First there was Benu. Prospect followed suit. But when Michael Mina—the man who, in 2004, opened his eponymous flagship restaurant at the Westin St. Francis in a pillared “swirl of beige and celadon” (according to Michael Bauer’s four-star review)—made the decision to ditch the tablecloths at the restaurant’s second coming, I knew that I’d officially witnessed to the end of an era. Remember those crazy times when dining tables had that impractical white fabric draped over them?
Which is to say that Michael Mina matters. Eighteen restaurants into his career—and only 42 years old—the Egyptian-born chef now comes second only to Thomas Keller in Bay Area brand recognition. Mina first made his name here in the early ’90s at Aqua, which became famous for its expense account lunches, peachy walls, and towering jungles of flower arrangements. Charles Condy, who founded Aqua in 1991, passed away in 2006. This spring, diners wrung their hands as Aqua closed right around the same time as Michael Mina the restaurant (which has since been replaced by Mina’s high-end chain Bourbon Steak).
The story of yet another fine-dining restaurant crumbling in the face of pizza-obsessed SF has been transformed into one of a triumphant homecoming with Mina returning to his stomping grounds by re-opening in the old Aqua space. On the Michael Mina website, there’s even a video, complete with an Enya soundtrack, where Mina opens up about his feelings. “I’ve never had this amount of butterflies,” he says. “I want to bring the magic back.”
To do this, Mina has taken care to retain the feel of Aqua while updating it. The Royal Doulton china of old has been replaced by tableware made by local ceramists. The music has a clubby little thump to it. The room is swathed in earthtones, and a parade of servers in black and jeans march by bearing different tableside service preparations. There’s also a bar menu with the requisite burger (albeit made with Kobe beef on a house-made sticky rice bun).
Mina’s food is now described as Japanese ingredients with French influence. Yes, there’s a sampling of Japanese fish (braised tuna cheek, Hokkaido scallop, braised tuna cheek, miso-glazed cod) a tablespoon of bamboo rice, all paired with Wondering Poet junmai ginjo sake, but truly, the flavors are more of a world-trade buffet. On the something-for-everyone menu, a starter comprised of foie gras PB&J, Dungeness crab BLT, smoked trout and caviar, and steak tartare topped with an egg is the perfect example of the eclectic mix.
Next to my table was a foursome dropping a couple thousand on dinner. The man excitedly rattled off the chef’s stats, from birthplace to academics. When Mina circled the room to shake hands, he approached their table, smiling for an iPhone photo op. In the excitement, there was a little accident. “That’ll be our story,” the man said after Mina left. “Michael Mina came over to shake my hand and we spilled our wine.” Clearly, 17 years into his career, the power of Mina’s celebrity is still strong. Who ever said you can’t go home again?
252 California St., 415-397-9222, michaelmina.net