I ran into Michael Mina on the streets of San Francisco and took advantage of a chance to get caught up on his plans to move his signature restaurant. In our conversation/interview on Beale Street, he expanded on the sketchy information that surrounded his taking over the lease at the former Aqua.
“I just came from there,” said the chef, who now heads a collection of 18 restaurants across the country, including Michael Mina and RN74 in San Francisco. “We have started the remodel. I lose myself for hours there. I start reminiscing. Then I look up, and seven hours have passed.”
Aqua is where Mina manned his first kitchen. He was the No. 2 to chef George Morrone when the upscale seafood restaurant opened in 1991, and rose to the top position shortly thereafter. It’s where Mina made his name, and the memories come flooding back as workmen dismantle the existing modern decor.
Mina negotiated passionately for the space vacated by the previous operators, the Aqua Group, headed culinarily by chef Laurent Manrique. After five years in a regal-looking space off the lobby of the Westin St. Francis Hotel, Mina decided to renovate the Aqua space as the new home of his Wine Spectator Grand Award–winning restaurant.
About the only thing the two locations have in common is that San Francisco’s signature cable cars clang and rumble past, the Powell Street line outside the St. Francis on Union Square, the California Street cars past Aqua’s Financial District address. The venerable space at the St. Francis feels staid and plush, despite a coat of light paint on the room’s ornate pillars. (Some staunch preservationists even decried that coat of paint when the restaurant opened.) By contrast, Aqua was designed to be sleek and modern, with a curved wall and recessed tropical fish tanks. Mina plans to freshen that up, keeping a similar feel, and improve the kitchen design.
When it opens, expected in October, the new Michael Mina will expand the menu to what sounds like a mix of the small plates of his XIV in Los Angeles and the trios he is famous for in San Francisco. Also, he plans to open for lunch, which the St. Francis restaurant served only at the bar, not in the dining room. That should become a hot power-lunch site.
Mina said that negotiations look promising for his idea to turn the St. Francis space into a steak house. He has been successful with modern-style steak houses—Stripsteak in Las Vegas and Bourbon Steaks in Detroit, Miami, Scottsdale, Ariz., and Washington, D.C. But he told me he wants a San Francisco steak house to be more driven by local ingredients.
“More about product, even more than the other ones,” he said.
Before Postrio underwent a remodel recently, Wolfgang Puck entertained the idea of converting it into a CUT steak house but eventually decided to just freshen up his San Francisco outpost. That left the steak house door open for Mina. San Francisco lacks a destination spot for steak, although it has some good ones, including Lark Creek in the San Francisco Centre.
“This makes more sense for a business hotel like the Westin,” Mina said. “It’s a lot less intimidating to some people than a menu full of complex dishes like my trios.”
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