CONFESSIONS OF A                                                                  
A San Francisco Girl's Down and Dirty Adventures in the Culinary Playground

Wednesday, February 02, 2005

Seasick (Michael Mina -- San Francisco, CA)

So here's the thing. You spend a bazillion dollars remodeling a beloved and famous tea room in an even more famous hotel. You promise it will be bigger, better, sexier and that it will promote world peace. And then it sucks.

Michael Mina, the chef, the restaurant, the name, the brand -- it all sucks.

We ate at MM shortly after they opened. They had mad buzz for months before so we got all hot and excited. We had eaten his food when he was at Aqua, although he wasn't technically in the kitchen (our neighbor, Jay Wetzel was his chef de cuisine and was usually at the helm). Regardless of who was cooking, it was tasty and it was the menu Michael designed thus we had hope for his namesake.

Before I launch into the bashing, I want to mention one cool thing that MM did. Since they are in the Westin St. Francis, they lost their staff during the hotel workers' strike. Rather than ask people to cross picket lines, MM closed for the duration of the strike, retained all of the workers' jobs and gave free future meals to the customers who had scheduled reservations in advance that ultimately fell during the strike. This cost them around $75,000. So that's a pretty fucking cool thing. But it doesn't make up for the crappy food, which I'll tell you about now.

You walk into the dining room and there is no host, so where do you go. A skinny ass bitch runs across to direct you to your table. Once there, you are greeted by a waiter in some Sprockets-esque black outfit that looks so 80's (and not good, cool, retro 80's) that I pretty much lost my appetite right there. The dining room is pretty and relatively comfortable, but it definitely doesn't look like it's worth the millions Barbara Barry spent designing it (side note: Barbara Barry seems to live in a fantasy world where people will dress to match her dining rooms. I'm not kidding. She actually said this to the Chronicle. My guess is that she's got her meds to that comfy level that rich bitches thrive on and truly believes that if she thinks it, it will be so).

We ate there with Kathy & Bob (see the Fungal Infection post for more on them). Bob being a wine distributor decided to bring some wine. He knows Rajat Parr, the wine director, as they run in the same circles and all. We also ordered wine off of their list, as wine etiquette would dictate (you must order some of the restaurant's wine if you're going to bring some of your own. And your own better be some damn fine wine itself). Quite frankly, Rajat is a dick. He was so cold, so off putting despite the fact that our party included people he knew. As they say, if this is how you treat your friends...I mean, really, he's just a total dick.

And now for the food. I'll start on a positive note. We requested the truffled popcorn, which is usually only on the bar menu. It was great and I loved it. It was $8, which is no biggie, but the waiter failed to tell us the price. Usually, if you make a special request, the server will say "We'd be happy to accommodate you for an additional charge of X dollars." Even the finest of the fine do this. So if this is the positive note, you can guess where the review is going.

The amuse bouche were cute and playful. The shrimp corndog was beyond adorable (Michael Bauer, reviewer for the Chronicle somehow had a lobster one, but of course they couldn't have known it was him, right?). After that it all went downhill.

I went for the classics: tuna tartare and lobster potpie. The tuna is good, but not so special that I can't get something equally good for half the price. And holy fuck, the lobster potpie was so bad that I had to say something. The lobster was tough. So I'm paying a $15 supplement on top of the already steep price for this bullshit? You don't even know how to cook your fucking lobster? But what I said, when asked how things were (and after much prodding from Jon, Kathy and Bob), was: "Well, actually, the lobster pot pie was not very good. The lobster meat was tough." "Oh. We're sorry." That's it. Not "Oh dear, let us waive the supplement" or "Can we comp you a dessert?" or "Is there something else we can get for you?". I don't expect special treatment, but at a restaurant like this, you need to make sure your guests are happy.

Jon, Kathy and Bob all did some version of his little trio menu. It's all so precious that I could puke. First off, when you get six "different" tastes of a dish, they better all taste different (see how that works?). We all agreed that by bite three of each thing, we were bored. Bored, more bored, bored-est. Jon and Bob thought the Kobe beef was good, but not great, and definitely not worth the supplement. The crab "salads" that accompanied the sea bass were all the same. The same. No difference. More suckage.

And the desserts were just stupid and ridiculous. Who wants three chocolate cakes with chocolate milkshakes? Each one had a special flavor, for example, peanut butter. Pause while we all vomit at the thought of a chocolate-peanut butter cake washed down with a chocolate-peanut butter milkshake. Then imagine that two more times over with other crap mixed in. I love chocolate, I love good ol' pb, but that shit just makes me gag. I had a rootbeer float for my dessert (again, sticking with the classics) it was OK, but not amazing. I do have to give mad props to the chocolate chip cookies that came with it. And I have to take those same props away as I asked to have the cookies wrapped (I was pretty full) and they failed me. Fucking bitches.

Our server was OK, but mostly just stuffy. And when the bill came, we all felt really crabby and disappointed, because, really, when you spend that much on a meal, it should be good, if not GREAT. And this was mediocre at best.

The worst part? I thought I was crazy. Every fucking review out there of this place is fantastic. Maybe they got different food. Or maybe MM knew they were coming. What I do know is that several other peeps I've talked to felt the same way I did. In fact every CHEF I know who's been there has been horrified.

And who knows? Maybe some nights they do churn out an amazing experience for certain people. But if you aren't consistent, what do you really have? You have a shitty restaurant, that's what you have. And it's a restaurant that I won't be going back to. It was a waste of money for everyone, including the restaurant itself. Blech.


"To eat is a necessity. To eat intelligently is an art."
--La Rochefoucauld


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am not sure if I am the most objective person to be commenting on the review that was written about Michael Mina, as I eat there at least twice a week, but I was pretty amazed at the review that was posted that I have to question Joy's credibility.

My first question is why now? If Joy had been in the restaurant since last September, she would know that they rearranged the Host stand to be right in front of the front entrance. Also the chocolate cakes she describes, and the crab salads, were on a menu that was changed back in September prior to the restaurant closing for the Strike. So why Joy did you feel the neccessity to write a review on a restaurant that could have only been open for sixty days when you visited, now six months later.

I am blown away by your lack of respect for the people who you used such derogity language about. Is this a sign of insecurity that you must demean the host who happens to be thin? What kind of a person is she, what do you know about her? Obviously not much.

Enough with challenging Joy The real deal is that Michael Mina is a true asset to the San rancisco dining scene. Not to belittle the other fine restaurants in this city, but it was time for something spectacular to come along, and Michael Mina fits the bill.

I was blown away the first time I dined at Michael Mina back in August and continued to be impressed right up to my last visit this past Wednesday.

2/12/2005 3:28 PM  
Blogger Joy said...

Wow, I had no idea so many people were reading this. Hooray for that. Anonymous, I deleted your post because I don't allow anonymous comments here. It's cowardly. I may have strong opinions, but at least I own them. I can't say the same for you.

Fudnbooz, I understand where you are coming from. I know many people love this restaurant, and I am so glad that all of your experiences have been positive.

As for my credibility, I have none. If you look back to my first post, you'll see that I openly admit this. My only credibility is that I eat out a lot. I've been to every four star dining establishment in the greater bay area. I've been to almost every taqueria in the Mission. And I've been just about everywhere in between. Several people wanted me to compile my restaurant knowledge for their reference so I started a blog, believing that only those I knew would see it. Mesh Magazine got a whiff and picked me up knowing full well what I'm all about. Remember, I'm a restaurant whore, not a restaurant critic.

In answer to your question "why now?" I started this blog in Oct. and there are a lot of restaurants that I wanted to post about. As I have not one, but two careers (not including writing about restaurants), I don't get to post as often as I like. It took me awhile to get around to this one.

I have not been back to see the "changes" as my one experience was so bad, I do not feel like they are "owed" another chance. You may have the money to eat there twice a week; I do not. In my second post to this blog I said I am not fair. If I have a bad experience at a restaurant, there are no second chances. I am writing this for people who are looking to get a good meal. When I spend $300 on a meal and it is NOT good, why should I go back? And why should I speak positively to anyone else? Whether my experience was a one time thing or not, it was bad and I shouldn't have to return and shell out the big bucks to give them a chance to make it right.

I'm sorry if you feel I am disrespectful. I am going for entertainment value here. All I know about the hostess is that on my visit, she was not at the stand and *we* were not treated with respect. I pride myself on being extremely gracious and kind when I am at ANY dining establishment. My comments in this blog reflect how I was treated on my visit.

By the way, if you've feel let down by the fine dining in SF, I suggest you pay a visit to Campton Place just across the square from MM. Or get in your car and drive up to French Laundry. Now *they* are spectacular.

I'll be happy to give MM a second chance (and change my review if my experience is good) if you're willing to foot the bill. Let me know.


2/12/2005 4:58 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ahh I enjoyed that review! Didn’t reflect the experience that my wife and I had there but very refreshing all the same. As a career waiter/bartender I pay particular attention to the service provided. There is a host/ess stand upon arrival, no problem there now. Waiter was a bit jaded or uninterested, just going through the motions, been there myself, probably a big night before…. Anyway, after a few questions on a bottle of Riesling the sommelier appeared. The man was a star. The bottle in question was a Dr. loosen/ Ch Ste Michelle at an unspectacular $48. Unfazed by my frugalness ( I just saw him decant a bottle of Petrus )the man and I had a good chat and he even brought over some complementary glasses of wine with our main courses ( It’s always good to see the happy customers given something rather than the just the hard to please ).

Reviewing restaurants is important. As the wife and I only do a meal like this once a year I like to do some research ( last year was Restaurant Martin Wishart in Edinburgh, fucking brilliant, by the way ). Well we are going to have a good time no matter what but I do think that you have a wee bit of a negetive approach, no understatement there. Relax, enjoy. If I had read your piece before our trip I might have had second thoughts and would have missed out on a fucking great night and a truly fun dining experience .

Might thinking about changing your name??

Yours Sincerely

Andrew Fraser

Squamish BC

5/14/2005 2:22 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

sheesh. The people who read your blog sound pretty uptight. I want to read the bad and the good before I plunk down $300. We've been reading about Michael Mina's Arcadia in San Jose, and we may give it a shot. I don't think they do that triple same dish thing there.

7/24/2005 10:54 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great review. While our experience wasn't as uniformly bad, it sure wasn't worth the $600 we plunked down for two people last December. We found the food to be impeccable - the "tastes" were amazing and creative and beautiful. The service, however SUCKED. We're not high maintenance by any means, but at this price they need to get a few things right. The waiter was clearly a deer-caught-in-headlights, providing no real answers to the questions we asked. I was studying the encyclopedic wine list for about ten minutes, trying to decide which Alsatian would be best with the scallops. The waiter's suggestion: you're having fish so I would suggest a white. I AM NOT KIDDING! Finally, a sommelier surfaced and guided our choice - but the wine didn't make it out until after the dish had arrived. Could the waiter have been freaked out by a gay couple spending a romantic evening together? Hopefully not in SF in 2005. We found the room to resemble a tastefully appointed airplane hangar - the accoustics were terrible, especially after 10:00 when the piped in music shifted to a generic uptempo lounge soundtrack (Hotel Costes?) that was completely at odds with the surroundings. Probably made the Pac Heights facelifts around us feel hip, but it was way too anachronistic. Bottom line - save your $ for a trip to Gary Danko.

8/30/2005 12:53 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I loved the review. Reminded me of the beloved Stan Sessar of the Chronicle back in the day.

I have personally loathed the MM franchise there since it utterly ruined what was one of the finest rooms in SF and a stellar place to get a drink after shopping in Union Square. Long live the Compass Rose Tea Room!


10/25/2005 2:17 PM  
Blogger Joy said...


How funny -- Stan actually interviewed me for the Asian Wall Street Journal and I mentioned the copious hate mail I get for this review:).

10/25/2005 2:26 PM  
Blogger LuCkY 2 bE mE said...

i think your comments about mm is on the spot. i was there to celebrate my friend's birthday. we had reservations but was not seated until 20 minutes later. very snotty attitude from the hostess, no smile, no hello, just "wait by the stairs and someone will seat you". i guess upscale means stuck up?
well, as for the food, a total disappointment. from all the reviews from critics i've read, raving about the fabulous food and the amazing ingredients, i have to say, i was totally disappointed.
the food sucked!!! it was so plain that any restaurant could have made. the portions were small and tasteless. if i remembered correctly, i think we all had the 6 course. the salad was bland. the tartare was mediocre and the waiter didn't even mix it for me! WTF!!! the pot pie was a huge disappointment. i had the same thing at aqua and it was fabulous, this was so salty that u can barely taste the freshness of the lobster, totally killed the dish. and what the hell is with that crappy ass tempura shrimp? i could do that in my own house, so unimpressive. i'm gonna stop here, it's bringing back bad memories.
hopefully people will read more of Joy's extrememly helpful blog before heading out to MM. I wish i did before going there.

11/04/2005 1:42 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Geez, lighten up fudnbooz and the rest of you Mina-nut-swingers -- you don't have to be "credible" to have an opinion. Last time I checked, this was America and people can have whatever opinion they want -- especially if it's on their BLOG.

And anyway, I'm from the school that it doesn't matter if you have the best food in the entire universe, if you have a sucky staff that's all snobby and jerky then your food and your restaurant sucks too. Service is everything. Rock on Restaurant Whore, your reviews are fucking fantastic!

2/28/2006 9:34 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Agreed with every delicious word you said about MM. It was not worth the time and anticipation, not to mention the cash. I am a chef and thought it was an a clueless confusing attempt at fusion cuisine. Nothing stood out, it was bland and mediocre at best. The carpaccio was distroyed by whatever he was trying to attempt by the ridiculous combination of different rolled pasta he had on the side. Hated everything but the wine. The service was mediocre in their Fred Flintstone black formal wear. Wish I would have read this prior, thanks Joy for telling like it is.


8/01/2006 2:17 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I loved the review. I have not eaten there yet...but some friends suggested going there while they are visiting the Bay Area. I have been trying to figure out how to suggest a less expensive restaurant as we too only spend this kind of money on special occassions...not a random week day night. Any suggestions on a restaurant with great food/atomsphere with half the price? These people are real foodies!

10/12/2006 4:32 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Saturday, December 29, 2007

My wife and I ate our Christmas Eve dinner at Michael Mina’s restaurant in the St Francis Hotel this year. We made this choice for a number of reasons: we had not yet been there, we had enjoyed Mina’s preparations while he was at Aqua and the restaurant had garnered three Michelin stars.

Given all this our expectations were high, too high as it turned out. The dishes were excellent in their imaginative combinations as well as in preparation and in presentation. A fine dining experience, however, is not limited to the food there are also considerations of ambience and the level of service.

Of ambience the less said the better, the place is a little like eating in a boiler factory. The room is much noisier than it was in its previous incarnation as the Compass Rose cocktail lounge. On top of all this cacophony someone in management thought it a good idea to play recorded music. It is true that the volume of the speakers was reduced a bit at our request. Clearly, much of America has a hearing problem which is demonstrated in an unfortunate tendency to shout in public dining establishments but neither Fleur de Lys nor Gary Danko seems to have a problem in dealing with this.

The poor service put us off even more than the noise. The dinner was to be presented in three courses, the third of which was a dessert. We waited and waited and waited for that second course, other diners came and went, we waited. Our waiter came by the table and assured us that our food would be forthcoming soon; he was mistaken. My wife and I rarely take dessert and because we wanted to try as many of Mina’s dishes as possible we asked if we might each eat one of his classic dishes in place of the sweet. The waiter said that there would be no problem and this time he was correct.

When we examined the bill later under a brighter light we discovered that we had paid $30.00 for “Open Food.” Now, I will grant that $30.00 is not a large part of a $500.00 tab but we were curious. We went back to the restaurant on the day after Christmas, presented the bill and asked for a clarification. No one, not even management, knew what it was all about. We agreed to stop back later that evening at which time we would be given an explanation. We did and we were. We were charged the $30 because we did not eat desert. I can understand that what we substituted might have been more expensive than the sweet but I would have thought it appropriate to have had this charge explained to us when we asked the waiter if we might make the substitution.

This, then, is what Michelin thinks is three star dining. I wonder if this experience tells us as much about Michelin’s ability to judge American, or at least San Francisco, restaurants as it has told us about Michael Mina.

12/30/2007 8:11 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Credibility? This is a blog, not the New York Times! The girl is just stating her opinion on the web. You don't like her thoughts, don't read 'em. Sheesh.

2/10/2008 5:22 PM  
Blogger briany said...

Michael Mina - Michelin 2 stars?? NOT!

I must say my experience at Michael Mina was a huge let down. My experience there boils down to:

- Poor service
- Poor timing
- Good food, but for this much money it should have been incredible food.
- Atmosphere is non-existent

Two star service? No way!
We got the tasting menu along with the wine pairing. Their timing was completely off. Wines appeared already poured and with no explanation of why it was chosen to go with the dish.

First a glass of champagne appeared "to go with the amuse bouche". Well we finished our glass and then our first course appeared. What happened to the amuse bouche? At least the glass arrived with the sommellier who never reappeared to pour any glasses.

We watched as staff went back and forth between tables in confusion. Trays leaving and heading back to find out which table they were bound for.

Throughout the meal wine appeared already poured and up to 10 minutes before any food appeared. When the food appeared sometimes it was delivered without description or explanation. Is this two star service? I think not!

Tasting menu? Stay away!
Whenever I order a chefs tasting menu, I expect the best preparation, freshest ingredients, and await for a mouth explosion from things in a surprising preparation. Thomas Keller is a master of this at al of his restaurants, be it in the formal setting of the French Laundry to the casual setting of Ad Hoc.

Given the hype about Michael Mina and Michael Bauer's gushing about him I expected a lot. Well.... I'd say the food was very good, but nothing was exciting. Not a single dish made me go "wow!"

Our first course was some a sashimi like dish with some pickled vegetables. It was good, but having tasted some of the best raw fish at Sebo, I can say that this was 'OK'.

The meal seemed to stumble along from there as wines appeared at odd moments between dishes. We thought things were turning up when the foie gras was brought out. It was delicious and an almost "wow" moment. But hopes were dashed as further plates came out that were "good" but not "wow". The pork belly... the lamb chop... all just "good".

Biggest let down... the final course. I opted for the cheese course. One tiny slice with some apricot coulis? Please! Where is the cheese cart? Perhaps I'm expecting too much, but for this amount of money one expects more than a single slice of cheese that was bland.

They remodeled?
I was surprised to find out from friends that the restaurant had been recently remodeled. If they did - then someone needs to tell them this is the 21st century not the 90's.

There's only so much you can do with a space opened up to a lobby of a busy hotel right on Union Square, but I've seen other places do a much better job. Ame comes to mind, modern yet cozy and intimate. MM was noisy, cramped, and no sense of intimacy.

The Verdict - Spend your $$$ elsewhere
If you want a special dinner, then this is not your place. If you do decide to go despite Joy's review and the warnings from others, stay away from the Chef's tasting menu. Others have told me since that they also found the tasting menu to be the worst choice. Instead stick to the 3 course dinner.

My advice - go elsewhere. I recently had dinner at Cyrus and can tell you my experience was beyond compare. Achieving an experience that rivaled my meal at the French Laundry.

In the South Bay? Then I'd give Manresa a go. My experience there 2 years ago was fantastic.: great food - great searvice - romantic atmosphere.

5/31/2008 4:21 PM  

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