San Francisco

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The coldest winter of my life was the summer I spent in San Francisco – Mark Twain

Isn’t it nice that people who prefer Los Angeles to San Francisco live there? – Herb Caen

Is there anyone who doesn’t love San Francisco?

Yes, but most of them live in Los Angeles.

Los Angelenos hate ‘Frisco because San Franciscans have spent the last 150 years looking down the state and their noses at them.

San Franciscans see their bigger, richer, more politically powerful younger sibling the way a Boston Brahmin sees a Jewish mobster: tacky and money-grubbing, bereft of class.

Angelenos think of their northern relatives as a bunch of cloistered snobs.

Both have a point.

I’ve spent so much time in each city that I feel a kinship with these two Californios with nothing in common. Next to New York City, they  are where most of my urban education has taken place, and after dozens of trips to both (for business and pleasure), I feel comfortable walking or driving the streets like a native. (Driving in ‘Frisco is not for the faint of heart; driving in L.A. causes afflictions still being catalogued by mental health professionals.)

(BTW: I call it ‘Frisco, especially when I’m in ‘Frisco, because San Franciscans are a bunch of insufferable elitists who hate their precious city being referred to with a slang term.)

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My memories of San Fran go back to 1960, when we froze our asses off on Fisherman’s Wharf ….in July. We ate Dungeness crabs out of little paper cups and went to DiMaggio’s (when Joe DiMaggio was still a big deal) and screamed as our dad navigated the steep hills in our three-seat Ford station wagon — like the one above, only in red. It had a seat in the way, way back that pointed backwards.

With every incline, we were sure our car was going to tip over backwards. To this day, it takes a bit of trust in the laws of physics to point the nose of your sedan straight up Hyde and gun it…when the only thing(s) you can see is blue sky and the nose of your car.

Then, there was the walking, up and down Powell, Mason, and Taylor streets: trekking so angled it felt like we could touch our noses to the pavement while standing up. I have no idea how many precipitous hikes we took that first day, but I’ve taken many since, and these elevations still fascinate me. The only other city I’ve seen with such abrupt ascensions is Lausanne, Switzerland.

The Food Gal® and I will be taking off for San Francisco this morning. We’re going there for a day trip to celebrate our birthdays. (It’s a big one for her, just another in a long march towards oblivion for moi.)

It will be 12 hours of walking in the fog and rain and straining our calves and trying to touch our noses to the pavement, and no doubt freezing our asses off the whole time.

We’re going to love every minute of it.

A Random List of Favorite ‘Frisco Food Memories

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That crab meat in 1960.

DiMaggio’s – sadly Joe was nowhere to be seen. Like Joltin’ Joe, it’s long gone.

Fournou’s Ovens – shuttered in 2008, it was way ahead of its time in 1981.

The Mandarin – Celia Chiang’s seminal restaurant taught America there was more to Chinese food than chop suey and egg foo yung.

Fleur de Lys – being wined and dined by Hubert and Chantal Keller – when this place was at the top of its game – is a food memory I will never forget. Closed in 2014.

StarsJeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent. What a crock of shit.

Chez Panisse – the first time (in 1983), it was a study in simplified perfection; by meal #3 (two decades later) the place bored me to death. Alice Waters is still boring me to death.

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Tadich Grill – Calvin Trillin sent me here in the late 70s; I’ve been a dozen times since. “The Original Cold Day Restaurant,” serving the best sand dabs and tartare sauce on the planet.

Jack’s – best sourdough ever. The place made you feel like a Barbary Coast freebooter.

Aqua – where the world, and yours truly, first discovered a young Egyptian-American chef named Michael Mina.

Michael Mina – where that not-so-young Egyptian chef still rules the waves.

Le Centralcassoulet to die for; it’s been bubbling since 1974.

Postrio – my very nice, very good, very not-heterosexual waiter tried to pick me up here. Not many men have tried to pick me up, but when it’s happened (the attempt, not the pick-up) it’s happened in San Francisco. Closed in 2009.

Sam’s Seafood Grill – like Tadich, a classic. Get the petrale sole.

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Trader Vic’s (above) – long before anyone had heard of Asian fusion, Vic Bergeron was mixing and matching his food metaphors.

Mike’s Cantonese Cuisine – back in the day, New York and San Fran were the only places in America where you could find anything approaching real Chinese food.

Campton Place HotelBradley Ogden single-handedly rejuvenated hotel dining back in the 80s with his destination restaurant here.

Masa’s – ruled the roost of San Francisco dining in the 80s and early 90s. The founding chef —  Masa Kobayashi — was murdered. I’m not sure the crime was ever solved. Julian Serrano took over the kitchen and was considered San Fran’s best chef until he was lured to Sin City by Steve Wynn in 1997. The restaurant adjoined the Vintage Court hotel. It was way better than the hotel.

Nob Hill Restaurant – the first place I ever had nouvelle cuisine. In the Mark Hopkins Hotel. Salmon with vanilla sauce anyone? Anyone?

Cafe Mozart – tiny and exquisite. Sadly, gone.

Caffé Sport and Trattoria – loud and colorful….and apparently still in business serving food I fear I have long outgrown.

JardinièreTraci Des Jardins blew me away, back in the day. Two lesbians (at the adjoining table) wanted me to go home with them. I was either too drunk or too sober to go along with the plan.

Greens at Fort Mason – America’s first famous vegetarian restaurant, staffed by real cooks, not people with fear of food.

Boulevard – I’ve never had a bad meal here, and I’ve had lots of meals here.

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Pabu – Mina does Japanese! And does it extremely well.

Acquerello – Italian food the way its supposed to taste. Fabulous wine list.

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State Bird Provisions (above) – an early acolyte of the small plates revolution.

Tartine Manufactory – good, but, like a lot of things these days, not as special as it thinks it is.

The Slanted Door – made Vietnamese food safe for white people. Which means it’s a lot more impressed with itself than it ought to be. They have threatened to come to Las Vegas. They were supposed to open 6 months ago. Yawn.

The Ferry Building – we were there when it first opened as a foodie mecca (in 2003), and have returned many times since. The last time (a couple of years ago) it was mobbed and filthy. I liked it a lot better when every tourist in the world didn’t want to be a food expert.

Swan Oyster Depot – no frills west coast seafood worth waiting in line for.

Farallon – stunning undersea fantasy decor; designed by Pat Kuleto; was there when it first opened (a client dinner if memory serves), haven’t been back since.

Kuleto’s – right off Union Square. Closed two years ago. Like all Pat Kuleto restaurants, it never disappointed.

John’s Grill – when I want to feel like Humphrey Bogart in the Maltese Falcon.

The Cliff House (below) – stunning views, lots of tourists, surprisingly good food. Literally perched at the far western tip of the United States. How cool is that?

And those are just some of my faves, pulled off the top of my head, after 5 decades of eating everything in sight. There are scores of bistros, bars, destinations and dives that have faded from memory. There’s one bachelor party in the early 80s I wish I didn’t remember, and birthday parties, a wedding or two, and multiple business meals forever suspended in the recesses of my taste memories, waiting to be revived as soon as I see those beautiful hills.

I love San Francisco the way some people love Las Vegas: as a playground, full of sights and sounds and tastes and smells no other city in America can match.

I love all of those taste memories, but what endears San Francisco to me most is what set it apart from other western cities a hundred years ago, and what sets it apart today: it is civilized. Existing in a very special sphere of its own sophistication that other western cities can only dream of.

‘Frisco may have a world of problems, and be filled with snobs and terrifying streets, but San Franciscans know how to live.

And they know how to eat.

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P.S. When we get off the plane tomorrow morning, we’re heading straight to Swan Oyster Depot. Happy Birthday Food Gal!
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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.

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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