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Tuesday, September 07, 2004

Michael Mina Restaurant: Talent alone does not a restaurant make

081904caviarI've been hearing so much hype about Michael Mina's eponymous restaurant that I finally had to give it a try. Thanks to some very sweet friends, I managed to get a coveted table on a busy night within a week, instead of the normal 2 months wait for a table.

So, I sauntered down to the Westin St.Francis the other night with Dave, Ally, and Paul for our 8pm table. Truth be told, I was not feeling too well that night, but I wouldn't have given up that reservation unless I was tied to a hospital bed. Oh how I suffered for my art—or was it my obsession—any how, you get the point.

In any case, I arrived on time, for a change, and found all my friends already waiting at the newly refurbished lobby of the Westin. The modern, sleek, and understated design has now become the standard of all the Westin hotels around the world—not to mention their truly heavenly Heavenly Bed that had me asking for the Westin every time I planned a work trip.

The decor at restaurant Michael Mina is in the same style, nice mix of warm beige and cool grey, a welcomed change from the stodgy and flowery lounge where my mother and I used to go to tea when she was in town.

We checked in with the hostess and, having arrived early, was told to wait in the lobby while our table was being set up. Someone appeared to whisk away our wines and our coats. To their credit, we didn't have to wait long at all for our table.

We set out to look at the menus. There are three set menus here. One is a three course seasonal menu, for which a diner assemble her own tasting menu from a number of choices for each course. Each item on this menu comes with three different preparation, variations on a theme of a main ingredient--sort of à la Pierre Gagnaire, perhaps--except in place of Gagnaire's famous pork six ways, we have lobster three ways here. For each course there are also Table Side Classics, a number of dishes from Michael Mina's famous repertoire. The three course menu is 78 dollars, with a few supplements for things like lobsters, kobe beef, and caviar.

The second set is an 8-course seasonal tasting menu ($120), comprising of similar items to those on the 3-course menu, presumably in smaller portions and fewer variations for each item.

The last set menu is a tasting menu of famous dishes from Michael Mina's time at Aqua. Unfortunately I don't have a copy of this one so I couldn't tell you much about it.

With me not completely on top of my game, Paul on a diet of sort, and Dave and Ally having to leave for the airport at 11.30, we uncharacteristically opted for the smaller three course menu. We also had a bit of a discussion whether to open the 1982 Prieuré Lichine that I brought, as the menu really didn't look very Bordeaux friendly. We decided to do it anyway, which limited our second course choices to only the Kurobuta pork loin or the Kobe beef.

We also had a bit of a difficult time with the selection of wine. We brought one bottle of red and another of sticky, as we wanted to be nice a pick a white from the list. Paul and Dave each wanted to have a good look at the wine menu, so did Allison and I, so there was a little tug of war going on at our table with the wine menu. Each time the sommelier or the waiter approached asking for our wine selection, we told them we were not quite done taking turns perusing the substantial menu. Each time we also asked them for another wine menu, but to no avail.

Finally we decided to go with an Aubert Chardonnay, a California wine. Despite my general dislike of the oaky, buttery--and generally offensive--California Chardonnay, I let Paul talked me into trying this one, which he claimed to be closer in style to white burgundy. Well, suffice to say that I should have let my preference prevailed. The wine was nice enough, without a huge oak commonly found in California chard, but still didn't have enough acidity to my taste. We also decided to start with a bottle of champagne, what it was exactly we would have to ask Dave.

After we settled down and made our choices with the wine, an amuse of caviar arrived at the table. Compliments of the chef, our waiter informed us. It was a cute little plate with three indentations, each one occupied by a mini quenelle of caviar in a different preparation. There was Iranian golden osetra caviar, atop a lovely little round of crisp potato galette and a thin slice of smoked salmon, Russian caviar on top of a delicate blini, and California Estate osetra caviar, on top of a silky poached quail egg in sauce béarnaise. Quite a lovely way to begin our meal. Among these, the Iranian caviar was the best, salty and sharp, with a nice crunch from the potato and creamy smoked salmon, while the California caviar was somewhat bland and had an ever so slightly off, metallic taste that I didn't like—and in case you wondered, no I didn't know which one was which before I tasted them.

Moving on to the first course, for which Paul and I opted for the Lobster Salad with Heirloom Tomato Ceviches (with $10 supplement), while Dave had the Mina Classic™ Ahi Tuna tartare, and Allison had the Roasted Foie Gras, Torchon.

081904lobstersaladEach dish came in three different variations of the main ingredient, each with its own distinctive side dish. So my lobster salad came with brandy wine, german green, and golden jubilee tomatoes, paired with guacamole, whole grain mustard, and mascarpone ceviches, respectively. Both Paul and I found the texture of the lobster to be wrong. It was quite fresh, but was so overcooked it was quite chewy. The three pairings with different types of tomatoes and flavorings were quite nice, but I didn't find each preparation to be distinct enough for the dish to maintain my interest throughout, especially considering to substantial quantity of the whole course. Of all three, I preferred the whole grain mustard, the spicy taste of the mustard contrasted—and at the same time enhanced—the sharp green tomatoes perfectly.

081904foiegrasThe foie gras, in the same manner, was served with apricot, bing cherry, Maui gold pineapple, paired with three torchons, each flavored with star anise, pink peppercorn, and young ginger. Allison seemed to like them just fine, and I found the one bite she gave me to be quite pleasant.

081904oddlyenoughDave's table side classic was singularly boring in comparison, as it came without any variation. On the plate was a mound of tuna, bosc pear, a sprinkle of scotch bonnet pepper and sesame oil, to be mixed at tableside by a server. I've had tuna tartare during Michael Mina's heyday at Aqua, but it was so long ago, I couldn't remember a thing about it. But I really had a hard time believing that it was the same thing as what Dave had that night, as that dish was wrong in so many ways. The sesame oil and pepper were so overpowering that I could barely made out the difference between the cubes of tuna and the cubes of pear. It could have been cardboard for all I could taste of the fish.

081904koberibroastFor the second course, I chose the Kobe beef rib roast, with heirloom spinach, white asparagus, and creamed morels, paired with truffle fries, horseradish mashed potatoes and asiago potato gratin, respectively. Each one of these preparations was quite well done, flavorful and well thought out, but my reaction to them was similar to the lobster course. This was a lot of far-too-similar things that they hardly caught my attention long enough to finish all three. Not to mention the texture of the beef was also all wrong, inexplicably tough and chewy. It takes a considerable talent to toughen Kobe beef, I assure you.

081904doversoleAllison had the potato crusted dover sole, with crème fraîche and osetra caviar beurre blanc, walla walla onion with malt vinegar, and truffle salsify with beurre rouge. I only had one bite, the crème fraîche variation, which I thought was nice. Allison complained that the fish was quite overcooked, and I agreed.

081904boningtheamish081904amishchickenDave and Paul shared a whole fried Amish chicken, which arrived quite impressively in its own splendid cart, accompanying which was as able a chicken carving person as any I've seen. I tried to take a picture of the chicken, but he was so fast I managed only a blurry image. The carved chicken was served with truffle macaroni and cheese, peas, and carrots. Everything tasted fine, but again the textures were largely wrong. The chicken breast was good, but the thighs were tough, the macaroni overcooked to the point of being mushy, while the carrots and peas practically raw, further accentuating the mushiness of the pasta.

With the second course, we drank my 1982 Prieuré Lichine, only a 4th growth Margaux, but from a phenomenal year. I knew nothing about that producer, in fact, I know very little about Bordeaux in general, what few brain cells I could spare on wine are taken up by Burgundy. I just bought a couple bottles on a whim from a Premier Cru mailer, for the vintage rather than for the wine itself, really. Before we tasted the wine, Paul looked in his fancy Palm Pilot to see what Parker said about this wine. It turned out that the good Mr.Parker hated this wine, which I took to be a rather good sign. Comme d'habitude, my anti-Parker instinct was right. The wine was nice, with soft tannin and a slight spiciness and acidity that went perfectly well with the food. Everyone was happy.

I had a little annoyance to air out here. So, I was the one who brought the wine. I was the one who handed it over, and the one who asked for it to be decanted AND served. The sommelier, a very sweet young man otherwise, brought the bottle to Paul, the most mature looking man at the table, and after opening the bottle proceeded to offer a taste to Paul (who, of course, politely pointed to me instead). I thought that was rather funny, don't you? Well, at least in this country my menu has a price on it, so I guess I shouldn't really complain too much, should I?

081904crepes 081904cremecaramel 081904breadpudding 081904cheese
It's time to move on to our desserts, which we seemed to have better luck with than savory courses lately. I had crêpe suzette with Valencia orange, organic lemon, and ruby red grapefruit, served with prosecco mimosa float, also flavored with the same types of citrus. Dave had the roasted fruits and crème caramel, with granny smith apple, bartlette pear, and maui gold pineapple. Allison decided on the brioche pudding and berry sundaes, with raspberry and peach, banana and strawberry, and cherry and blackberry. Paul, who didn't want anything sweet, chose to have the cheese plate. All of these were lovely, but the table agreed that Allison's brioche pudding was the best. Dave and I each had a Chateau d'Yquem, a 98 or 99 from the by the glass menu. (The German ice wine he brought was corked, ugh!)

081904teaAfter the dessert we had a little tea and coffee to properly finish our dinner. My usual choice would have been a shot of espresso, but the tea menu was so interesting I decided to have some tea. I chose the Michael Mina's special blend, which was a light Formosa oolong, infused with meyer lemon, kaffir lime, and orange. Frankly, I didn't have much hope on the tea, having largely given up on the state of teas in this country. Happily I was just wrong. The tea service here was just wonderful. The leaves were brewed properly, and decanted into another pot so that they would not sit in the water and turned bitter. The blend itself was also surprisingly light yet complex--a perfect way to end the meal. Paul had another type of tea, of which I seemed to have no memory, while Dave and Allison had coffee. We were also served some cute lollipops of coffee ice cream covered in chocolate and strawberry sorbet, also covered in chocolate.

081904trufflesWhile lingering over our teas, coffee and truffles, we chatted a bit about how we liked this meal. Everyone seemed to be in agreement that while it was good, nothing was a big revelation. All of us were also not quite comfortable with the service, which, though warm and welcoming, ranged between stumbling on top of each other to nowhere to be found. While the carving guy was doing his job expertly on the chicken, at least two other servers were fumbling around and under the cart on which the chicken was being dissected. It got to be a bit scary, actually, I kept imagining someone's finger tip on the plate. When Dave dropped one of his utensils, it took ages to get a new one, as no one appeared to be keeping an eye on our table.

We also had our doubts about the format of the meal itself. The variations on a theme concept could be seen as either allowing the chef's creativity to shine, or expands his chance at getting it right (or wrong for that matter) for each diner, depending on your view. Personally, I found the format to be somewhat tedious. I concede that many of the items were rather well conceived and tasted good, but I got tired of eating such a large quantity of any one thing. The nuanced differences were in some cases not distinct enough to be interesting in that scale. I also found that by the time I arrived at the final preparation I was already weary, not to mention the food tired and even cold.

Don't get me wrong. I am not at all questioning whether Michael Mina could cook. It's evident that he could, but there was something definitely wrong with the workings of that kitchen to have sent out so many dishes whose textures were simply flawed.

Oh well, I must admit I was rather disappointed. Many reviews I've seen have been positive about this place. So, it's either I know far too much and have lost my ability to simply enjoy a meal, or I know absolutely nothing about food, in which case you've just wasted a good 15-minute chunk of your day—sorry, I haven't figured out a return policy on wasted time yet. Perhaps I would someday.

The meal came to less than $200 per person. And yes, my credit card went to Paul as well, despite the decidedly non-Anglo name on it! Plus ça change, huh?


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