At his newest restaurant, the big, modern SeaBlue in Las Vegas, chef Michael Mina has a cooking area bristling with brightly colored tagines. Mina employs the ancient pottery vessels, traditionally used in Morocco for stews, to produce steamed fish dishes that Mina believes cook perfectly.
Mina has been rethinking fish since moving to San Francisco in 1991 to open Aqua and introduce elevated fish cookery to the West Coast. At Aqua, Mina debuted such ideas as tuna tartare, lobster potpie and the restaurant's signature ahi tuna steak with foie gras.
For SeaBlue, Mina had a potter make a passel of individual 9-inch tagines. A quick baking time of 14 minutes "captures all the flavor and aroma," says Mina. "The reason the tagine is perfect is that the steam keeps it moist without adding a ton of liquid back into it. The flavors aren't diluted, and you can leave all the juices in the finished dish. They moisten the main ingredients and the grains we serve with them."
Mina's recipes are personal interpretations of classic dishes. He describes one tagine, for example, as "a play on 'angry lobster,' with red hot peppers, tomato oil, reduced tomato juice, pepper juice, served over basil orzo." His dish for this story is a variation of bouillabaisse, cooking mixed seafood in a flavorful broth.
Mina came to Las Vegas in the late 1990s, opening a branch of Aqua at Bellagio in 1998. At the time, he worried about getting really fresh fish in the desert city. What sold him was a dinner at Napa, the pioneering restaurant of the late Jean-Louis Palladin. "Jean-Louis made me things from fish and seafood I never had before," Mina recalls. "I asked him how he was getting all this product here, and I learned that you could get anything. Wherever you can sell high-end product in a restaurant today, purveyors will get it for you."
SeaBlue, which bills itself as a "casual seafood bistro," is a venture of the new Michael Mina Group, which Mina formed with partners when leaving Aqua in 2002. The group's other restaurants include Arcadia, in the San José Marriott, and Nobhill, in the MGM Grand in Las Vegas. The next venture, Restaurant Michael Mina, opens in San Francisco's St. Francis Hotel this spring.
Rajat Parr, who put together the Wine Spectator Grand Award-winning wine list at Fifth Floor in San Francisco, handles wine matters for the Mina Group. His choice for the Fruits de Mer Tagine is an Au Bon Climat Pinot Noir. "I always use a light, soft red with a tomato-based sauce," he says. "This wine has warm tomato flavors of its own, and works well with all the fish. It has a fair amount of acid, good with the tomato."
The juicy broth in this dish actually tastes mainly of fennel. The way everything gently steams together, the tagine emerges as a kind of lovely, delicately refined stew. A California Sauvignon Blanc responds well to the vegetable flavors. Parr's Pinot Noir keeps its richness and polish and picks up meaty flavors, which adds to the depth of the wine match.
The gutsier call is a bigger, sturdier red, namely Green & Red Zinfandel Napa Valley Chiles Mill Vineyard 2001 (89, $25). The wine has richness but not the heavy oak flavors of many of today's high-end Zinfandels, centering on blackberry and a touch of earthiness. The weight of the wine at first seems like it might overpower the dish, but the food's distinct flavors hold their own and the wine just gets more polished, making for an exciting match.
SeaBlue at MGM Grand Hotel
3799 Las Vegas Blvd. S., Las Vegas
Telephone (702) 891-3486
Open Dinner, daily
Cost Entrées $23-$39
Credit cards All major