It's got to be hard when you move to a new town and get tasked with critiquing its sacred cows. And this week finds Chronicle food critic Soleil Ho getting back to the business of just that with a fairly kind but still quizzical review of Michael Mina's local empire. And his PR team is probably not too thrilled about it.
I have to say that having lived in San Francisco for twenty years, I still had to take it as a given that Michael Mina was a local celebrity and a talent to be reckoned with, even though I never ate at Aqua and had only one — albeit very nice and luxurious — dinner at Michael Mina the restaurant before it closed. He has gone on, in the way of a few other industrious restaurateurs around the country, to turn his name into a brand over the last decade-plus, stamping it on everything from steakhouses to a new Greek seafood spot in the former Michael Mina/Aqua digs downtown. 40 restaurants in all, covering his bases from Las Vegas to Dubai.
Mina recently partnered with SoCal nightlife purveyor Brent Bolthouse to open Bungalow Kitchen in Tiburon — a "beach club" type spot where Mina's own "greatest hits" are on the menu. The only dish I've known to associate with him is a lobster pot pie that must date to the late 90s, and yes, that's on there. (Ho says that it, and Mina's signature tuna tartare are both "rendered with the deftness of muscle memory.")
Ho says that Bungalow Kitchen, for its part, "has the strongest argument for being called a 'Michael Mina' restaurant" because it features these signatures, and dots Mina's name at least six times in the text of the menu.
Mina also partnered in recent years with Ayesha Curry, transforming what was his French brasserie concept RN74 into International Smoke, a barbecue restaurant with international influences — and some fried rice on the menu that Ho finds to be "a bland rendition with a homogenous texture" and for which Ho was "looking for someone to blame," but she wasn't sure if that should be Curry or Mina.
All in all, Ho's piece focuses only marginally on the food itself, having toured eight of 12 of Mina's local spots. The piece explains that he doesn't "own" them all — in this day and age of chef-dom, sometimes these are just licensing or consulting gigs where the hotel or whatever just gets to use the chef's name for its cachet, but it could be many months (or longer) between visits by that chef. Such may be the case with Wit & Wisdom, Mina's restaurant at The Lodge at Sonoma that opened in 2019, where Ho encountered a "spongy and limp" mushrooms on a mushroom toast appetizer — "the perfect picture of what mushroom haters specifically despise," Ho writes.
Several Mina restaurants don't even get dishes mentioned at all — including Pabu, the Greek spot Estiatorio Ornos, and his new Tokyo Hot Chicken delivery thing.
"It’s easy enough to imagine that consistency would be a challenge for a vast collection of mostly unique restaurants," Ho writes. "I imagine it’s like an engineer trying to plug leaky holes in not just one boat but a fleet of yachts, kayaks and battleships."
"Mina’s name," Ho writes, has become "a reliable shorthand for a dining experience that emphasizes hospitality, seasonal produce and, usually, a higher-end menu." But, Ho continues, "the fact that the food isn’t consistently good dampens the idea of his name being a reliable stamp of quality."
Yikes! This definitely has many of the trappings of the takedown of Chez Panisse that was Ho's entry into the local food scene when Ho took the job three years ago, where Alice Waters' beloved flagship was called "stale."
Also, Ho gets a scoop about the Mina brand and the future of his restaurant empire: It sounds like he's already planning to take a step behind the scenes, and stop putting his name on all the restaurants he works on. Instead, he says, he's starting a new company (or restaurant group?) that will showcase other chefs' concepts.
More news of that will likely be coming in a matter of months.