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The Stars Align

Josh Sens | December 12, 2012 | Story Restaurants

Two years ago, when Michael Mina relocated his flagship restaurant from the Westin St. Francis hotel to the former Aqua space, he described the move as an emotional homecoming. To me, it felt more like a trip in the wayback machine. Sure, the chef was returning to the address where his rise to celebrity began. But he was also trotting out a culinary style whose groundbreaking touches had grown familiar. Mina was already a brand, and when you’re a brand, you need brand recognition.

To many in his fan base—much of it made up of business travelers and self-professed foodies looking for a safe adventure—a true Mina menu calls for such hallmarks as lobster potpie deconstructed tableside and the chef’s signature take on tuna tartare. But for me (I gave the restaurant two and a half stars shortly after it opened), the tried-and-true verged on tired. The first reaction it inspired—aside from sticker shock—was “Here we go again.”

Today, Michael Mina still isn’t entirely my kind of restaurant, but it does know its audience, and it caters to their interests very well. The dining room remains comfortable and faintly corporate, with taupe banquettes and mellow acoustics—at least compared to the ambience at the bar, where happy-hour throngs consume their body weight in tartare. The financial district restaurant’s buy-low-sell-high vibe is very much the same, as are some dishes. And yet the menu on the whole is more subtle and appealing, following an overhaul by Mina and Ron Siegel, the newly installed executive chef.

Like the space itself, Siegel has a place in Mina’s past, having worked with him at Aqua in the early ’90s. But while Mina went on to build an empire of 20 restaurants, Siegel seemed content to simply don a toque and tend to what you’d call Californianized fine dining—which he did in several of the city’s most respected kitchens, including Masa’s, Charles Nob Hill, and the Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton. Though those operations weren’t his, Siegel was the big-name draw behind them.

Now, instead of going on to his own eponymous restaurant, Siegel has stepped into the spotlight beside a chef whose franchise always requires him to get top billing, even when he has huge talents surrounding him. How much sway Siegel had in crafting the new menu has not been divulged, but this much is clear: While both chefs express an interest in Japanese cuisine, that leaning is more evident at Michael Mina with Siegel aboard.

Many memories I have from prior trips to the restaurant are of honking cuts of meat with rich accompaniments. Although you can still get that kind of cooking (the night I dined, the veal shanks were succulent and Stonehenge-size), many of the dishes are now lighter and brighter. Quail, which I last had at Michael Mina in a thick pistachio dredging, shows up roasted and bathed in its own jus with a complement of shiso, carrots, and compressed apples. Beef shabu-shabu has been streamlined as well. In earlier preparations, the cooking broth for this do-it-yourself hot pot was enriched at the last minute with a coin of foie gras. Today, that bit of overkill, illegal under the new foie gras ban, has given way to a bowl of plucky ponzu broth with carrots and daikon basking at the bottom. The meat sizzles beautifully in it; dipping sauces of sesame and ponzu provide a flavorful finishing kick.

Among Mina’s defining traits is his penchant for tableside preparations: waiters wheeling carts, wielding knives, and apportioning dishes with a Stanislavskyesque flourish. There is still theater, but it’s more subtle. Take the black truffle fumé–poached turbot: The fish is served on a perforated plate resembling a flat colander. In the first act, your waiter spoons a black truffle–leek reduction over the fillet. In the second, he whisks away the plate, revealing a deep bowl with a delicate arrangement of Dungeness crab meat and sticky rice with lobster jus, all enlivened by the drippings from above.

I had this stunning dish as part of the six-course tasting menu, which, at $125, is not quite the budget-buster you might imagine (a nine-course tasting menu at the French Laundry is $270). It’s also the best way to experience the restaurant because it showcases Siegel’s nimble work with seafood. The night I had the prix fixe, it moved easily from kampachi sashimi to flour-dusted abalone with turnips, shiitakes, and miso consommé, past the turbot, and finally to a vermilion rib eye, its beefiness balanced by sancho pepper gastrique and nettle purée.

Because I was dining alone, I opted to sit at the bar, in part because I thought I’d look less like a weirdo, but also because it was more fun. Though the cocktail menu is awash in shiso foam, the crowd around me seemed partial to dirty martinis and oaky chardonnay. As my dessert arrived (a riff on tiramisu, updated with white chocolate spheres filled with mascarpone and perched on moist, milk-dusted blocks of coffee-soaked sponge cake), tuna tartare went out to a couple in the corner. Three other parties soon ordered the same. Maybe Michael Mina’s restaurant isn’t the best reflection of the city’s current culinary leanings, but I picked up high levels of customer contentment. And who needs fashion when you’ve got drawing power over time?

The Ticket
A recommended dinner for two people (before drinks, tax, and tip).

Tuna tartare......................................................$19
Shabu-shabu.....................................................$35
Black truffle fumé–poached turbot....................$43
Rib eye with maitake and sancho pepper..........$49
Dessert medley for two.....................................$30
Total...............................................................$176

Michael Mina, 252 California St. (near front St.), 415-397-9222; Stars Received: 3

Originally published in the January 2013 issue of San Francisco.

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