As a marriage of two strong personal brands, Ayesha Curry and Michael Mina’s International Smoke was bound to draw a diverse crowd of social media superfans, discerning diners, and — of course — food critics. While doing her due diligence for this week’s one-star review, Eater SF’s own Rachel Levin discovered how easy it is to embrace Curry’s “warm and smart and real” personality, but the ambitiously broad menu “played more like a muted, Epcot imitation fit more for an Anywhere USA mall than a sophisticated food city” like San Francisco. For perennial Mina fanboy Michael Bauer, however, the sprawling concept and the naked ambition of its key players aren’t distractions: they’re selling points that make a potential tourist trap worthy of three stars.
With 34 restaurants from here to Dubai, it would be impossible to deny that Mina and his team know how to build a successful concept, but it would also be impossible to deny that an anonymous critic like Bauer — who has written about Mina’s career since the chef was working the line at Aqua in the early nineties — can just stroll into a Mina Group restaurant undetected. That might explain why Bauer, on his three review visits, received terrific service from “knowledgeable” waiters “who are well-schooled in the menu and the art of service,” while Levin felt the staff “lacked an understanding of their jobs” and didn’t offer much more than “miserable, mechanical” service and “poorly memorized descriptions” of pricey entrees.
Then there’s the food itself. Bauer had a hard time finding anything he didn’t like, noting that “just about every dish is appropriately seasoned and executed.” Levin, on the other hand, felt that many dishes were too mild, “flaccid” or simply lacking the “soul-stirring depth” necessary to make a truly great rack of ribs. The Weekly’s Pete Kane, meanwhile, split the difference, noting that despite some “paucity of flavor” the restaurant is “above all else, fun” and high-end American comfort foods can work well alongside more adventurous dishes even if the smoke concept is a occasionally overblown.
But if we’re searching for signs of The Bauer Effect at play, the Kalua “instant bacon” steamed buns might be the, er, smoking gun: At Bauer’s table, the order was “loaded with smoky meat” and culture-merging flavors, then piled high with heaps of Bauer praise. But when presented with the same dish, Bauer’s contemporaries at Eater and the Weekly both came up with the same disappointing descriptor: “smothering.”
Zuni and Poggio
Elsewhere in the newspaper, Bauer has started stressing out over his biggest yearly duty: updating the Chronicle’s Top 100 Restaurants list. The thankless task most recently brought him back to Market Street mainstay Zuni Café and Sausalito stalwart Poggio, both of which are “still good after all these years,” Bauer says. No surprise there, but here’s hoping that, as he gets through the other 98 restaurants on his list, Bauer strongly reconsiders those five restaurants that were established by known sexual harassers who built unsafe workplaces for scores of employees.
In the Weekly, Pete Kane also ventured to the East Bay to find the latest entry into the “chef-driven, fast-casual” genre at James Syhabout’s Hawking Bird in Temescal. The Kao Mun Gai reigns supreme here and the “dirty” version with chicken livers and extra chicken broth didn’t disappoint our critic. Come for the KMG or the double-fried, garlic-ginger Hawking Bird sandwich, then stick around for the full cocktail list and the laid-back bar vibe.
Flip N Soul
Also in the East Bay, Janelle Bitker picked up take-out from pop-up-gone-legit Flip N Soul in East Oakland. The Filipino and soul food project by husband and wife duo Brian and Phoebe Mouton started on a whim, but has since grown into a full-time, to-go business with tens of thousands of Instagram followers and regular lines out the door. While the menu always has staples like lumpia and fried shrimp (Bitker’s favorite dish by far), devout followers know that the real goods are the rotating specials like “crispy, golden-brown” Tuesdays-only catfish or “wonderful” and “meaty” roast crab that arrives on Thursdays. The only downside: it’s really hard to eat a whole crab in your car.
- Review: Ayesha Curry’s Restaurant International Smoke Has Little Fire [Eater SF]
- At International Smoke, Mina & Curry fire up a delicious global grill [San Francisco Chronicle]
- Smoke Gets In Your Eyes [SF Weekly]
- Zuni and Poggio: Still good after all these years [San Francisco Chronicle]
- Dirty Birdie: James Syhabout’s Hawking Bird Is All About Kao Mun Gai [SF Weekly]
- Flip N Soul Dishes Out Soul Food Favorites with a Side of Lumpia [East Bay Express]