If you read this site frequently you may be tired of my complaints about San Francisco’s lack of original restaurant designs. So I’ll spare you the redundancy and go directly to the point. Welcome to New San Francisco. Welcome to RN74.
The ambitious Michael Mina venture in South of Market is the first restaurant in the city that is as exciting as its food. RN74’s interior, designed by the award winning AvroKO, is on par with some of New York’s most exciting projects. For San Francisco, it’s something long overdue.
In one of the world’s gastronomic capitals, design has always taken a back seat. While all the focus went on the food, ambience originality was often seen as less important, unnecessary and even referred to as distracting.
But the point is not how it distracts the dining experience but how it can complement and enhance it; much like the presentation of food can influence how you perceive it.
We live in an era where art and gastronomy blend in seamlessly. The idea of multisensory experiences has been explored by many avant-garde chefs creating surprising combinations of flavors, aromas and visual presentations. But why should your focus be limited to what’s under your nose and in front of your eyes, and not take into account what’s around you? It shouldn’t. The concept of distracting surroundings is only true when its design is poorly conceived.
Inside the Opéra Garnier in Paris, an amazing ceiling painting by Marc Chagall gives the audience an elevated sense of exclusivity and awe. At the Guggenheim in Bilbao, Frank Gehry’s architectural masterpiece gives artists an unparallel canvas for remarkable installations. Although the relationship between these buildings and the art it houses is subject of great controversy, one thing is clear: together they create a unique experience. An experience that, when successful, enhances one’s enjoyment of all its elements, with all senses.
Let me get this straight, I’m not saying RN74’s design project is a great architectural achievement nor am I comparing it to a museum or opera house. All I’m saying is that its design brings San Francisco a much welcomed originality that stands far above most local conterparts. And in no way distracts you from the dining experience, quite the opposite.
The restaurant is located on the ground floor of the Millennium Tower, a gigantic–at least for Bay Area standards– glass monolith that by itself is not particularly exciting. But as you enter RN74, what you see is pleasantly contrasting. Vintage lanterns hanging in chains create a delicate curtain that separates the bar on the right from the modern dining room. The all-glass façade is disguised with the privacy of elegant dark wood shutters.
The atmosphere is a casual chic blend of industrial coolness and modern warmth. Walnut tables branded in classic Helvetica, each with its assigned number. Topping each, texturized brown paper placemats, modern flatware and water glasses in the restaurant’s signature red. From the hangar-like ceiling hang perfectly aligned arrays of amber pendant lights. On the walls, the über graphic wine list designed like classic train station signage.
The space fits 186 people between the dining room, the bar and an ample lounge. Permeating them all is an outstanding music selection that is uplifting and cosmopolitan.
RN74 opened a few months ago with a very different proposition; a wine bar with fine dining small plates. But the idea only lasted a couple of days and Mina changed course (no pun intended) to reflect diners desire for larger portions. The wine focus hasn’t changed but now the restaurant offers regular-size appetizers ($11 to $17), main courses ($24 to $29), cheeses and desserts ($9). Curiously, the actual plates didn’t seem to have been updated as some of the dishes clearly deserve wider ware. Chef and winemaker Jason Berthold, who once worked at The French Laundry, created a modern French fare that, in good California fashion, celebrates each of its ingredients with respect.
Sliced sourdough and soft butter topped with fleur de sel start the meal.
Pâté de campagne. Burgundian mustard, cornichons, French prune. A delicate and rich starter from the “Anytime” menu.
Sautéed pork belly & manila clams. Spring onion, smoked paprika, parsley. An outstanding appetizer made with fatty, tender sous-vide-cooked pork belly that is then sautéed to achieve perfect crispiness. Served with tasty clams and a paprika butter sauce.
On the lighter side, Hamachi sashimi. Hawaiian hearts of palm, watermelon, yuzu, shiso. The fresh hamachi is served with hearts of palm in 3 ways and contrasted with the sweetness of compressed watermelon cubes. A dish that seems inspired by Berthold’s old master, Thomas Keller.
Liberty farm duck “cassoulet”. Barley, shiitake mushrooms, sweet carrots, spinach. This is RN74’s reinterpretation of the classic French stew–one of my all-time favorite dishes. Instead of white beans, barley and shitake serve as the base for the duck confit which is cooked for 10-hours, then crispied to order. The result is an original and deliciously flavorful dish, lighter than the classic cassoulet yet more complex in texture.
Bacon-wrapped pork loin. Corn, fennel, cornbread financier, mission figs, green peppercorn. The thin, golden brown bacon works like a crispy, tasty skin on the tender loin meat. Among the accoutrements, the sweet cornbread is hard to beat. A very good dish although it would have benefited from a sauce.
For dessert, Warm beignets. Mascarpone, blueberry, lemon thyme, ras al hanout sorbet. The small deep fried treats go very well with the creamy mascarpone and fragrant ras al hanout sorbet–a blend of herbs and spices popular across the Middle East.
Chocolate delice. Banana, caramel, brown butter-cashew ice cream. A deliciously rich dessert.
To end, black currant financiers with a touch of honey.
RN74 is one of the most exciting restaurant projects in San Francisco. Beyond its very good food with roots in French cuisine and typical San Francisco flair, the interior and graphic design is simply outstanding. New York outstanding. Michael Mina managed to create a dining experience that, simply put, brings together the best of both coasts.
RN74 is at 301 Mission Street