It's been about three months since the whole Mina-Aqua kerfuffle was settled, so we attempted to get some thoughts from one Michael Mina -- normally vacuum-sealed in what feels like a publicist-flanked vault -- on his plans for the reinvention of his eponymous restaurant in Aqua's former digs and a fifth edition of Bourbon Steak in Union Square's Westin St. Francis. While he remained tight-lipped regarding additional menu and concept details for Michael Mina 2.0 and its probable opening date; and he didn't feel comfortable with our questions about SF cocktail spots and celebrity chefs on TV; we did squeeze out a few juicy responses regarding the man's future plans. Here we go.
You now have Clock Bar, RN74 and will be opening two new restaurants: Michael Mina and Bourbon Steak in San Francisco in the next few months. How is SF different from the other cities where you have restaurants? First and foremost San Francisco is home. It is a very personal and exciting opportunity to open restaurants and give people great experiences in San Francisco...I would say what really stands out about San Francisco is that the food culture is extremely ingrained in this community. Local guests, and even those traveling to San Francisco for a food experience are very food savvy. I am also seeing that in other markets as local, sustainable farming is becoming much more common, but San Francisco has lived that for a couple of generations already.
And is there a big difference between the approach to food on the East Coast and the West Coast? I wouldn’t say there is a big difference, but subtle nuances. Size of entrees actually differ a bit from West to East Coast.
You were chef at Aqua from 1993 to 2002. That’s roughly nine years. How does your deep knowledge of the space color your approach to the new restaurant? First on a structural level, second on an emotional level? At 252 California, I have the rare opportunity to already have intimate knowledge of the space and how it functions as a restaurant. I know what worked well operationally from the kitchen into the dining room, and have ideas on how to improve that flow. I also have the rare advantage of having many years of experience away from 252 California, which I will bring to this new endeavor. This is a very personal return to this space. I started my career there, made many of my closest friends there. And how many chefs get to come back to the space they started their career in?
Since you don't want to reveal more about the new Michael Mina, let's hop to Bourbon Steak. Why did you choose to open a fifth outpost here as opposed to, say, Seablue or something unique to San Francisco? BOURBON STEAK is a really great fit at The Westin St. Francis on Union Square - for our local guests, as well as visitors and hotel guests. And it sounds like the signature steak cooking method is going to be sublime. You mentioned this outpost will cater to SF tastes and ethos. Can you expand on that with some details? BOURBON STEAK in San Francisco will have a very localized approach with its menu. We are working closely with local farmers to create a Bay Area product-driven menu. I’m also very pleased to be working with Brandt Farms for our cuts of beef. The Farm does an all-natural, grass-fed beef and doesn’t use any hormones or antibiotics. With those cuts of beef, and my signature poaching method, I believe we will have a really great finished steak, and menu, that all of our guests will love.
How does Bourbon Steak compare to Restaurant Michael Mina? Is the concept more approachable? Is this one of those steakhouses where you pick from meat cuts and then a list of sides? BOURBON STEAK and Restaurant MICHAEL MINA are two very different experiences. BOURBON STEAK has a comfortable, steakhouse feel with my twists on classic steakhouse dishes. However, BOURBON STEAK will certainly have something on the menu for everyone – from poultry to fish to great shellfish and appetizers, and of course, the side dishes you think of when you think of steak – but again, with my twist on those dishes!
What’s your take on fine dining? Do you think it’s dying? I don’t think fine dining will ever go away, but it’s “look and feel” will change. I see today’s fine dining as guests looking for upscale menus and dishes, knowledgeable service, great wine menus - but in a much more relaxed, comfortable environment.
That's right. Now we’re all about gourmet burgers, pizzas and hot dogs. How do you think this affects aspiring chefs coming out of school? Are lower standards leading to less highly skilled chefs? Again, I think the look of fine dining is changing, but it is still being embraced. There have always been great burger joints, fabulous gourmet pizza, so I don’t see standards being lowered at all for new chefs coming out of culinary school. As it has always been, culinary graduates will aspire to what their passion in this industry really is – whether that’s working for an upscale restaurant and kitchen, or opening that next great burger joint.
Finally, since you have restaurants all over the place, how much time do you spend in SF? I am in San Francisco the majority of my time. Of course I am traveling to the other restaurants, but I always like to be home! When you’re in town, besides your own restaurants, of course, where do you like to eat on a night off? Honestly when I’m home I really love relaxing with my family and cooking at home, but when we do go out, we really love Osteria Stellina in Point Reyes and Saison in San Francisco.
Are Bourbon Steak and the second Michael Mina your last San Francisco ventures? I am always looking for new, great opportunities, in other markets, as well as San Francisco. I never say never, as you never know when and where that next great opportunity will be.
Besides the plans we already discussed for San Francisco, what style of restaurant do you dream about opening next and where will it be? I am so excited to be opening RN74 in Seattle next spring. The look and feel of the RN74
Seattle location will be similar to its San Francisco counterpart, as the same designers, Avroko, will be working with us again.
All Previous Michael Mina Coverage [~ ESF ~]