Carmine’s Act Two
In Narberth, Louisiana transplant John Mims has crafted a fitting stage for his legendary brand of Cajun and Creole cuisine
by Brian Freedman

Cravings of virtually any variety can be satisfied in the Philadelphia area: Chinese food, from nuclear-spicy Szechuan to the heartier comforts of Xian, and everything in between; Mexican dishes from Oaxaca in the southwestern part of the country to more Americanized dishes; Thai food from Chiang Mai in the north to more southerly curries, hot enough to strip the enamel from your teeth.

But Cajun and Creole—arguably some of the most emblematic and indubitably among the most exciting foods of these United States—have remained relatively under the radar. Sure, there are chefs who mine the NOLA tradition for inspiration and a spark here and there on their menus, but devoted practitioners of the Cajun and Creole arts have remained in inexplicably short supply in our city.

Our brightest light in this arena has been, for years now, chef John Mims, the dedicated and passionate advocate of the glories of Cajun and Creole. The success of his original Carmine’s led to an all-too-brief stint in the sweeping and short-lived Les Bon Temps in town. After that, he set up shop in Phoenixville, and then, around a year and a half ago, he came back to Narberth with Carmine’s Act Two. Happily, it represents a return to his roots.

As has been my experience of his cooking in the past, when Mims hits his stride, the depth of his flavors can rival those of any chef in the area. Too often, self-styled NOLA devotees mistakenly assume that a coating of blackening spices and a few links of Andouille sausage are enough to approximate the flavors of the region of their inspiration. Mims, who grew up in both New Orleans and Lafitte, La., has always been better than that, understanding on a visceral, personal level that in order to achieve the full depth of flavor he’s going for takes time, dedication and patience. He has plenty of both, arriving at 6:30 a.m. to start whipping up his magic in time to feed the dinner crowd.

Nowhere is that sense of devotion on better display than with his Creole seafood gumbo, a preparation of such impossible depths that is puts every other one I can think of to shame. It makes you rethink what this dish is capable of. It beats the other gumbos up at recess and takes their lunch money.

Mims starts off with a mahogany roux and a crawfish stock that he reduces by half until it is seemingly composed of nothing but its essence. “Swamp water” is what he calls it, which to my ears sounds just about perfect. All of the seafood is cooked à la minute in order to retain its textural integrity, and the whole thing is like the liquid equivalent of Otis Redding, at turns silky and funky, but always anchored by a sense of deeply felt soul that sticks with you long after the bowl is empty.

Sweet potato and smoked sausage bisque succeeds in a similar fashion. The flavors of the beautifully roasted sweet potatoes are set up perfectly against the hit of cayenne and the headier notes of that sausage.

After all these years of bouncing around the region, Mims has maintained the ability to surprise. It takes guts, after all, to put any sort of riff on coconut shrimp in 2014. It was long ago relegated to the realm of the uninspired, an excuse to overcharge for a comma of usually overcooked crustacean coated in a too-thick layer of shredded coconut and accompanied by a souped-up version of duck sauce.

Not here. Mims has breathed new life into the preparation. He coats it in a layer of coconut (and flour and cornmeal) not a micrometer too thick, and the shrimp inside are plump and snappy and perfectly cooked. The accompanying jalapeño jelly is perhaps half a step too sweet, but adding a bit of green onion corn cake to the bite makes it all come together. With just a minor tweak to that jelly, this dish could become one of the top appetizers in the suburbs.

Sometimes Mims could use an editor. He is full of ideas, and any one of them would make for an excellent entrée in its own right. Unfortunately, they are occasionally diminished by working with all of them on the same plate. At $22, the “crispy duck, grilled Andouille sausage and Cajun-roasted pork shoulder” is one of the best bargains in the entire region—there is more than enough food here for dinner and a fantastic lunch the next day—but the impact of each was diminished by the presence of so much other good stuff on the plate. Still, an entrée with too many fantastic proteins is the best kind of problem to have. I could happily eat a bucket of the accompanying collards and smoked bacon gravy every day of the week.

Carmine’s also offers excellent value when it comes to the Taste of New Orleans menu, which, for $32, provides nearly enough food for two, though it’s technically for one. A recent entrée selection showcased both excellent blackened Creole shrimp atop decadent smoked-gouda grits and an ethereally tender blackened filet mignon with Andouille mashed potatoes and a crawfish demi-glace. In its entirety, it constitutes a smart take on surf and turf, though either one alone would have been more than delicious.

Desserts could use a little less sauce but were very good otherwise. The ice cream and waffles have a decadent praline sauce, while the chocolate bourbon pecan pie shimmers in the light—and both are altogether satisfying.

There are some changes in store, including a nixing of the $5 corkage fee, as well as a project that Mims estimates he will be opening in Philadelphia in June 2015: a Broad Street food-and-music spot called TREME.

For now, though, Carmine’s Act Two is more than a great chef’s return to Narberth; it’s a stage for one of our area’s best and most talented practitioners of the legendary cuisine of New Orleans and farther-flung parts of Louisiana. As a lover of this food and a resident of these suburbs, I couldn’t be happier that it’s all so close by.

Carmine’s Act Two
232 Woodbine Ave., Narberth
610-660-0160 |

Photography by Rob Hall