Until recently, the charming downtown wine bar and restaurant Mignon didn't really have a dedicated chef. As owner Santos Uy (RiceBar, Papilles) tells it, "We were selling some staple items prepared at Papilles, [like] packaged sous vide, and brought over [dishes] such as frogs legs Provençal, escargot en croute and a steak with roast potatoes. Good but very simple, and the menu never changed."
Mignon's new chef, 28-year-old Johnny Palomino (République, Smoke.oil.salt, Papilles), is changing the game, whipping up French bistro cuisine that's influenced by his Mexican upbringing. Think dishes such as a beef tongue potato salad or pork rillette "burrito." There's also an ever-changing prix fixe market menu, which, like Papilles', offers an appetizer, main course and dessert for around $30 (though the price can change depending on the dishes that week).
On a recent night at Mignon, jazz was playing in the background, the dim room was softly lit by candlelight and hanging bulbs, and old-timey artwork adorned the deep blue walls. The cozy and intimate joint — which has 18 seats around the bar and a few tables up front — felt like something you might find in New York.
That night, Palomino was serving a tongue salad with tarragon-scented pee wee potatoes as an appetizer. The tongue was cut into large chunks, and Palomino knows what he's doing when it comes to braising it — the meat was extremely tender and flavorful.
Palomino was inspired to make the tongue salad after taking a trip to San Francisco and visiting bistros there. He then decided to add some Mexican influences to his dish. "I grew up with tongue, as a lot of Mexicans did," he says. "The potato salad was very French and very bistro."
His parents are immigrants from Mexico, and he spent his formative years in Alhambra. That's where his love affair with food began. "Whenever my mom would take us to my grandma's house, I would jump at the chance to go," he recalls. "She would make sopes from scratch, chicken and mole, tacos de papa, camote en leche, ensalada de cactus. These types of flavors remind me of home."
Palomino later learned about French cooking when he attended Le Cordon Bleu in L.A. Some of his dishes at Mignon reflect that training and are very classic French, such as his red wine–braised beef accompanied by roasted carrots and served on a bed of creamy polenta.
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Desserts lean toward classic creations, like a chocolate praline tart that has a velvety chocolate texture and a nice crunch at the bottom. On the most current menu, Mignon will be featuring banana cream pudding.
Palomino has some more ideas brewing for new menu items, including a play on cannelloni to make it resemble a wet burrito: He's starting with pork shoulder confit in duck fat (like carnitas), but instead of wrapping a tortilla around it, he's rolling it into a pasta, then topping it with a pasilla pepper béchamel. Also in the works is a fresh herb salad with mint, parsley, cilantro and huitlacoche.
If you need help pairing the food with wine, Uy has you covered. The knowledgeable owner of the restaurant curates the list, with many of the wines from France and Italy.
Mignon, 128 E. Sixth St., downtown; (213) 489-0131, mignonla.com.