Last night when I got home from work I was very hungry. I thought about waiting for Michael to get home but after 30 minutes and realizing that it was "eat from the fridge night" I broke down made myself a nice plate of leftovers - chipotle meatloaf, mashed potatoes with cracked black pepper gravy, calabacitas sin crema & roasted, creamed corn. Yum. As I take my last bite, I get a phone call from Michael - "Our old friend, P., is in town from Boston for one night only on his way to Bangkok and Bangladore. I suggested we meet him for drinks at his hotel, okay?"
Next thing I know we're in the lobby of the St. Francis, waiting for P. to come downstairs. We check out the menu posted outside Michael Mina and I explain it to Michael "Mina's from Aqua. Been redoing the space for awhile. One of the highest profile openings this year. Just opened Friday." 'cause that's just not something Michael would know on his own.
P. shows up. "I just got back from work. Have you eaten yet? I was thinking here?" as he waves airily at Michael Mina. "hahahahhaha", we laugh. Michael repeats the intel he had just received. I say "But let's at least go up there and check it out. Plus its Monday, might as well try. Nothing ventured, nothing gained." Its 8:15pm at this point.
They are fully booked, no tables available for the rest of the evening. But in the bar area, you may order from both the bar menu and the full menu. We decide to have a drink and check out the menus. There are three seats at the end of the bar, all three have good views of the finishing station in the kitchen - which I love! All night we got to see food finished, checked, staged and carried out in waves (they do "swarm" service at MM).
Its a beautiful space - comfy lux is a good descriptor. The layout is pretty basic:
Lobby Bar - As you enter the St. Francis, on the main floor there are couches, tables and chairs in MM colors on an MM rug that has the MM bar drink menu and is serviced by MM wait staff. You cannot order food in this area. I assume its purpose is as a hotel bar area and a waiting area for people with reservations.
Restaurant - At the top of the stairs on the left is the host station. The dining area is the left 3/4 of the space. The tables are just the right size, not so deep that you're too far from your dining companion and not too narrow so there's room to spread out. The tables are respectable distance from each other. I am very impressed by this. Very, very few restaurants get this right (most places can't seem to resist getting the most tables out of the available square footage). The only thing bad about the layout is that when you come up the stairs, the first thing you run into are dining tables (host station to the left, remember?). I doubt those tables full-on suck, but they are clearly less desirable.
Main Bar - the last 1/4-ish of the room on the right is the bar. There couch, low tables & chairs are arranged in about 8 seating areas. The black marble bar has big comfy upholstered stools with backs (maybe 12 seats at the bar?) . Our bartender said the seats are so comfortable, people linger and bar turnover is lower then that thought it would be.
Hotel Dynamic -
I don't know how to describe this, but I'll do my best. Michael Mina is a fancy restaurant with amazing, right? But its in a hotel lobby and it has no doors (just the stairs and the host station is at the top, not the bottom of the stairs) and it still does breakfast & tea for the hotel guests and has a good-sized bar. Considering how much thought went into the design (remember the Chronicle article?), this very inclusive, welcome-one-welcome-all vibe has to be on purpose. And it works - better then other places with similar set-ups. All night, people came up the stairs and looked around, some stayed for a drink or drink & snack and some wandered back out. And people were dressing in everything from full evening wear to jeans. At the end of the evening conventioneers took over sections of the bar and held little drink & network sessions - at first some of them were a little boisterous, but they seem absorb their location and settle down fairly quickly. I'm not saying this is a bad thing. It was just very distinctive.
We mentioned this to our bartender, who was very friendly and very knowledgeable (even if you didn't take into account that it was only his fourth day on the job). He told us that it was his first job in a "hotel" and that he found it very different. He said he's already heard some great tourist/businessman stories and that he's really enjoying himself. We asked how late they serve - the kitchen is open until 10 on weekdays, 11 on weekends; the bar area won't serve after 1:30pm but may start closing earlier if appropriate.
The Food! The Food!
Since Michael & I had already eaten, we ordered off the bar menu. Michael had scallops - on a bed of potatoes (hash browns?!?) with white truffle shaved on top and a thick, yellow, creamy aoli-ish sauce. It was very delicate and tasty. I had the ahi tuna - this dish they bring out, present it to you and then mix tableside. In the middle of the plate is the chopped ahi tuna, around the tuna are little piles of: pine nuts, minced pears, minced scotchbonnet & habanera and chiffonaded herb (I forget which one), the dressing and chile is drizzled decoratively about the plate. There were toast points at the top of the plate. It was very pretty, I was sorry I didn't have my camera. Then our waiter took a big fork & spoon and mixed it all up and presented it to me. I loved it. Michael & P. had a taste and cared for it less - we are all sushi-lovers and they felt that when you have a beautiful piece of ahi, the best thing to do is cut it well and leave it alone to shine. I say - that's sushi! there's a whole world of things you can do with ahi and dressing it up is fine. I think both the scallops & ahi dish were around $12-15.
Later, we also split a dessert ($10) - the root beer float with chocolate chip cookies. I know what you're thinking - as P. said "what can you do to fancify a root beer float?" It was a tall glass with root beer, a scoop of sassafras sorbet, a scoop of a creamy white ice cream that wasn't plain vanilla (sorry, I forgot what the waiter said it was) and chocolate straws and discs on the top. It was quite tasty but....the two HOT chocolate chip cookies were stunningly good. I mean really, realllllly, reallllly good - the chocolate was very dark and weren't so much "chips" as tiny shards and there was plenty of it. Our bartender said that sometimes they have some cookies leftover at the end of the night and on Saturday, he ate six of them. I briefly considered killing him so I could have his job.
So we had two drinks each, one "small plate" each & a dessert, I think our total was around $100 but that's because Michael picked really nice wines that were $20 a glass, mine were $10 & $12 a glass.
P., having not already eaten, wanted a full meal so he ordered off the main menu instead of the bar menu. It took him a minute or two to decipher the layout - Its a two page menu with an insert. Page 1 is titled "Course One" - you choose an item in the "Seasonal Menu" or "Mina's Classic Menu", Page 2 is titled "Course Two" - you choose an item in the "Seasonal Menu" or "Mina's Classic Menu". The cost is $78 for the three courses (Page 3 "Dessert" is a separate menu). The insert lists the Tasting Menu options which are $120. P. chose the eight course tasting menu with wine pairings. I didn't see the cost of the wine pairings.
Now clearly there's a bit of a discrepancy in ordering so we explain situation to the bartender "we've eaten, he hasn't, haven't seen each other in almost a year, need visiting time." He suggests that he hold off placing the bar item orders until P. is about halfway through his tastings but that if we get snackish, to just let him know and he'll put it in. Excellent idea. We get our drinks and visit and watch P. eat some beautiful dishes. He did not offer us tastes. He told us dining stories from Boston (where he lives) and Bangladore (where he is currently working). A couple of times, he couldn't control his enthusiasm for a particular food & wine pairing - I think the potato encrusted halibut, the foie gras & the dessert courses were the most striking. By the end of the meal he was vowing that his future trips to SF would include a stay at the St. Francis and a meal at MM.
We also saw some beautiful dishes go by, in particular lots of lobster pot pie and lots of caviar trolley action.
For a place has only been open for four days the service is shockingly good. They clearly hired professionals. The "worst" thing that happened to us was that one server started to pour us wine we hadn't ordered (he thought Michael & I were doing the three course dinner & wine tasting). We were there from 8:15 until 11pm and due to our seating location I did observe a few snafus - a waiter dropped a spoon on the floor tableside (oops), a martini sat at the pick-up station for so long the glass lost its lovely freezer sheen and clearly warmed, waiters convened in the staging area by us to clear of confusions on a several occasions - maybe there were more but I was very impressed. It made me reflect back on the service last month at Tonno Rosso, wonder why I had been so generous and seriously downgrade my likelihood of recommending them.
About midway through the evening, Michael Mina worked the room. As he came out of the kitchen, he had to stop at the bar to look at P. and say "The tasting menu at the bar? Gotta love that!" He did a respectable chat with us for a few minutes then moved on to the dining table. He seemed quite nice.
So there you go, that's Michael Mina on Day Four. I enjoyed it. I'll go back. I would recommend it. And I would highly recommend dropping by the bar for a drink & snack.
OK, here's the only bad thing I can say about Michael Mina - no cheese course! no cheese cart! not even a cheese choice on the dessert menu! what's up with that, Michael? eh?
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