to the restaurant's supporters, Mirror chef/owner Michael DeGregory said, "We took a look around and realized how much the neighborhood changed. Our new neighbors have families and felt we were more a fancy restaurant (not kid-friendly). So, we sat down and took a long hard look at ourselves and decided to make some major changes."
As part of the reformation, the DeGregorys redecorated the interior, covered the patio, traded banquettes for booths, added a flat-screen TV over the bar, and—with much consternation—went non-smoking.
Like the broader gentrified 12South neighborhood, Mirror now cuts a less edgy profile in 2008 than it did back at the turn of the century. The funky metal seats have given way to comfortable chairs, which Colleen, a clothing designer, has been upholstering painstakingly over the last few weeks. A lounge area—which long ago traded grass for carpet—is now a cozy dining nook, and the gossamer white curtains that wafted like clouds in the sky-blue room have been upgraded to more substantial draperies, all in a rich brown-and-blue scheme.
(One can't help but assume a similar transformation has happened in the living rooms of many of the nearby bungalows—some of which now sell for nearly $200 a square foot—as young families finally upgraded their cool dorm furniture for more grown-up appointments.)
The core of the restaurant's reinvention, according to the email, was that Mirror was going from "Tasty Tapas" to "Gourmet Dinner." While the segue from tapas to comfort food makes Mirror a less intriguing culinary experience, the spirit of DeGregory's playfulness still peeks through here and there, and many familiar items dot the menu. Polenta fries, goat cheese salad and tuna tartare, to name a few old favorites, are still around.
On the list of appetizers-formerly-known-as-tapas, the twee cast-iron skillet of tiny chicken tacos has given way to a large white plate with two standard-issue crisp corn tacos filled with spiced minced chicken and iceberg lettuce, salsa and sour cream. A pair of vegetarian tamales arrived with a more intriguing presentation—in a stainless-steel dim sum steamer—but the stuffing of corn meal and quinoa was gummy and bland. Fortunately, it had a delicious side of sweet chipotle-lime dressing to help it go down.
While the new list of appetizers left us nostalgic and hungry for the Mirror of yore, the evolution of the entrées makes a lot of sense for a restaurant whose 'hood has aged, reproduced and, to some extent, rowdied on down. With sandwiches, salads and classic dishes—all priced below $20—the menu offers a sturdy repertoire for neighborhood dining.
That's not to say that non-neighbors should forget about Mirror. There's plenty to like about the comfortable and pretty dining room, sleek bar and bartender Stephanie Johnson's signature cocktails, such as the hot toddy of rum, green tea and honey. (When porch weather rolls around again, the newly covered patio will be a good happy-hour spot for cucumber martinis, which come and go with the growing season.)
Furthermore, the fish-and-chips entrée is worth crossing town for. Sweet orange roughy in an ethereally light tempura batter, with malt glaze and a creamy blend of wasabi, mayonnaise and homemade ketchup is an impressive execution of a pub favorite.
The more ambitious fish special showcased DeGregory's creativity, with a large slab of salmon lightly seared and flaky inside, served over a grilled patty of sesame rice and accompanied by a tangle of caramelized onion jam. With layered flavors of soy, Worcestershire and a vibrant wasabi drizzle and bites of grilled squash on the side, the composition recalled the tradition of artistic meals that earned Mirror a reputation for creative cuisine back in the day.
While some dishes veer toward predictability and sturdiness, DeGregory peppers the menu with artisanal touches, such as homemade slaw and pickles that accompany the salmon sandwich with wasabi aioli—not to mention the crisp homemade chips with truffle oil that melt across the tongue with a salty whisper.
Deep-fried globes of panko-crusted chicken breast stuffed with spinach and cheese made a hearty and comforting meal, accompanied by mashed potatoes with scant flecks of soft bacon, chives and cheddar, but the dish lacked flavor with the exception of the heavy-handed sprinkling of parsley across the top.
The meat loaf sandwich—made with minced flank steak and chuck on a thick slice of grilled toast—was an ample serving of classic comfort food. But the staple meat-and-fries combo was made special by the unusual smoky finish of homemade chipotle ketchup.
For the most part, the dessert roster remains intact, anchored by the signature bowl of white chocolate soup and a rich pot de crème.
It remains to be seen if shifting the focus from tapas to comfort food will work. Will neighbors reconsider Mirror as a casual neighborhood spot that welcomes families, or will the restaurant lose its luster as it steers away from adventurous small plates? It's never as easy to look forward as it is to look back, but the DeGregorys have a record of being ahead of the curve in 12South.
Mirror opens for dinner at 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday. Beginning Dec. 7, the restaurant will serve Sunday brunch.