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.

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.

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:

Image may contain: food

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.


Bellagio Hotel and Casino

3600 Las Vegas Blvd. South

Las Vegas, NV 89109


The Bellagio Turned 20 Yesterday and No One Cared

Image may contain: 9 people, including Samuel DeMarco, people smiling, people standing

The Bellagio Hotel and Casino turned 20 years old last night at 8:00 and no one gave a shit.

Not a peep from its corporate parent; no parties; no press releases; no kudos from the casino industry that has become one gigantic fat cat because of the ground it plowed.

As long as we’re mixing metaphors, think of it this way: until Steve Wynn planted his flag and took his casino to “11”, restaurants were considered small fish swimming around in a large gambling pond. When he decided to ring his casino with nine superb eateries — Sam’s, Shintaro, Le Cirque, Circo, Jasmine, Aqua, Olives, Prime, and Picasso — it was big news in the culinary world. As I’ve written before: when the Bellagio opened, the gastronomic ground shook in the High Mojave Desert and the whole world felt the shudder. Something big, really big was happening here; something that would change Las Vegas’s culture and reputation in huge ways, and the food world in many small ones.

To be fair, what Wynn wrought was simply a more extravagant version of changes that had been underway for the previous five years. Wolfgang Puck was the original pioneer, along with Gamal Aziz (the MGM F&B executive who first expanded its culinary horizons with Emeril Lagasse, Mark Miller and Charlie Trotter). Together with Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse — the first upscale national chain to come here in 1989 — they proved that there was gastronomic gold in our tourism hills, and that people (mainly Boomers who were coming of age) had cash to spend on good restaurants — not just the coffee shop, steakhouse, buffet and “continental” dining rooms of decades past.

I turned 40 in the 90s, and like many of my age bubble, I looked at fine dining as a signifier of the good life I aspired to. And like many of my contemporaries, I started making some real money in those years and had cash to spend on things I had previously only dreamed of.

And spend it I did, and to the Bellagio I went — on October 15, 1998, with my then-wife — to walk around and take in the magnificence of it all. Sam’s (headed by New York chef Sam DeMarco) looked like a set from a Flintstones cartoon, and had tweaked American classics like hot dogs and grilled cheese and burgers like Vegas had never seen before. Memories have dimmed but I recall appetizers served in all sorts of fun, odd dishware, incredible mini-burgers, and wonderful fried seafood. “Too hip for the room,” were my thoughts then and I turned out to be right. Despite great food and a super-groovy decor, what Bellagio wanted/needed was a mediocre steakhouse (to catch the overflow from its superb one downstairs), and that’s what Sam’s was replaced with after a couple of years into its run.

But no matter, on that opening night, it was magical, as was Shintaro, the sushi bar with back-lit jellyfish floating above it, Prime (then and now, one of the most beautiful restaurants in America), Picasso (headlined by Julian Serrano – San Francisco’s best chef, lured here by Wynn), Aqua (helmed then by a seafood wünderkind named Michael Mina), and finally the jewels in the crown: Le Cirque and Circo. Never before had any hotel (in Vegas, in America, in the world) seen so much kitchen, menu, architectural, and cooking talent in one hotel at one time. It was a murderer’s row of restaurants, and  every chef, manager, restaurateur, and dishwasher in America couldn’t help but take notice.

And notice it they did. And within two years the Venetian and Mandalay Bay came on line to compete, and within five years the whole culinary world, from Parisian chefs to Food Network stars, were knocking on Vegas’s door asking to be let in.

And do you know how Mirage Resorts International (Bellagio’s corporate parent) celebrated this groundbreaking birthday yesterday? With crickets.

Nada. Nothing. Bupkus.

Not a tweet, not a mention, nary a “Hey, it’s Bellagio’s 20th birthday!” press release.

Why? Because they don’t give a shit. Like all casino corporations, this property is just another profit center to them. They’re not interested in legacies or histories or nostalgia. (They’re also probably not interested in celebrating anything invented by Steve “Tennis Shorts Testicles” Wynn.) The entire gambling industry, indeed the entirety of Las Vegas, is built on the here and now. Long term memories are not conducive to shilling any of the products Vegas is selling. Short term memory needs to be as short as possible — the better to keep you at the table and looking forward to winning something (YOU WON’T!), or induce you to spend money on something you don’t need, or mindless entertainment that’s like chewing gum for the eyes.

Lest I be seen as being too hard on the hotel’s owners, it must be pointed out that Las Vegas as a whole didn’t give a shit about Bellagio’s birthday, either. Maybe because the revolution in started in our food scene has faded considerably in the past five years. The Guy Savoys aren’t clamoring to come here anymore, and all we get these days is hype fatigue from Giada opening a fast casual outlet in Caesars (who the fuck cares?), David Chang slapping his name on something, or Gordon Ramsay phoning it in with another licensing deal.

Yes, the days of having Grant MacPherson, Mark Poidevin, Kerry Simon, Serrano, Mina, and DeMarco all in their kitchens at the same time are long gone. But Las Vegas eats so much better today than it did in 1997, and even in eclipse, our restaurants are still world-class — something no one thought possible until Steverino flung open those doors exactly two decades ago, and told the world it needed to come to Las Vegas to eat.

You shoulda been there; it was really something.

{From L-R in picture at top of page: Grant MacPherson, Mark Poidevin, Todd English, Dawn Varming, Steve “Tennis Shorts” Wynn,” Kerry Simon, Michael Mina, Sammy DeMarco, Julian Serrano}