December 3, 2008

Dinner at Michael Mina

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Tonight I finally got around to dining at Michael Mina, a dinner that I missed on my last visit to San Francisco 2 years ago. It was a really wonderful experience on all counts, except for the fact that I was dining solo.

The restaurant is located just off the main lobby at the Westin St. Francis, on an elevated platform to the left. There's no separation of space between the bar and the restaurant, which makes for a noisy dining room. But the space benefits from the very high ceilings of the hotel lobby - even though it's already above the lobby floor - and dominated by 6 Ionic columns giving the room some character.

I went for the 6-course tasting menu, and as wine director Rajat Parr had come up with wine-pairings for each course, I decided that would be the way to go. I don't think I could have done better!

On arrival, I was presented with a flute of Chartogne Tallet Cuvée Michael Mina NV. Apparently one of my colleagues had arranged for this all the way from Hong Kong, which was a very kind gesture. There were typical citrus and oak notes, with lots of bubbles and a pretty yeasty attack. The wine was crisp and not too dry on the palate, which was quite a nice balance. Most of all, the finish was very long. Quite enjoyable.

The chef sent out an amuse bouche that is actually on the other menus: Dungeness crab - backfin meat, cioppino broth, tinkerbell peppers. The crab meat was very sweet and balanced very nicely with the cioppino. The olives were really wonderful and tasty, while the tiny calamari rings added additional texture.

I chose to have the foie gras terrine - sumac financier, pomegranate gelée, toasted pine nuts to start. The silky smooth, slightly sweet foie gras paired very well with the tangy sumac and pomegranate. The fragrant toasted pine nuts on top added a whole new dimension to the dish.

This course was paired with a glass of 2006 Kracher Cuvée Beerenauslese. I'm a big fan of the sweet wines from Austrian producer Alois Kracher, and it was refreshing to see this on the menu. Nose of honey, honeydew, apricot, orange blossom, with a bit of sharp acetone. The wine was actually slightly bitter mid-palate, tasting like orange marmalade.

What followed was crispy skin fillet of branzino - chick pea purée, olive tapenade, panisse croûton. The seabass was done perfectly - crispy skin while the flesh was tender and juicy. It worked very well with the chick pea purée, and also with the citrus pesto. The 'croûton' was creamy and delicious.

The wine for this course was 2005 Ladoucette Pouilly-Fumé - a totally underrated wine. Lots of minerals, flint and oak here, with a hint of lemon, a bit of sweet butter. Long and spicy finish.

My favorite dish of the evening was the pan-seared squab breast - chanterelle mushrooms, chestnuts, Brussels sprouts. You basically get it done two-ways on the same plate: the leg was a confit - crispy, concentrated flavors and sooo yummy. The breast was pink, juicy and tender. The sweet and bitter Brussel sprouts were great, and the black truffle grounds in the sauce completed the whole experience.

I didn't quite like the 2006 Gros Frère & Soeur Vosne-Romanée. The nose had lots of jammy sweet fruit, with hints of smoke and some caramel after a while, it was also very alcoholic. Basically the wine is just too young, and was very 'grippy' both in terms of tannins and acidity. Not well-balanced at this stage.

The chef kept the bar high for the next few dishes. The hand rolled cavatelli - confit rabbit, butternut squash, brown butter rabbit jus was awesome. I fell in love with the first nibble of sweet butternut squash, then the cavallo nero made this dish to die for. The bittersweet taste of the vegetable absolutely made the dish. What is cavallo nero and why was the taste so familiar? Why, it's also known as black kale, or a type of kai lan (芥蘭) to the Chinese!

The 2005 Domaine du Caillou Châteauneuf-du-Pape was pretty good, but still very young and alcoholic. Nose was a bit minty with strawberry marshmellows. Very long finish.

I opted for the lamb instead of Kobe beef. With a name like Elysian Fields lamb saddle - artichoke mustard, roasted tomatoes, potato gnocchi, this cannot be anything else but heavenly. The lamb was pink and tender inside, while the outer rim was seared perfectly. What was most important was that the chef left strips of fat on the meat, and nothing in the world beats animal fat that has been seared to a crisp on the surface. As I remarked to my server, "lamb is nothing without the fat!"

The 2006 Alain Graillot Crozes-Hermitage was a wonderful wine. Despite being made from 100% Syrah, the nose was very much like a Côte-Rôtie, with the telltale floral notes of violet and rose. The wonderful nose also included classic notes of smoked meats. Unfortunately it is also still a young wine, so it was too tannic and grippy on the palate.

I chose dessert over cheese, and the kabocha squash (isn't kabocha simply pumpkin in Japanese?) - butter cake, cocoa caramel, coconut curry ice cream was divine. The scoop of ice cream made the dessert - I thought I was tasting Thai green curry! Worked well with the butter cake.

I finished with a glass of the 2003 Royal Tokaji Company Tokaji 5 Puttonyos - this has got to be the "Blue Label" and another perennial favorite of mine. Nose of marmalade, cloves, a bit of honeydew and just a tad sharp with the acetone. The wine is still young and has a nice balance between the sweetness and the acidity.

But wait! There are still bonbons! Black sesame ice cream coated in milk chocolate, and orange ice cream coated in white chocolate. Topped with rice crispies. Truly sinful and I'm bursting at the seams.

What made the evening truly fantastic was my server Malcolm. It's not often that I rave about restaurant service, but I definitely need to commend Malcolm. It is so rare to meet someone at a restaurant who is so knowledgeable about food and wine. He knew every ingredient and exactly what it contributed to the overall taste of the dish. He also knew his wines, and is able to describe them and discuss similarities with other wines. He obviously knew I was really into food and wine, especially since I was taking pictures with my SLR the whole time. Exceptional service. And all the captains called me by name throughout the evening, even as I left.

I will definitely be paying the restaurant another visit the next time I'm in town.

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