Ricotta gnudi — basically gnocchi without potatoes — were the standout pasta course. (Peter Lawrence Kane/SF Weekly)

Michael Mina’s FiDi flagship embodies the artistry of precision

The term “empire-builder” is puffed-up and grossly overused: A chef opens a third restaurant, and suddenly they’re laying siege to Gaul like a centurion? But if anyone can refer to himself by that title, it would be Michael Mina. With outposts in Las Vegas, Hawaii, Florida and Dubai, the sun (almost) never sets on his restaurant archipelago, the Michael Mina Group. In the Bay Area alone, the company runs nine operations, ranging from the casual Ramen Bar near The Embarcadero to SoMa’s expense account-courting Burgundian wine bar RN74 to the 180-seat Bourbon Steak inside Levi’s Stadium (where he also throws the world’s most opulent tailgate).

Of everything, the MINA Test Kitchen in the Marina probably has its ear lowest to the ground. Under the guidance of chef Adam Sobel, it rotates concepts every few months, and currently, the $59 tasting menu is a mozzarella-heavy tour through rural southern Italy. But across its holdings, even in an era of increasing costs and decreasing margins when fast casual continues to nibble away at fine dining, the Mina Group stands firm in its commitment to rigorous execution — and the head honcho himself stays under the radar, largely preferring the stove to the food-TV circuit. (His Instagram does have a pic of him with Barack Obama, however.)

Michael Mina’s eponymous flagship — on the same block of California Street as fellow heavy-hitters Tadich Grill, Perbacco and Barbacco — holds a Michelin star and wins routine recognition as one of America’s premiere wine restaurants. Its five-course tasting menu is $135, and neglecting the $95 pairing would be like ordering fried cod at the House of Prime Rib. It sounds skimpy in contrast to the omakase parades popping up all over town, but the price tag conceals the house’s generosity: Each “course” is a grouping of two to four separate items. Overall, Mina successfully navigates a tricky path: staying current without sacrificing dignity to any goofy trends.

Take the opener, a trio of seafood bites that starred a granita-filled geoduck, a bit of shrimp and a little pot of kimchi. (The kimchi was quite mild, but as amuse bouches go, the entire package was the zenith of cleanliness.) Richness follows fast, as the sourdough came with a tiny cauldron-shaped vessel of butter and ricotta, too. Knowing there’s a lot of wine coming, one might be tempted to skip cocktails, but that would deprive you of the glorified, appetite-sharpening Manhattan called “The *Other* Borough” (bourbon, Cognac, sweet vermouth and Benedictine). Don’t make that mistake.

The first proper course was uni with roe and black onion — it’s like spelunking in a sea-urchin cave — and a Dungeness crab chawanmushi, or Japanese egg custard. The pairing was unusually dessert wine-like, which sounds like a misstep, but it harmonized nicely with the crab’s dashi broth. An oily but lovely sake followed, poured at the table from a beige ceramic vessel marked with kanji, along with a citrusy Albariño.

“Shabu shabu” in the form of ribeye rolled up next, bursting with earthy mushroom notes that neutralized the foie gras, along with three perfectly cooked sea scallops on separate plates, adorned with radish, citrus and various herbs. (If there was a theme to the evening, it would be a clash of the titans between fungus and seafood, a fun battle royale that only sporadically overwhelmed their accompaniments.) And to balance out the strident ponzu sauce, there was a nice sesame preparation that felt almost like a salsa verde. Yes, this is all one course.

The pace is deliberate. You get a strong sense that the staff has been groomed to pick up on the subtleties of patrons’ body language, slowing down or speeding up the courses as needed. This goes almost without saying, but it’s best to take things glacially, because you know you’re here to witness the artistry and precision more than get fed. If three-martini lunches were still common practice, this would be the place.

Pastas were next, cauliflower agnoletti and gnudi. The agnoletti was probably the evening’s biggest disappointment, gooey and overdone with a sauce that was a shade too gelatinous. But the gnudi, lighter gnocchi made with ricotta rather than potato, were magnificent. This is a dish that April Bloomfield popularized, and one of those don’t-try-this-at-home things that make you marvel how Italian nonni ever cooked them without restaurant-grade equipment. Mina swaps out sage for crosnes, or Chinese artichokes, and the resulting balls were almost perilously light. To even out the butter and give it body, he adds capon bouillon. It’s a masterpiece.

Apart from a heavenly piece of squab with foie gras, the main event was deceptively restrained. Mina’s adherence to the Rule of Three hit its stride in the rib steak and the black sea bass, and since each grouping begs for a one-two-three ranking, I wasn’t surprised that the standout dish in each set occupied the center position, either. In the case of the steak, that was almost a no-brainer. An onion- and sorrel-heavy sauce is the gold standard for what to do with a beautiful cut of meat, and its competitors were a comparatively humdrum potato-and-chive affair and a chef-fy mix of chanterelles, sunchokes and chervil. For the sea bass, it meant that jamon iberico took the silver and a striking amalgam of pumpernickel and smoked butter won. (Note: You can tack on A-5 Miyazaki Wagyu for $79 to the beef, if you’re really a baller.)

If the proteins — however delicious — were sober, dessert ran wild. There was a dramatically three-dimensional cheese platter in there to anchor it to Continental respectability, but the citrus creamsicle and banana tarte tatin were uninhibited. Best of all, a glass bowl of lemongrass tapioca with hibiscus contained something that effervesced in the mouth, like Nerds candy. It made me laugh to go out on a note like that: an hours-long pageant of rarefied kitchen wizardry, then an ’80s reference as silly as Joan Rivers on Hollywood Squares. Michael Mina might be running 20 kitchens at once, but he has a sense of humor, too.

Michael Mina
252 California St. (415) 397-9222 or michaelmina.netFood and Wine

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