Strip Restaurant of the Year – MICHAEL MINA

Ed. note: This year’s Desert Companion award for Strip Restaurant of the Year goes to an old reliable with a new format.  No matter how it’s presented, the seafood is always impeccably fresh, while the 20 year old restaurant itself has aged like a fine wine. As usual, click here to read about this award in its original format. Bon appetit!

Restaurants grow old in one of two ways: They either stick with a formula that works or they reinvent themselves. Somehow, the new Michael Mina has managed to do both. It is a testament to Mina as a chef, and his team, that it’s been able to do so both seamlessly and swimmingly. In doing so, Michael Mina the chef has returned to his roots, and his restaurant has re-announced itself as our finest seafood emporium.

At first glance, you can be excused for thinking not a lot has changed. It’s always been one of the prettiest restaurants in Las Vegas (thank designer Tony Chi for that) with lighting that flatters both the customers and the food. Mina made his name by treating big hunks of pristine fish like land-locked proteins. He popularized pairing pinot noir wine sauce with salmon, and marrying tuna and foie gras.

These sorts of land-sea fusions are everywhere these days, but they were a very big deal in the 1990s, and Mina’s Aqua (first in San Francisco, then in Bellagio) was an early trendsetter. Even now, he and his crew see marine proteins as umami-rich sea meat, rather than as delicate swimmers barely to be trifled with. Where the Italians and Greeks dress their seafood with little more than a squeeze of lemon, and the French subtly nap theirs with wine and butter, Mina looks at a fish as something to be celebrated with sauces and spices.

The new Michael Mina has gone large-format, and it’s a sight to behold. Every night, six to eight whole fish are displayed before you, each begging to be grilled over applewood, broiled and draped with black beans, or deep-fried and adorned with coconut-green curry. The lighter-fleshed varieties (snapper, sea bass, and striped bass) do well with this spicy coating, while fresh-off-the-boat John Dory and kampachi get dressed in more intense ways.

(Smoked trout with caviar cream)

In keeping with the times, things have lightened up a bit — the only French sauce offered is the mustard beurre blanc (with the phyllo-crusted sole), but Mina can’t resist coating a strongly-smoked trout with a river of Meyer lemon-caviar cream (above). If those aren’t filling enough, his old-school (and justifiably famous) lobster pot pie awaits, bathed in a truffled brandy cream sauce.

(Caviar parfait)

The only problem is there may now be too many great choices on this menu. Executive Chef Nicholas Sharpe and General Manager Jorge Pagani (who’s been with the operation for 17 years) suggest toggling back and forth between Mina’s famous dishes and these new fresh fish offerings to build your best meal. Pagani says there would be a revolt among his legions of regulars if certain standards (e.g., the tuna tartare, caviar parfait (pictured above), that pot pie, or phyllo-wrapped sole) were taken off the menu. And why should they be? They are classics for a reason, and just like this superbly re-imagined restaurant, they will never go out of style.

Dim Sum Dilemma

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What should you do about mold on your food?

To complain or not complain? That is the question.

And does it matter whether you’re in a Chinese restaurant (where they may or may not speak English that well) or a less “foreign” one?

Allow me to explain.

Here’s the scenario:

You’re driving to Los Angeles.

Part of your tradition is always to stop in the San Gabriel Valley (Monterey Park, Alhambra, etc.) for some dim sum fun.

You’ve been doing this since 1991 — decades before Instagrammers and Yelpers discovered the place, and long before Jonathon Gold made it cool to go there.

In other words, you know what to expect: huge, open rooms, packed with Asian families of all stripes, and rolling carts (or menus) filled with a mind-blowing assortment of small bites, steamed, fried, and baked goodies straight from the Cantonese playbook.

You also know that kitchen hygiene can be a rather flexible concept in certain Asian restaurants. But no matter, the food is usually spectacular (especially compared with the meager dim sum offerings of Vegas), so you look past these shortcomings.

Every time you come to the SGV, you try to hit a new joint. On your last trip you made it to Sea Harbour and it was spectacular.

This time, you decide to try a place that’s received some buzz called Lunasia Dim Sum House.

You get up early so you can get there when it opens, because these places get nuts around lunch time, especially on weekends.

You’re super excited (and starving) when you drive up, especially when you score a parking spot right in front of it.

Right away, you see it checks all the boxes:

Giant crowded room full of Asians – check

Fish tanks brimming with crabs and other creatures of the sea – check

Smells like soy, steam, shrimp, and Shanghai – check

People scurrying about with trays full of delicious looking dumplings – check

Everyone smiling as they stuff their maw with har gow, shu mai, don tot, and char siu bao – check

Chopsticks flying across tables in a pitched battle for the last bite — check

All of this gets you very excited. But then, just to pee in your cornflakes, The Food Gal® — a clean freak but also someone with (slightly) bendable standards when it comes to certain, hyper-delicious Chinese food — notices the sign on the front door:

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“Are you sure you want to go here?” she asks. But you are undaunted — you wade right in, confident it was simply the kind of misdemeanor that would fade from consciousness as soon as your table was swamped by a tsunami of dim sum umami.

And it did, and for a while, it was.

For a while, you were transported by golf ball-sized sui-mai:

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Concupiscent spicy clams:

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Sticky/terrific/thick/sausage/turnip cake:

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…and delectable don tot:

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It wasn’t the best dim sum we’d had by a long shot. But it hit the spot, even if it fell short of Elite, Ocean Star or Sea Harbour excellence.

As you know, dim sum can be a willy-nilly eating experience. Everything shows up in random order, and you might find yourself slurping a beautiful almond milk-puff pastry sweet soup — or those warm-from-the-oven Macao-style custard cups — before you’re done with the savories. No matter, when it’s all good, it’s all good.

Right up until it isn’t.

Because of that delicious chaos, sometimes you circle back to a savory after a sweet. Which is what we did with these peppery stuffed peppers:

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They were hot — that innocuous-looking black pepper sauce was a scorcher — but they were also real good, so you want to tackle one more before pushing away from the table.

Big mistake.

One bite and you know something is wrong. Where before there was pillowy minced shrimp on bright green, herbaceous pepper, now there is an moldy, old, damp and musty taste in your mouth. The textures are still right, but the aftertaste is of dank cardboard — as if you’d just licked a fuzzy petri dish.

It turns out you had.

Tearing the top off of the pepper, there was the culprit: staring at you like a fungal funhouse of funky mold — the kind you grow in labs, the kind vegetables grow by themselves when they’re left too long to their own, organic devices:

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Is this a cardinal sin for a restaurant? Not really. But it shows a certain sloppiness. The kind that gets a “C” grade from the health inspector.

Does it give your wife a gigantic “I told you so”?

Of course it does. And she ain’t lettin’ you forget it for a long time to come.

Was it worth pointing it out to the management? Ah, there’s the rub and the dilemma.

Would it have resulted in them taking $7.88 off the bill? Maybe, but only after discussions, delays and sideways glances, and having to convince them you weren’t trying to get a free meal out of the ordeal.

There might also be debate over what it was. No restaurant is going to willingly admit it serves moldy food, so you’d have to be ready for an argument…an argument that could be won if they’d take a bite out of that musty-dusty pepper….which, most assuredly they would not.

Then you have to consider: will your complaint cause them to clean up their act?

Probably not. If the “C” grade didn’t do it, showing them some fungi fuzz tap dancing on their produce won’t.

So you pay the bill in silence….all $76.28 of it.

But you won’t be back, even though you were probably never going to go back anyway. And now your California food fantasies are a little less fanciful. There is no dim sum Santa Claus in San Gabriel, and you’ve learned no matter how rave-worthy some of it is, some of them are cutting the same corners as everyone else.

And it’ll be a cold day in hell before your wife lets you walk into another low-rated restaurant.

(Sigh)

MICHAEL MINA Returns to the Sea

I almost sued Michael Mina once. More accurately, Michael Mina’s partners tried to hire me to sue him.

My law firm wanted me to take the case, but I demurred because….well….simply because I liked his restaurant so much.

The underpinnings of that suit had to do with the divorce that was then underway between the Bellagio and the Aqua Group — the company (and restaurant) that launched Mina’s career in San Francisco in the mid-1990s. By 1997, Aqua had become Frisco’s most famous seafood restaurant, and Steve Wynn (who had already lured Julian Serrano here from there), needed a seafood star to complete his murderer’s row of chefs at the Bellagio.

Aqua Las Vegas opened to great acclaim in 1998 (as did all of Bellagio’s stars), and for 7 years it was the unchallenged cooking champion of all things from the sea. As its eighth birthday approached, deals were coming to an end and leases needed re-negotiating. Mina apparently wasn’t in step with whatever his partners wanted, and that’s when both sides started lawyering up and I got the call.

I don’t know anything else about the dispute except that within a matter of months, Aqua was out and Michael Mina (the chef and the restaurant) was in.

Smartest move me and the Bellagio ever made.

Aside from a drift away from the seafood that made him famous, not a lot has changed at Michael Mina over the years. It’s always been one of the prettiest restaurants in Vegas (you can thank designer Tony Chi for that) with lighting that flatters both the customers and the food. The one design flaw was the bar to the left as you enter. Originally designed as a sushi bar, it was small and awkward and not conducive to cocktails (or a pre-prandial glass of vino) — with the drinks (formerly) being handed down over a high ledge in front of the seats. As you can see above, this is no longer a problem.

Neither is the menu re-vamp, which returns Michael Mina (the restaurant) to its roots. With this re-boot, the fish-friendly MM of yore is now alive and swimming in the Bellagio Conservatory. Taking a clue from Estiatorio Milos, a seafood display tempts as you are led past the bar, and if looking at whole branzino, John Dory, striped bass, Hawaiian kampachi and Arctic char doesn’t put you in the mood for a fish fry, nothing will.

Mina made his name as a seafood chef. His early fame came from treating big hunks of pristine fish like land-locked proteins. He popularized pairing pinot noir wine sauce with salmon, and pairing tuna with foie gras. Even now, he and his crew see marine proteins as umami-rich sea meat, rather than delicate flowers to be barely trifled with.  Where the Italians and Greeks barely dress their seafood with anything more than a squeeze of lemon, and the French nap theirs with the barest of butter, Mina looks at a fish as something to be assaulted (in a good way) with sauces. Thus does lobster come bathed in brandy and cream (in his ethereal pot pie), while fresh-off-the-boat John Dory gets a dressing of intense, fermented black beans and bok choy. In keeping with the times, things have lightened up a bit — the only French sauce offered is the mustard beurre blanc with the phyllow-crusted sole, but he can’t resisted coating a strongly-smoked trout with a river of Meyer lemon-caviar cream,  His chefs will grill one those whole fish (or a half for 1-2 diners) and adorn it with grilled peppers and preserved oranges, or accent it with Thai green-coconut curry after deep-frying it Asian-style.

When it comes to fish, yours truly is something of a seafood snob (imagine that?). My rules of thumb when ordering a whole fish are simple:

Rule #1: If John Dory (aka San Pierre, aka San Pietro) is on the menu, get it.

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The John Dory is an exquisite fish – thick and meaty, but also delicate, not-too fatty and finely-grained. There is a firmness to the meat which will stand up to all sorts of preparations, but a soft sweetness to it that demands a careful hand. It goes well with a variety of sauces, and will stand up to strong accents — like the scallions, Serrano peppers and fermented black bean treatment it gets here. When properly cooked, it takes a rightful place in my pantheon of perfect pisces, along with wild turbot, fresh-caught Pomapno, and true Dover sole.

Rule #2 is: Only eat fish in a fish restaurant.

Rule #3: In a fish restaurant as good as this one, either close your eyes, point and pick, or ask the knowledgeable staff about the variations in species and how they are complimented by the cooking styles.

That last one is crucial, because on any given night, 6-8 whole fish are laid out before you, each begging to be grilled/smoked over applewood, broiled and beaned, or deep-fried with coconut-green curry. The lighter-fleshed fish (snapper, sea and striped bass) do well with this spicy coating and sauce, while the denser Dory, kampachi and char demand to be basically broiled.

Before you get to them, however, you’ll have to navigate the shellfish waters, which are teeming with terrific options. Executive Chef Nicholas Sharpe pointed us to the “petite charcoal-grilled platter” ($130) which is more than enough for four. Nothing against the brisk and briny oysters and cold lobster you find all over town, but this time of year calls for warmth, and grilling the scallops, oysters and Maine lobster with a miso-garlic-yuzu glaze is just the ticket on a brisk fall evening:

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The only problem with the new menu is there are too many great choices. Sharpe and g.m. Jorge Pagani (who’s been with the operation for 17 years) suggest toggling back and forth between the Mina classics (caviar parfait, tuna tartare, hamachi crudo), with these new (“Market Light”) items to build your best meal, and that sounded like a sound plan to me.

Speaking of classics, most of them are still there. (Pagani told me there’d be a revolt among some regular customers if the tartare, parfait, pot pie, or phyllo-wrapped sole were taken off the menu.) And why should they be? They’re classics for a reason. There may be no better starting course on earth than Mina’s caviar parfait:

….and even his steak Rossini is justifiably famous,. But for my money, the real show-stopper (a blend of Mina’s oeuvre, old and new) is his seared tuna and foie gras starter:

Mina has always known fatty liver like a Korean knows cabbage, and three forkfuls will prove it to you. Take a bite of the tuna, then take a bite of the foie, then take a bite of them both together. No meat-meets-fish dish ever became greater than the sum of its two (magnificent) parts than this beauty. It’s expensive ($57), but it’s more than enough for two and almost a complete meal in itself for one.

If you have room after all that seafood-y goodness, don’t miss the classic chocolate bar with salted caramel mousse, or the Egyptian rice pudding (almost as good as Greek!), or the pineapple granita with vanilla panna cotta and Sicilian pistachios (below). Desserts here have been wonderful for as long as I can remember (which is all the way back to 1998), and as with the fish, whatever you point to will be worth it.

A word about wine. No one goes to the Bellagio looking for wine bargains, but this list is well-chosen with lots of white wines at (for the Strip at least) reasonable prices that match well with the food. My sweet spot when looking at Strip wine lists is the $60-$120 range, and if you root around, you’ll find a few German Rieslings that fit the bill — like Müller-Catoir Kabinett for $80. The bright acidity of drier German whites compliments Mina’s love of bold, rich flavors, as do the more mineral-rich Chablis and less-complex (read: cheaper) white Burgundies — which you’ll find more than a few bottles of that don’t break the bank. Anyone who orders a Cali cab with this food ought to be taken out and shot (figuratively speaking).

The half-fish here run around $60-$75, which is a (relative) bargain. Most of the whole fish (that easily feed four) are double that. If you split some appetizers and go this route, you can get out of here for around $100/pp. Tasting menus are $138 and $188, respectively, and are more than worth it if you’re the “go big or go home” type. The last time I paid for a meal at MM, Bill Clinton was president.

MICHAEL MINA

Bellagio Hotel and Casino

3600 Las Vegas Blvd. South

Las Vegas, NV 89109

866.259.7111

https://www.bellagio.com/en/restaurants/michael-mina.h