I have honestly never met a chef who is more tirelessly creative than Michael Mina. Most chefs create a few dishes and rest on their laurels. Mina, who is now around 40, has been at this for more than 15 years and shows no signs of slowing down.
Some background will be helpful. He’s a CIA grad from Washington State, who was, in part, mentored by Charlie Palmer. His first success was at Aqua in San Francisco, which he now owns, having renamed it Michael Mina. (That is the name of his flagship Vegas restaurant at the Bellagio as well.)
Mina owns Nobhill, SeaBlue, StripSteak and American Fish here in Vegas, in addition to Bourbon Steaks in Florida, Michigan, Arizona and God-only-knows where else, a terrific wine bar in San Francisco, and a place in L.A. called XIV, because it was his 14th restaurant. And I guess there are others, but who can keep track. He’s a one-man gang in the food world.
So when I saw him last week and asked him why he had completely redone the menu at his nominal seafood restaurant at the Bellagio, he had a simple answer. “This place has my name on the door. It should be my signature restaurant here, so I want it to reflect what I’m doing at my signature restaurant in San Francisco.”
Well, he’s done just that. Many things here remain the same — the Tony Chi design, the staff led by GM Jorge Pagani, the excellent wine list, a caviar parfait given to favored customers that is to die for. But nothing on the menu, (well, almost nothing) is the same. Sure, he has retained a whole roasted foie gras, carved tableside, and a lobster pot pie so rich it would make a Maine fisherman scream, but the rest is mostly new.
I had the pleasure to eat at the new Michael Mina in San Francisco, a restaurant located at the foot of California Street, by the cable car station terminus. The meal was magical. In my opinion, Mina has grown as a chef. His food is better than ever, despite a tendency to overdo it.
My wife and I judiciously refrained from lunch that day. In fact, all I ate for breakfast was one miserable biscotto at Starbucks. (Yes, I know, it is pretentious to write biscotti in the singular. Well ain’t it a shame.)
Mina started us off with that caviar parfait, which is three layers of potato pancakes filled with salmon and topped with Sevruga caviar, a little trick for the ages. Then, after some crudo, he served us a terrific, albeit swooningly rich, crab tortellini and that foie gras.
My first main course was something called “Three Seas.” Mina likes trios, which he served liberally when Michael Mina Restaurant won a pair of Michelin Stars at the St. Francis Hotel. Here, he’s scaled things back, but not with this dish. It’s a tasting of three Japanese fish alongside Jasmine bamboo rice, all laced with ginger vinaigrette.
Meanwhile, my wife was digging into truffled stuffed Jidori chicken, gaudily accompanied by Savoy cabbage and — get this — foie gras rice. I love this rice, but not as a side dish. Like I said, the man can’t stop.
Max Jacobson is the Vegas Seven food critic and writes at Unica World.