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