Rev up that Renault, gourmands: Michael Mina's new venture takes a highly accessible road through French-influenced cuisine
DINE As we wait for someone to open a restaurant called Highway 29 — the ultimate Napa Valley wine-country spot — we are comforted in the knowledge that we already have RN74. You are absolved for not knowing that RN74, the road, is the Highway 29 of Burgundy. It runs south from the provincial capital of Dijon to Beaune, in the heart of the Burgundian wine country.
I am not thrilled with the local trend toward naming restaurants after European highways — the names sound too much like car names — but there is no denying the force behind RN74. That force is Michael Mina, and if there is a more lustrous name in the recent annals of San Francisco restauranting, that name has escaped my notice. Mina was the man who, for a decade, guided the kitchen at Aqua (after an opening starburst of George Morrone); he then went on to open his (first) eponymous restaurant in the Westin St. Francis in the summer of 2004, with another following at the Bellagio in Las Vegas.
The themes here would seem to be luxe and empire, but in both of those senses, RN74 upsets expectations. It is beautiful and elegant inside but not overwrought, and it is (so far) one-of-a-kind. The main disappointment, for me, pertains to location; as at nearby Roy's, the windows gaze out onto Mission Street and the romantic spell fades. Maybe that's why such effort has been spent on the window treatments, with row after row of louvered screens lending a sense of warm summer evenings while subtly filtering out much of the actual view.
The other tremendous design element is the huge wine board hanging high above the east end of the dining room. It resembles the big boards you see in French railway stations, black with ever-changing white letters, like a huge mechanized chalkboard. In train stations, the board gives destinations and platforms; at RN74, the data involves last bottles of wine.
Given the immense scope of the wine list, the mechanized chalkboard must be close to indispensable. You could easily get lost in the printed version, which runs for many pages in small print and includes bottlings from France, Italy, Spain, California, and elsewhere, more than a few of them running into the hundreds of dollars. But the big board flashes deals — we snagged the last of an Italian gamay for $42 — while the prix-fixe option, three courses for $39, also includes a crack at the sommelier's choice of red or white Burgundy for $30.
The food is exemplary: much less intricate and overbearing than at Michael Mina while losing little or nothing in inventiveness and polish. I was especially impressed by the smoked-sturgeon rillettes ($9), which incorporated a responsibly farmed fish into a classic French technique to produce a beguiling result — a kind of shmear to be spread on toast points. (The fish had been combined with crème fraïche for extra velvetiness.)
When your risotto wins the approval of someone who dislikes risotto, you must be making pretty good risotto. RN74's leek version ($15) included plenty of Parmesan cheese, green peas, trumpet mushrooms, and watercress; it had the look and texture of corn snow, and the grains were perfectly cooked al dente, with just a hint of chalkiness. No mush. And when your grilled Monterey Bay sardines ($14) are gobbled up by someone who doesn't like sardines ... well, Q.E.D.