Michael Mina

Restaurant review: The chef's new downtown digs have breathed new life into his formerly fussy dishes

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Michael Mina's pork belly with geoduck salad
GUARDIAN PHOTO BY RORY MCNAMARA

paulr@sfbg.com

DINE When Michael Mina closed his eponymous restaurant in Union Square last year, I did not mourn. I had visited the place early in its run, toward the end of the summer of 2004, and felt as if I'd been seated inside a giant pillowcase, with awkward ergonomics and over fussy food — good food, of course, but expensive and show-offy. The desire — I might say the lust — of human beings to leave their mark on the world, whether by making rivers run backward or carving radishes into rose blooms, is a constant, for better or worse, and one notes its manifestations with wary neutrality. But as a philosophical matter I subscribe to the Alice Waters school of letting foods speak in their own voices instead of turning them into chefly statements, and in this sense a certain sort of high-style cooking poses issues for me.

In October, Michael Mina reopened in the old Aqua space, and a circle was closed, since Mina had been Aqua's chef for a decade, through the 1990s and into the new millennium. How, I wondered, did they actually move the restaurant? Did they pack it into moving vans and speed off in the middle of the night, the way the Baltimore Colts did in 1984? However the move was accomplished, it was well worth making. The new space, while vault-like, is softened by curvature of the spine; it's also quiet enough for comfortable conversation even when full. The ergonomics are much improved.

And the food? Well, Mina still likes his flights, his arrays of one- or two-bite treats, but the general tone of things is more muscular — an amuse-bouche of beluga-lentil soup, say, served in a demitasse with a small square of grilled-cheese sandwich on the side — and at times even rustic, as with the baskets of grilled levain to be spread with ricotta cheese enhanced by honey and pepper.

The smaller courses are mostly wondrous. A platter of hors d'oeuvres ($16/person) was a blitzkrieg of sensory experience, including a sublime crab fritter nested in a lettuce cup, a small filet of cured ocean trout propped on a mini-blini, a sensuous round of blood-red steak tartare, and (tasting mainly of fat), a foie gras "pb&j" with a buckwheat cake and huckleberry preserves.

The spell did weaken some with the main courses; a "five seas" tasting of Japanese fish ($42) could have been an appetizer plate, as could a duo of crispy fish ($39). A frenched rack of Prather Ranch lamb ($39), on the other hand, offered real ooomph, although views were divided about the niçoise-style fregola pasta, mixed with shreds of lamb osso buco served in an elegant little pot on the side — too rustic and not part of the greater whole? Maybe, but I liked it anyway.

 


Although the eagle-eyed will note that Michael Mina's prices are top-tier, I hesitate to describe the restaurant as a haven for the rich, if only because an experience there is actually available to people whose incomes don't reach past the payroll-tax cap. I have no issue with the rich per se — they, like the poor, will be with us always — but I feel no special urge to worship them or their achievements. I leave that task to them, since they seem to be well-equipped for it.

It is a writer's job to afflict the comfortable and complacent, and so a few weeks ago I noted the absurdity of Senate Republicans' waging all-out legislative war to extend the so-called Bush tax cuts on adjusted incomes over $250,000 when doing so requires us to borrow yet more money from foreign creditors, chief among them China. This brief noting of the obvious occasioned a hail of furious, invective-laden email — "cheesy," "socialist" — hurled by web trolls from as far afield as Cape Cod.

Comments

You realize you sound like a moron, right? A paranoid moron.

Posted by Guest Cara Ellison on Jan. 18, 2011 @ 7:55 pm

late. So very late.

Posted by marke on Jan. 18, 2011 @ 7:58 pm

I don't think that anyone was trying to intimidate you. It's more likely that they were just pointing and laughing at you because you come across as ridiculous when you try to inject politics into restaurant reviews.

Posted by Dan on Jan. 18, 2011 @ 8:01 pm

completely unfamiliar with the concept of criticism, or this site.

Posted by marke on Jan. 18, 2011 @ 8:12 pm

If I were associated with Michael Mina, I'd be highly offended that your review was sidetracked by your desire to report on the attention you've received from conservatives and your emotions about the encounter.

You said "It is a writer's job to afflict the comfortable and complacent", but that's incorrect. It is a writer's job to offer facts, observations and analysis that will be of value to the reader, not to his own desires and purposes. Going further, it is the job of a writer who is a restaurant reviewer to review restaurants.

Perhaps, though, you've set your sights on higher goals. I suppose it's reasonable to try a venture into political commentary if you envy high school graduate James Taranto's position as political commentator at the Wall Street Journal.

Posted by Just passing through on Jan. 18, 2011 @ 8:40 pm

And loooky! Just on time, the lonely are afflicted by the bemused--noted high school graduate notes the ineffective tiny-minded heckling in his Facebook feed.

I do hope you're feeling fulfilled.

Posted by Statler (or maybe Waldorf) on Jan. 18, 2011 @ 9:41 pm

This is a restaurant review, right? Perhaps a little indication of the contents of your plate wouldn't come amiss?

Posted by Guest Clemence de Roch on Jan. 19, 2011 @ 3:42 am

James Taranto didn't graduate from high school. He dropped out.

Posted by Guest on Jan. 19, 2011 @ 4:21 am

Wow. A little tetchy there, eh Mr. Mina? Really settling scores from 2008, are we?

You've seriously been concerned about an internet dustup from 2008, all the way forward to today?

Posted by Bellanca on Jan. 19, 2011 @ 9:51 am

I have read Mr. Taranto for many years and almost without exception he has excellent critical thinking skills, no matter his achieved scholastics. I am sure he would soundly defeat you in any political debate. You're just sore because he calls out sportswriters, restaurant crtics and other journalists who stray too far afield and insist on looking silly, just as you have done here.

Posted by Guest on Jan. 19, 2011 @ 12:50 pm

I don't think I've ever read a restaurant review so obviously written by someone who was so completely full of himself. I'm not sure that I ever want to read anything by this clown again.

Posted by Guest on Jan. 19, 2011 @ 1:25 pm

I love the condemning of the "rich" with their $250K tax "cut" while reviewing a food serving establishment that only folks paid in the $250K range can afford. What an ultra-maroon.

Posted by Guest Harvarrd@Cal on Jan. 19, 2011 @ 2:16 pm

How bizarre.

I thought your web designer might have made a formatting error, and placed a politics article in the food section. I was reading about huckleberry preserves and it suddenly got transformed into a rant by a 23 year old wearing a Che t-shirt.

And I don't even reallydisagree with your take on the top level tax breaks, but dude, stay on topic - or maybe just get a blog.

Posted by I-Am-Confused on Jan. 19, 2011 @ 3:09 pm

There is a word for this fellow. Dork.

Posted by Guest I am not confused on Jan. 19, 2011 @ 4:53 pm

I'm sure everyone in the San Francisco Bay Area is absolutely shocked to hear a criticism leveled against Bush. Talk about speak truth to power. I hope your publisher enjoys the traffic.

Posted by Guest on Jan. 19, 2011 @ 7:09 pm

Oh, son. Do you really believe you have it in you to take on James Taranto? Brighter lights than you have tried to take him on and have come out looking foolish. Ask Paul Krugman.

Posted by Guest on Jan. 19, 2011 @ 11:57 pm

"It is a writer's job to afflict the comfortable and complacent, and so a few weeks ago I noted the absurdity of Senate Republicans' waging all-out legislative war to extend the so-called Bush tax cuts on adjusted incomes over $250,000 when doing so requires us to borrow yet more money from foreign creditors, chief among them China."

1. The first portion of this "sentence" is one of the self-absorbed things I have ever read.

2. The job of an editor is to make sure that ridiculous run on sentences like this never see print. You do realize that there are 3 sentences in there right?

3. You are a food writer. You probably don't mind being a food writer, but actually having to stay on topic is so...so difficult. I mean you have so...so many important thoughts that everyone needs to hear. It's called a blog my friend. Get one. I hear they are handing them out for free.

4. If your job description really includes the task to "afflict the comfortable and complacent", why are you writing dining reviews? Also, why are you writing liberal commentary into your dining reviews in San Francisco? Why am I wasting your time asking you these questions? You need to be hard at work attacking the entrenched conservative mindset....in San Francisco.

PS, "What a maroon" - B. Bunny (whose job was also to afflict the comfortable and complacent)

Posted by Mike on Jan. 20, 2011 @ 12:29 am

We note in passing that "It is a writer's job to afflict the comfortable and complacent," is not an original coinage. The "writer" may well think it is something from Mother Jones, but that too is wrong.

Usually, when a writer with integrity slaps a colorful coinage into a piece he surrounds it with quotes if a direct quote, or with single quotes is not direct, or with the phrase "to paraphrase."

Good writers know this. Good writers work daily for such places as the Wall Street Journal and do not labor in this corner of common obscurity.

Posted by Vanderleun on Jan. 20, 2011 @ 10:56 am

The high school dropout is a columnist for one of the most widely read newspapers in the country. You are a food critic for a free website that nobody has ever heard of before he linked to you. But I'm sure that college diploma is all spiffy and shined and hanging on your wall. Good for you.

Posted by Paul Zummo on Jan. 20, 2011 @ 11:09 am

It's genuinely impressive that in spite of your impressive education you've chosen a rather inconsequential career path. Anyone can endeavor to make a mark in the world, it takes real character to shack up with a doctor and be the dlletante wife.

Posted by Guest on Jan. 20, 2011 @ 11:39 am

I have no idea who any of these people are or where they live, but I'm a San Francisco foodie, as well as a political activist. As such, I look forward to Paul Reidinger's columns every week.

I think the review strikes a proper mix of food and politics. And Paul should consider it a compliment that people read his reviews from as far away as Cape Cod.

Posted by Greg on Jan. 21, 2011 @ 9:39 am

Lots of name-calling here: moron (with the "maroon" variation -- how about macaroon, for food-relatedness?), clown, dork -- they left out twit, a personal favorite of mine -- along with lots of billowing adjectives.

A friendly note to you invective-slingers: Your comments say everything about you, nothing about me. They reveal you: what is on your mind, what makes you squirm. You're taking your clothes off in public when you say stuff like this.

But by all means, say on!

--PR, 3/9/11

Posted by Guest on Mar. 09, 2011 @ 2:34 pm

To the webmaster,

Can you find a way to put our names at the top of our blog comments and also have them show up on the links in the comments boxes?

It would be a huge help to be able to identify before we read a comment who the author is so that we don't have to tediously wade through reams of nonsense and abusive comments from trolls...

thanks..

Posted by Eric Brooks on Mar. 09, 2011 @ 3:06 pm

but the commenter name is already in bold right at the bottom? We will take your idea into consideration.

Posted by marke on Mar. 09, 2011 @ 4:46 pm

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