When chef Michael Mina moved his flagship restaurant recently, he filled the space at the Westin St. Francis with a steak house. It has a heck of a wine list. Much of the Wine Spectator Grand Award-winning book from Restaurant Michael Mina remains on site, spread around several cellars and storerooms in the hotel.
It's called Bourbon Steak San Francisco, the fifth one in Mina's burgeoning restaurant empire of 18 countrywide.
A modern steak house is not entirely new to San Francisco. LarkCreekSteak has been around a few years. Alexander's Steak house (an outpost of the San Jose mainstay) replaced Bacar recently, and don't forget Jan Birnbaum's redoubtable EPIC Roasthouse. Mainstays Harris' and Alfred's still do great steaks, if not the most au courant cuisine.
But it isn't as if a steak house occupies every corner around here. I think there may be hotels in Las Vegas with more outstanding steak houses than San Francisco has.
In fact, it was Mina's StripSteak in the Mandalay Bay Hotel in Las Vegas that provided the impetus for the series of Bourbon Steaks in Detroit, Miami, Scottsdale, Washington D.C., and now San Francisco. What makes them modern? They infuse the traditional steak house menu with farm-to-table sensibilities and modern American cuisine ideas so familiar from other chef-driven restaurants. And they have extensive, often eclectic, wine lists.
As Mina explained in my Wine Spectator profile of him last year, each Bourbon Steak location has its own creative chef who contributes about half the menu. Although they avoid cookie-cutter menus, they do share certain signature elements. Each meal, for example, begins with an amuse-bouche of three little bundles of French fries done in duck fat, each seasoned differently and served with a different dipping sauce. It's fun to mix and match.
On a recent visit, I liked everything that came out of the kitchen. An appetizer, Hokkaido Scallop and Shiro Ebi Lettuce Cups, exemplified what makes the modern steak house such a draw for those of us who love what today's American chefs can do. A smart play on classic Asian dishes that offers something to spoon into a lettuce cup for a quick bite, this version chops the raw scallop and shrimp into a sort of tartare. Seasoned delicately, it plays the sweetness of the seafood bites against compressed melon, mint and pickled red onion. It makes Champagnes and sparkling wines sing.
Athough the menu features steaks, it also veers off into lamb chops, short ribs, fish, roasted chicken, a hamburger and a falafel sandwich (a nod to Mina's Egyptian heritage).
The steaks had a distinctive cast, nicely charred and pure of flavor, done to the right temperature and bursting with richness. We shared a Black Angus 45-day-aged N.Y. strip steak and a Snake River Farms American wagyu rib cap (my favorite cut). Good as they were, and I am unsure if anyone else does better in San Francisco, they were not quite up to those I've had at StripSteak in Las Vegas.
They come with a schmear of potato puree and a bundle of greens as garnish, but it's worth adding a few side dishes. Of the three we picked, the best was the creamed corn, impressive for its intense corn flavor and its witty topping of corn flakes and a sprinkle of powdered popcorn. The sautéed Bloomsdale spinach had similarly pure flavor, and red wine–braised mushrooms came out with perfect texture, soft without falling apart.
A pumpkin soup, creamy and thick, was less impressive because the ricotta quenelles and vegetable chiffonade detracted from the soup's intensity. And this time around, desserts, usually a Mina plus, came off competent but missing a certain wow factor. This was also not the finest hour for service staff, usually impeccable in Mina's restaurants. We sat empty-handed, drinkless and unattended for 10, 15 minutes at a time. It took almost three hours to finish dinner, longer than it used to take for the chef's menu when this was Restaurant Michael Mina.
We had plenty of time to study how the decor has changed. The large windows now have arched inserts that artfully block the view of other buildings in the Union Square neighborhood. The color palette is darker, the columns now painted a rich brown instead of ivory, the tables no longer covered in white linen.
The wine list is certainly a plus, at 1,800 labels certainly the most extensive of any steak house in Northern California. It's actually down about 30 percent from the old Michael Mina wine list, which was so big it was divided into two collections, red and white. It has plenty of options, focused appropriately on rich, flavorful reds such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Bordeaux, Rhône and Syrah, and a substantial number of Mina wine director Rajat Parr's beloved Burgundies. For the dinner, I went with a familiar wine, Alain Graillot Crozes-Hermitage 2008, which had the brilliant fruit character, mineral accents and lively balance to go with everything on the table.
In the end, the combination of creative cooking, mostly executed with the requisite panache, plus the playground of a wine list, overcame any shortcomings in service.
Bourbon Steak San Francisco
335 Powell St., San Francisco, 94102
Telephone: (415) 397-3003
Open: Dinner, daily
Cost: Entrées, $16–$45; steaks, $39–$68
Ed Chin — Bay Area — December 2, 2010 5:55pm ET
Mark Nickerson — Vallejo, CA — December 2, 2010 8:04pm ET
Robert N Leach — Atlanta, GA — December 2, 2010 11:19pm ET
Harvey Steiman — San Francisco, CA — December 3, 2010 2:33am ET
Mark Hamilton — Portland, Oregon, USA — December 3, 2010 12:27pm ET
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