SAINT JOHN – The Asian fusion restaurant Mimimi is located in Millidgeville in a nondescript strip mall. Inside it’s anything but. The hardwood interior, soft lighting and chefs at work in full view of the dining area make it feel warm and inviting.
“I wanted a natural feeling,” says owner Hou Ning. “You come in here and see wood, light and the kitchen. I want you to come here and feel like you’re home, very cozy and comfortable.”
There are several tables of four and one long table for a large group or customers happy to sit with people they don’t know. “We call it the ‘community table,’ ” says Ning. “Sometimes you have to sit with strangers if it’s busy. It’s an opportunity to meet new people.”
There is also a long L-shaped long counter with stools facing the kitchen, making it feel like a sushi bar. That’s intentional, he says, as he tried to “blend some cultural traditions.”
Before the business closed earlier this year, Ellwood’s Wood Lab made all of the dark, chunky, cherrywood furniture for Mimimi. “They read my mind [about what I wanted],” says Ning. “The owner [Tim Cressman] had been to China and Japan and he knew what I was looking for.”
And there’s the food, with Ning’s passion coming through in the richly detailed stories he likes to tell about the cultural and historical origin of each.
There’s the Guo Bao Rou, crispy deep-fried pork tenderloin medallions cooked with ginger, garlic, coriander and tossed with Mimimi sweet and sour sauce.
The 120-year-old dish is native to Harbin region near the north-east border with Russia. Ning says Zheng Xingwen, a chef for an officer in the Qing Dynasty, was asked to create a dish for Russians living in or visiting the region.
“He realized the Russian people liked to eat meat and sweet and sour stuff, deep fried, so he created this dish,” says Ning. “Russian people really liked it and the Chinese people too. After the Qing dynasty collapsed, he opened his own restaurant and he started to cook by himself.”
Ning is from Harbin and he says members of the family still run the restaurant generations later.
Most of the dishes have Chinese origins, but Ning is open to serving ones from other Asian countries too.
Ri Shi Ga – a light stew of boneless beef or chicken with potatoes, carrots and onions in a curry sauce – is Japanese in origin.
“A group of Japanese cooks went to India to learn how to make curry but the Indian curry was to too heavy for the Japanese,” says Ning. “They adjusted it, and made it lighter for the Japanese Imperial Navy. It’s still called “Imperial Navy Curry.”
Ning and his wife, Sirui Zhang, opened Mimimi (“mi” is Mandarin for rice, “the foundation of Asian food,” he says) earlier this year to introduce authentic Chinese cooking to Saint Johners who might associate the country’s cuisine with “chicken balls and egg rolls.”
“I want to change the image of China,” says Ning. “China has a 5,000-year history with many different food traditions.”
Mimimi is getting some rave reviews so far.
“Just ate amazing dim sum here with relatives visiting from out of town: especially dug the steamed buns & pork medallions & of course chatting with the chef. Highly recommend,” said one recent patron on Facebook, giving the food and service “five stars.”
“The food was amazingly delicious!” wrote another customer. “We look forward to returning so we can try everything on the menu.”
Ning came to Canada to go to school and graduated from UNBSJ with a degree in hotel management. He also spent a year at NBCC St. Andrews studying culinary arts and learned about managing a restaurant.
A self-taught cook, Ning impressed his friends with the skill he developed after moving to Canada.
When I come here I had to cook everything by myself,” he says. “My friends told me, ‘Ning, I think you’re standards are higher than a professional cook.’ Why don’t you open a Chinese restaurant?”
He worked for the Hilton in Saint John for eight years before deciding to start a restaurant of his own.
And he was committed to doing it Saint John, rather than Toronto or Vancouver, and supporting the other businesses making a go of it here too, like Ellwood’s and the Asian Foodie Store next door to Mimimi.
“I totally support local business,” he says. “I could it have gotten [the furniture] cheaper from Ontario or Vancouver, even shipped it from China, but I want to support local business.
“My friend opened an Asian food store. I buy a lot of my stuff from him. I try to get everything locally. If I can’t get it here, I’ll bring it from Ontario but the majority of [food items] are from here.”
Ning has plans to eventually open Mimimi restaurants in cities across Atlantic Canada and eventually Quebec too.
But Saint John will remain Ning’s home base. He’s a fierce defender of Saint John as a great place to live and do business.
“I don’t like it when people say Saint John doesn’t have opportunities, it doesn’t have jobs,” he says. “I can create jobs. I can do something [here]. I consider myself a Saint Johner.”