As announced this summer, long, long, longtime San Francisco Chronicle critic Michael Bauer is leaving the paper after 32 years. Since breaking the news, Bauer has filed a few last reviews, some of them quite generous, but none so sentimental nor so glowing as his praise for Michael Mina’s eponymous restaurant and its new Middle Eastern accented menu. Four stars.
“Michael Mina is an appropriate review to cap my 32-year career writing about food at The Chronicle,” Bauer writes in an accompanying farewell to readers. “One of my early major restaurant reviews was the opening of Aqua in 1991, when George Morrone was chef and Michael Mina was chef de cuisine. The restaurant earned four stars, one of my first such ratings.”
Now, Mina owns the former Aqua space, and the chef — who operates a whopping 44 restaurants — has returned to his Egyptian roots. “After decades of producing exceptional Western food, Mina is following the path of other chefs who are tapping into their heritage for inspiration,” Bauer writes. “It’s quite a change. For years Mina, who now owns 44 restaurants and counting, never publicized his Egyptian roots.”
To execute the menu, Mina — who was born in Cairo but emigrated with his parents to the US at the age of two — spent six weeks learning from his mother in her kitchen. With chef de cuisine Raj Dixit, the restaurant’s six-course menu (for $155 at dinner) includes 19 spice blends, with opulent spices displayed in boxes like treasures.
“The interior looks much the same, although they took out a couple of tables to make the room feel even more spacious, and the service continues to be some of the best in the Bay Area,” Bauer writes.” However, the food has transformed the experience, making the restaurant even more exciting and relevant.”
In particular, the critic praises the chef’s glazed Egyptian mango “poached in spices and caramelized [it] rests on top of a seared lobe of foie gras on a salty sesame cracker with candied ginger and Mina’s proprietary spice blend. It’s one of the best preparations of foie gras I’ve had.”
In other contexts, Bauer has been notably less inclined to consider the influence of a chef’s biography in his reviews. “Generally, I try to suspend my knowledge of and opinions of a chef and disregard any pedigree of the ownership,” the critic wrote in a a recent op-ed piece dissenting from other Chronicle food writers who said it was inappropriate to celebrate restaurants involved in sexual harassment scandals.
In his farewell to readers, published simultaneously with his four-star review, Bauer reflects on the dynamic Bay Area dining scene. Major changes of the decades include the Internet (“Readers don’t have to rely on people like me for basic restaurant details”) to Uber (“it has definitely helped the restaurant’s bottom line... Instead of having to have a designated driver, everyone can take an Uber or Lyft and drink as much as they want.”)
Last, he notes that “despite dining out every night for more than 30 years, I still love it.” Now that he’s got to pay for it, we’ll see if he tires of the experience.
“I’m grateful and proud of the small part I may have played in pushing the dining scene forward,” the critic concludes. “It’s been a privilege and a responsibility I’ve never taken for granted.”