Philadelphia Restaurant Review: Carmine’s Creole Café Act II Turns It Up to 11

Scaled-down ambitions and pumped-up flavors straight from the Bayou in tow, chef John Mims returns to Narberth with his newest BYOB.

Shrimp and crawfish etouffee at Carmine's Creole Cafe Act II

There are many food menus at Carmine’s Creole Café Act II, and none of them list the most important thing John Mims cooks there.

This is not an oversight. Mims, a New Orleans native who has worked more or less his whole life in restaurants, has sense enough to keep some things between himself and his refrigerator. But if you were to sneak into the walk-in at his Narberth BYOB—located in the exact same digs he left in 2006—you’d see the containers that conceal the soul of this restaurant. They’re the ones labeled SWAMP WATER.

The recipe doubles as a small gem of oral history. “I take whole crawfish, beat the hell out of them—really beat them, until they’re pulpy—and then brown them in butter over really high heat,” says Mims, who has the arms to pulpify ironwood. “When the shells are cooked, I add water, plenty of fresh thyme, onions, carrots … then I boil the hell out of it.”

A far cry from rocket science, but not that far from rocket fuel in the transportative punch that it packs. The shrimp and crawfish étouffée Mims summons from this murky condensate obliterates the distance between his birthplace and his adopted Pennsylvania home. It could hardly evoke the Bayou more completely if the servers made you eat it while Louisiana mudbugs pinched your feet.

There’s no danger of that happening at this Woodbine Avenue address, which formerly housed Aperto and still feels a little bit like an HGTV gloss on Italy, rendered vaguely enough to suggest anyplace if you squint. Mims will never have a space as atmospheric as Les Bons Temps on 12th Street, which he ran for four months in 2008 until his business partnership with Howard Taylor soured.

“That was going to be my Commander’s Palace,” Mims says, referring to the iconic New Orleans institution that launched Emeril Lagasse’s career. Instead it culminated in an “ugly divorce,” after which the building’s next tenants stripped out its dilapidated grandeur to the studs.

A non-compete clause forced Mims to retreat to Phoenixville, sundering him from the customer base he’d built in the inner suburbs since 1999 with three successive iterations of Carmine’s Creole, in Havertown, Narberth and Bryn Mawr. In Phoenixville he ran Daddy Mims and Johnny’s New Orleans Pizza Kitchen, and briefly resurrected his “grandiose ambitions” with a failed bid to buy the Columbia Hotel.
“I wanted to be Stephen Starr at one point, which I’m not good at,” he says. So when the non-compete agreement expired, Narberth beckoned. And Mims answered, with a more modest vision.

“I’m quite satisfied with a small restaurant,” he says, five months into his latest act. “I get to do everything, from cleaning it to all the prep. I start cooking at 6:30 in the morning. I live upstairs. It’s like coming to my house.”

Without architectural ambience to lean on (or the liquor license he’d need to resurrect Les Bons Temps’ magnificently dirty Tabasco martinis), Mims has to make his food do all the talking. And he does, with a strategy that’s in keeping with his unaffected approach to Cajun-inflected Creole cooking: sheer volume. From the profusion of menus (two fixed-price options, at $28 and $30, a full page of à la carte appetizers, another of entrées, plus one more sheet enumerating nightly additions) to the heavily heaped plates themselves, Mims cranks every dial to 11.

The best place to be is the four-seat kitchen bar, where you can watch him lob giant knuckles of butter into fry pans already thick with seafood and his tomato-bombed Creole stock, or smother andouille sausage and duck meat with glistening lumps of braised pork shoulder—and top that with bacon gravy.

His clay-colored étouffée cold-cocked me with crawfish essence, and it was punch-drunk love at first bite. The roux-thickened seafood gumbo, several shades darker, went too far; its intense spicing reminded me, strangely, of overwrought baked beans. But the sherry-brightened, crab-fatty richness of his she-crab soup was more like it.

Mims doesn’t always put the pedal all the way down. I loved his quiche-like crab cheesecake, in which he tamed the potentially overwhelming influence of smoked gouda with remarkable finesse. But this is a place where crawfish spring rolls with kimchi (solid) and cornmeal-crusted scallops with a black currant/balsamic reduction (skippable) count as light. And the throttle is usually wide open. Seeking a little restraint one night with seafood court bouillon—­remembering the delicate broth of Donald Link’s version at Cochon in New Orleans—I instead got walloped with an almost viscous stew of phenomenally extracted fresh tomatoes sweetened liberally with Pernod, brimming with shrimp and crab and scallops and a great slab of Chilean sea bass.

“Hey, you’re doing a pretty good job on that,” Mims told me after a spell, the way a family chef might praise a five-year-old who tackles dinner with unusual gusto. And what could I say? If you’re going to get walloped, you should at least get it done Crescent City-style.