It’s very hard to find a birthday gift for Pdho. I think almost every gift I have bought him, he has usually returned or exchanged. I’m not really offended, but obviously it makes it kind of difficult, so I’ve decided that the one thing that makes Pdho happy that he can’t return is taking him somewhere nice for a birthday dinner. I had heard that Michael Mina was going to move his flagship restaurant to the space formerly occupied by Aqua in the Financial District, so I was anxious to try it out before this happened.
As with any proper fine dining experience, the meal starts off with an amuse-bouche which is always compliments of the chef. Being that the chef is Michael Mina, instead of just one, there were three. The Shrimp Tempura ball and the Hamachi Sashimi tartare were very good, but they probably weren’t as unique as the Uni Flan. The Uni Flan came with a dashi and lobster consomme which was one of the most uniquely delicious tasting things I’ve ever had. I’ve never been a huge fan of uni, but this definitely intrigued me to give uni another try the next time I go eat sushi. The consistency of the custard was just firm enough and seemed complemented so well by the broth which also had a rich depth of flavor. A very excellent start to the dinner.
I love tuna tartare in general, but I really, really loved the one they served here. It came out with the ahi tuna, quail egg, Scotch Bonnet pepper, Bosc Pear, garlic, pine nuts and sesame oil individually presented on the plate, and the waiter proceeded to mix it all together. It was served with mini triangles of lightly toasted white bread. Admittedly, it probably isn’t hard to prepare and many a times, I’ve had good tuna tartare, but I really think this one was excellent. There was a nice mix of saltiness that was accented by the sweetness from the pears. I also think the pine nuts not only added an interesting flavor but also a nice crunch. Even though it is a similar preparation, this tuna tartare was so much better than the one I had at the Michael Mina in Las Vegas which I actually found to be rather mediocre in comparison.
Pdho ordered the Pigs, Figs and Corn for his first course. It was a trio appetizer where three different dishes were presented, each one executed with all three of the ingredients. From left to right, there was La Quercia Jamon, Kadota Fig, and a Polenta Crouton; Short-rib Rillette and Braised Ear, Mission Fig and Corn Pudding; and Fig-Glazed Pork Belly, Collard Greens, and Corn Bread Pudding. All three of the appetizers were built upon the salt, sweet and starch of the pork, fig, and corn, respectively, and it was amazing how well-balanced in terms of taste every single appetizer was.
The polenta crouton on the La Quercia Jamon appetizer was notably good. The consistency of the polenta was pretty smooth considering that there is usually a little bit of graininess in polenta. It was very well-made and grilled.
Rillette supposedly is similar to pate, so in this case, they chopped and salted the short-rib and braised ear and mixed it with a little fat. Then, they breaded it and probably fried it up a little. It was really very good, and the saltiness was amazingly complemented by the sweetness of the fig. Best part was the crispy pork skin that topped it all off with some fatty fried-ness.
Pork belly seems to be the protein du jour these days. Everywhere you go, you see some sort of preparation with pork belly, and not surprisingly so, when there is so much fat in it, it’s difficult to find a really bad thing to say about it. This pork belly literally melted in your mouth. It was so intensely fatty, but I couldn’t help but eat it all up.
The second course was highlighted by Pdho’s choice of the Lobster Pot Pie. I actually had a mini version of this in Las Vegas, and although it wasn’t bad, I definitely think the one we had tonight was much better. The lobster was prepared in a brandy cream sauce with potatoes, carrots, onions and mushrooms and served on top of a puff pastry. It was like the best lobster bisque on top of a buttery puff pastry. There were nice meaty pieces of lobster including two big claws. Given the size of the body and claws, I doubt that both body parts came from the same lobster. The bisque was so creamy and smelled absolutely heavenly. The brandy smell was fragrant without being overpowering and it really complemented the depth of lobster flavor in the bisque. I really wanted to slurp up all the sauce off the plate.
I opted for the trio option for my second course, the Sonoma County Duck – Chicories and Stone Fruit. This trio included the Duck Breast with Nectarine Compote and Marcona Butter; the Seared Foie Gras with a Cherry Marmalade and Pistachio Crumble; and the Confit of Duck leg with an Apricot Puree and Walnut Stuffing.
The Duck Breast was very well-cooked. The meat was juicy and tender, and the nectarine compote added a nice sweetness.
The foie gras was sinful, but I liked it. It was actually a very decent sized piece of foie and had a very soft and fatty consistency, but the potato cake and cherry marmalade helped to cut the fattiness while providing a nice contrast in flavors.
The Confit of Duck was probably my least favorite of the the trio. I’m not sure what it is, but I have never had a Confit of Duck that I like. I don’t know if it’s because I’ve been unlucky, but generally speaking, I find it to be very dry. This preparation was no different, but at least the outer skin had a nice crispy texture so I did like that part of it. Every other component in this dish was rather lackluster in comparison to the other duck preparations.
The desserts were pretty solid for the most part. There was a Plum Crisp topped with oats and an Olive Oil Ice Cream, a Cheesecake with Blueberries and Lemon Thyme, and a Chocolate Mousse Cake with Salted Caramel Ice Cream. I ordered the Strawberry Cheesecake which came with Cherry Balsamic and Graham Cracker Ice Cream.
Both the cheesecakes were similarly deconstructed. Fresh fruit topped each of them and a pile of graham cookie crumbles on the side. The cheesecake itself was very light which I really appreciated especially at this point in the meal when I could no longer handle anymore food.
The Plum Crisp was also very good, but it was the Olive Oil Ice Cream which I found very intriguing in taste. Pdho remarked that the olive oil taste was distinct, but I couldn’t tell.
The Chocolate Mousse Cake wasn’t that much of a high point for me, but I really don’t like chocolate very much so I guess I’m not a fair judge in that respects.
Overall, the meal was a resounding success. The food was fantastic, and after a somewhat disappointing meal at Sea Blue in the MGM Hotel and another lackluster dinner at Michael Mina Bellagio, both in Las Vegas, I was thoroughly impressed with how great the food at this particular location was. Don’t get me wrong, the food at both the Vegas locations aren’t bad by any means. I mean Michael Mina Bellagio is a 1-star Michelin-rated restaurant. I think you just come to expect more when you are paying a high price tag for a meal attached to the Michael Mina name. Nevertheless, I really love the trio concept which I didn’t realize was signature Michael Mina until now. You get a small sample of a bunch of different things, and that is how exactly how I like to eat. However, the most notable thing about the execution of the trio concept is how well he’s able to complement the flavors and ingredients and simultaneously offer a contrast in textures. If you look at each preparation, there was a salty/sweet, soft/crunchy, nutty/smooth aspect to each one. It was amazing.
Having been to multiple locations and seeing the range of food, I truly believe that not all restaurants under a renowned chef’s name are created equal. There is something to be said about not expanding your restaurant with multiple locations. Quality control is difficult and it’s a challenge to replicate the taste to the same level. I also think that since the San Francisco location was the original Michael Mina restaurant and he’s still listed as the Executive Chef, that maybe the flavors, menu and overall execution is much closer to how Michael Mina likes it.
On a side note, the waitress told us that normally Michael Mina isn’t at the restaurant, but on this particularly evening, he was actually working the line in the kitchen. It wasn’t like I could really see him from where we were sitting though. What I found really interesting was that the waitress told us that when they move Michael Mina to the Aqua space, it was going to reopen with a different concept. It would focus more on an a la carte approach to dining where the dishes would probably still be similar, but no longer would it be the tasting menu style and more importantly, the trio concept would be done away with. It seems that not only is it difficult to execute three different dishes that go well together, but it’s an even greater challenge to do it well, so I think it has to evolve. In addition, the space at the Westin St. Francis will eventually reopen as a Bourbon Steak outlet. Hearing all that, I’m especially thankful that Pdho and I got to try it before it all disappeared and it was definitely well worth it.
Restaurant Michael Mina
335 Powell Street
San Francisco, CA 94102
PAFO Ratings for Restaurant Michael Mina:
Price 4½ stars
Ambiance 4 stars
Food 4½ stars
Overall rating 4 stars