The name once associated with a talented chef behind the stoves at Aqua in San Francisco today brands a small hospitality empire with 17 restaurants and enterprise-level staff titles like Vice Presidents and Corporate Pastry Chef. His signature sprawls over 7 US states and Mexico on a myriad of restaurant concepts. But like a fashion designer, the Egyptian-born chef reserves his full name for his flagship restaurant, Michael Mina.
The original address that started Mina’s franchise is right on Union Square, the touristic heart of San Francisco. Adjacent to the lobby of the Westin St. Francis hotel, the dining room enjoys the privacy of a quiet mezzanine with imposing high ceilings and tall Greek Ionic columns. To compensate for the grandiosity of the space, dim lights attempt to create a more intimate atmosphere–and not so favorable conditions for good food photography, I may add.
The muted earthy palette is contrasted only by the outside neon lights diffused through sheer panels covering the windows. More than an artifice of privacy, it’s a sign of exclusivity; while you can see some of the outside, passersby can’t peek in.
Tables are set with fine white linen, silver napkin rings, delicate crystal glassware and beautiful one of a kind mother pearl shells. On the center, a round arabesque votive candle holder the size of a small cake.
Like other things, service here is about pomp and circumstance. Dishes are placed on the table in perfect unison by an infantry of servers, all sharply dressed in black. The words “Ma’am” and “Sir” finishing every sentence. But the formality becomes cold when dishes are described with an unnecessary monarchic aloofness. Imagine a server that recites each dish composition while keeping her head high, looking towards the ceiling like in a Shakespearean soliloquy. A show of confidence that can come across as distant and even pedantic.
Restaurants like The French Laundry, COI and Per Se, a category that Michael Mina attempts to fit in, have proven that exclusivity and sophistication can be warm and approachable.
Outside the entrance, a glass box displays a signed copy of that day’s menu, Michael Mina’s scribbled signature as a proof that the founding chef is still somewhat involved in daily activities–at least in donating his autograph.
The unusually written menu describes dishes by listing its ingredients as bullet points under sometimes-mysterious headers. The format requires some decoding, like a curious word game–think Jeopardy meets crossword puzzle. "Things that are unnecessarily complicated, 4 letters."
Diners can choose from a $105 three-course à la carte menu or a $135 six-course tasting. The former includes about 8 options per course, some with surcharge. For the recession-immune, the restaurant also offers caviar service at up to $195 per order.
In my first visit to Michael Mina, I tried the full tasting menu. It was very good but I recall leaving the restaurant uncomfortably full–if you follow my stories you should know by now I have no small appetite. But when every dish is served in 3 ways, 6 courses become 18 (more on that later). This time, even our waitress had to recognize the arguably excessive menu; “It’s a lot of food”, she said. With the opportune reminder and considering the fact that the options à la carte were significantly more interesting, I decided on 3 courses, or 9, depending on who’s counting.
Mina’s signature trios feature one main ingredient prepared 3 ways. Each preparation created with different accompaniments and techniques. Presented side by side on custom plates, the small portions are laid out in a progression of flavors and textures that demonstrate the chef’s inventiveness. The concept adds a layer of entertainment and often surprise to the dining experience. In its purest form, it’s a celebration of versatility and creativity. But sometimes it can be a stretch.
While some dishes work beautifully together like a symphonic arrangement, others will be questioned for their unnecessary complexity. Even an orchestra needs to quiet down for a soloist.
The small portions also take some time to go through if you want to fully appreciate each preparation individually–as you should. The downside? By the time you’re done with the first 2, the last one is already below its ideal temperature. You are faced with the difficult choice of rushing through and risking missing the nuances of each preparation or taking your time and eventually biting into something lukewarm.
To start, Lobster Truffle amuse bouche. The first trio includes fried Lobster Ravioli over yuzu sauce, Lobster truffles Salad with celery, and a flavorful consommé with tapioca pearls.
Raw ~ Ceviche, Crudo, Tartare
• Nantucket scallops, yuzu koshu, shiso
• Kampachi, cara cara orange, aji Amarillo
• Tazmanian sea trout, star ruby grapefruit, jalapeño
The Japanese inspired scallops ceviche is by far the star of this dish. Sweet, fresh and delicate. The rest is good, but seem to become less interesting as you progress from one preparation to another.
Pork ~ Terrine, Belly, Short Rib
• Tête de cochon, foie gras, cornichon gelée
• Frisée au lardon, quail egg, sherry mignonette
• Bourguignon, forest mushrooms, potato gnocchi
In contrast to the light raw plate, this first course is rich and luscious. The foie gras is creamy, silky and fatty; its sweetness complementing the chunky fromage the tête underneath it. Topped with a delicate gelée, this preparation is an absolute success.
The pork belly topped with a delicately poached quail egg is also deliciously flavorful.
Finaly, the braised short ribs are actually subtle in flavors but come served with a beautifully clear reduction, perhaps a legacy of chef Chris L'Hommedieu’s tenure at The French Laundry.
Liberty Valley Duck ~ Foie Gras
• Breast, parsnip purée, star anise jus
• Seared foie gras, pink lady apples, laird’s brandy gastrique
• Leg rillettes, apple butter, mixed greens
For the second course, the trio of duck picked my interest on the menu. All preparations were fairly flavorful and artfully presented. Some elements were less successful than others–the pain perdu with the foie lacked textural contrast and the fried rillettes were somewhat plain in flavor. But there was one major flaw, one that I can’t forgive; the seared foie gras had tough veins.
This is like serving fish without removing its bones, but the feeling of finding veins in a luscious foie gras is much more disheartening. Something that would simply not happen in a Thomas Keller restaurant.
Brandt Farm Beef ~ Steakhouse Sides
• Filet mignon, sweet carrots, béarnaise reduction
• Short rib, La Ratte potatoes, natural jus
• Dry aged rib eye, forest mushrooms, sauce bordelaise
In this more traditional option for second course, all meats were tasty and cooked perfectly. Each is served with a vegetable side dish, a highlight being the pearl-shaped buttery carrots.
Chocolate ~ Exotic
• White chocolate panna cotta, passion fruit, almond crumble
• German chocolate, coconut espuma, candied pecans
• Bittersweet chocolate cream, rum bananas, macadamia nut
In this decadent dessert, the progression of flavors is great. Starting with the lighter, more acidic panna cotta and ending on a creamy chocolate and caramelized banana combination.
Mission ~ Bienvenido
• Tres leches cake, guava, cajeta ice cream
This Latin American-inspired dessert is one of the few dishes that is not served in a trio, per se–although the concept of a tres leches is arguably a trio by nature. Unlike the original milk soaked sponge cakes though, this one is not as moist as I expected. Served with a subtle guava purée and a quenelle of cajeta ice cream–the Mexican caramelized milk confection–or dulce the leche.
To finish, mignardises sent by the chef. Lyche pâte de fruit and espresso s’mores.
Despite being technically a hotel restaurant, the lofty mezzanine space gives Michael Mina a private and exclusive atmosphere. One that is peppered with luxury and sometimes pompous service. Its signature trios are fun and inventive but It’s hard not to compare Michael Mina with other restaurants in its class–and price range. The minor flaws found in some dishes could be negligible otherwise but when a goal is set to deliver perfection, the cuisine should be judged accordingly. And in this case, Michael Mina’s food is great, but not quite perfect.
Michael Mina is at 335 Powell St.