Mia’s Café
Serving weekday Lunch, Dinner (Th-Sat), and Sunday Brunch
3669 Savannah Hwy.
West Ashley

At a recent food aficionado gathering, someone remarked that Charleston’s restaurants offer excellent examples of both fussy haute cuisine and indigenous soul food but lack strong mid-priced eateries serving quality, authentic preparations. Unfortunately, I had to agree. The conversation turned to tourism which, it was decided, polarizes the market, forcing restaurateurs to choose between low-margin, low-cost food hawked at high volume and high-end, creative adventures geared toward the upper crust. In my experience, the former usually lacks integrity — or at the least, compelling originality and flavor.

It was perplexing, then, walking into Mia’s Cafe a few days later. The unassuming little shack way out on Highway 17S sits well outside the hallowed ring of downtown; perhaps that explains how they can be so good at such a reasonable price. In any case, Mia’s definitely represents an exception to the rule. A lone palm tree lackadaisically strung with lights, bistro tables, and chairs thrown about the cars parked out front give way to a homey interior, with tables parked as closely together as the fascinating assortment of original art adorning the walls.

No one would call it fancy, but looking at the Sunday brunch buffet, you wouldn’t expect the affordable price tag of $17. The thing overflows with items that you’d find at the pricey hotel buffets downtown, the kind that cost $35 and serve 300 items in shiny domes all lined up around fresh flowers and mounds of butter painstakingly shaped into little roses. You won’t see your reflection in the chrome at Mia’s.

Chef and owner Thierry Goulard, a product of northern France, strips the scene of fluff and leaves only the down-home goodness. Big, succulent Alaskan king crab legs and tiny oysters on the half shell, salty and cold, perch among salmon and capers on a glistening bed of ice. The fact that the whole display resides in a secondhand steam buffet that normally houses Mia’s weekday southern lunch buffet (spectacular in its own right) and has seen better days seems perfect. This is more about comfortable food than pretension, and the results provide delicious food at some of the most reasonable prices in town.

The rest of that Sunday brunch adds a roasted leg of lamb, baked ham, filet of beef stuffed with collard greens, French toast blintzes filled with cheese and fruit, assorted pastas, vegetables, and a splendid dessert table complete with a cascading chocolate fountain. Not bad for a one-room shack with about 15 tables. The lunch buffet provides the same level of satisfaction, with the obvious exception of being a bona fide Southern soul food mélange. The fried chicken alone speaks for itself; people rave about it, as they do the remainder of the fare.

Mia’s could stop there and be an exceptional find, but on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday evenings, it transforms again, becoming a quaint, reclusive French country bistro. The interior darkens into a candlelit retreat, cozy and warm. The interesting objects d’art and wall paintings offer new reflection in the changed light, transformed by the smells of classic cuisine wafting from a small kitchen door in the rear of the space. There’s real food back there. You can tell the moment you step through the door; this is no plastic palace. You are about to eat well.

A cup of the she-crab soup would fetch three times its $3.95 price tag downtown. Rustic, chunky, full of crab and flavor, the creamy soup finishes with the slightest piquant tinge. A very traditional “Country Pâté” ($4.95) continues that rusticity with crispy toast points and the acid bite of a few cornichons nestled alongside. One can only marvel at these values, such as $6.95 for an “Avocado & Crab Salad” plated above an ethereal tomato jus dressing. A stack of dressed crab and a perfect avocado splay into an intricate fan, the bright swirl of a hibiscus blossom accenting the frame.

Entrées showcase the considerable skill of Chef Goulard and his ability to switch between Southern standbys and classic French standards. Melting “Braised Lamb Shanks” ($16.95) bathed in a rosemary tinged red wine sauce, “Filet Mignon Au Poivre” ($18.95), and a “Crispy Confit of Duck Leg” ($16.50) demonstrate a diverse repertoire. The confit rests on the plate beside a “Seared Duck Breast a l’orange,” a perfectly rare juxtaposition to the unctuous dribble of slow-cooked fat that trickles across the crackling leg skin. “Spicy New Orleans Style ‘Shrimp N Grits'” ($16.25) resounds with hot capsicum and a full-flavored tomato sauce. The “Jumbo Lump Crabcakes” ($17.95) are plumped gems, a mixture of what looks like lump Alaskan crab (possibly left over from the buffet?) and regular blue crab. The lump provides the familiar chunky texture of a great crabcake, while the blue crab contributes incredible flavor, the whole fried to a crispy crunch and wallowing in a perfectly luxurious beurre blanc. This creative use of crab should be applauded; it turns a clichéd and rarely successful dish into a delicious preparation that even modest pocketbooks can afford.

That really is the attraction of Mia’s. In a city so lacking in mid-range quality, it stands out among the few places serving good, honest, well-prepared foods in a white cloth atmosphere for a reasonable price. It speaks to the pride and dedication to the food that the Goulards display. We only wish that more places like Mia’s will come along, with people as dedicated to gastronomy as they are greenbacks.

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