Lunch at Michael Mina’s

Arctic char
Arctic char

by Tiffany Maleshefski

Michael Mina moved his eponymous restaurant out of the Westin St. Francis more than a year ago and into the building that formerly housed Aqua, the very restaurant where the chef started to develop his culinary cred. The move “home” had a lot of benefits, the biggest one probably being that it gave Mina a chance to tinker with the restaurant’s formerly stuffy atmosphere. Because while the space at the St. Francis was indeed stunning, there was no getting around the fact that one felt like they needed white gloves and tails to set foot in it. No matter how hard the restaurant tried to create a less opulent environment, with fun happy hour specials and a short-lived bar menu, diners weren’t buying it.

But now Mina is deeper into the Financial District, with a hipper, more vibrant and funky space that’s meant to make the restaurant feel less “special occasion” and more “this won’t completely deplete our bank account by eating here.” The introduction of a a prix-fixe lunch menu is one more step to making the restaurant more accessible. At $49 for three courses and $59 for four, the lunch menu is a great way to try out one of the Bay Area’s most decorated restaurants for half the price — but not at half the experience.

If you’re going to do it, you might as well start with one of the signature cocktails. The bar program that’s been set up here is not to be overlooked. Creative concoctions include the Morning Fog: Smoked vodka (cold-smoked vodka that’s aged in oak in the restaurant’s basement), homemade fig liqueur, and bubbly.

Starters include a fantastic spread of oysters foraged from both coasts with traditional mignonette, and cocktail sauces. Or go with prettily cubed heirloom beets, giant fans of butter leaf lettuce, dainty piles of candied pecans and grilled radicchio, with smooth, creamy pools of burrata on top.

Middle courses are restricted to pasta. Hand-rolled cavatelli with tender rabbit confit and mushroom cream is dreamy. The cavatelli is thick and hearty, with each individual bite a luscious experience.

Potentially the superstar of the entire meal, however, is a beautiful and dramatically presented squash risotto. This is a dish that makes Michael Mina such a force. Beautiful bold colors, lovely textures, and a groovy parmesan foam. But it’s the rich, comforting flavors that make it otherworldly.

Entrees are as sophisticated as their evening counterparts. Arctic char touts a yummy crust and is served with an interesting and diverse array of platemates: a sturdy mound of lentils, celery root remoulade and a whipped purée of Granny Smith apples.

Flat iron steak with a horseradish crust is exquisite. Mina serves it in a shallow-pool beef and dashi consommé and scatters roasted root vegetables on top, with a side of bone marrow. The careful intersection of flavors in this dish is extremely well thought out and as delicate as a house of cards.

Desserts are works of art. Not the structured, architecturally-sound arty desserts that made Elizabeth Falkner so famous. At Michael Mina, desserts are more texture and color than structure. Green apple sorbet is accompanied by teeny green apple pate de fruits, micro cylinders of marshmallow, dollops of elderflower pavlova, and an almond crumble reminiscent of a traditional pie crust. Bananas Foster gets a redo in the form of what the menu calls “brown butter cake,” fluffy tufts of cake mingled with rum compressed bananas and flan ice cream. And the result, while a more sophisticated version of the famed New Orleans dessert, evokes that same boozy, looseness as the original.

While the lunch experience at Michael Mina has been marketed as a way to enjoy the restaurant on the quick, especially if you go with the four-course menu, it’s still a two-hour or more experience. That’s not a complaint. I would’ve stayed all day if I could. It’s just that the real advantage here to most diners will be the chance to experience luxury at a fraction of the usual price.

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You can click on each photo to enlarge to see dishes from the Michael Mina prix-fixe restaurant menu.

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