April 6, 2008

Zazu, Michael Mina, (and Cyrus, vicariously)

Friday night, after fighting the traffic from Silicon Valley to Sonoma County, we had a delicious meal at Zazu, thanks to the recommendation of R's little bro, an up-and-coming sous-chef in the area, who acted as our culinary and wine guide for the weekend via cell phone.

We were meeting up with a hard-core group of east-coast visitors who'd been living in a rented house in Healdsburg and had been wine-tasting and restaurant hopping for 2-days straight by the time we arrived, so we deferred to them on the bottle of Brogan Cellars Pinot Noir to start.

Light, bright fruit, and playful on the palate, it was an excellent way for a group of 6 to wait for their table at the bar with nothing but bread. Plus, as we were sitting there, we could look straight into the kitchen, which caused D & C to point and say, That's totally Zoi from top chef.

It was. She even came out to say hi to the table during our meal, and she was quite gracious and nice. Given my recent exposure to Kaki's fame, I was doubly impressed with Zoi's presence and obvious sincere gratitude to her patrons.

Once seated, we enjoyed the antipasto plate that, in truth, was the star of the evening -- home-cured meats (including a paprika-spiced salumi that was to die for)... cheeses galore... olives... mmmm... what's not to like? We washed these treats down with a lovely Barbera and listened to the visiting group's tales of their amazing visit to Cyrus, which, according to some, is properly receiving better reviews than the French Laundry these days.

And, in keeping with the theme of the weekend, while we were close to satiated after the first course, we powered through entrees and desserts to fill out the evening (and our bellies). In an acknowledgment that it would be next to impossible to find a wine that would match the table's homey comfort food entree selections of steak, ribs, duck, and lemon asparagus ricotta lasagna we left ourselves in our server's hands and enjoyed a pleasantly versatile (if a bit hot for a pinot noir) Emeritus.

Saturday, after a day of wine-tasting and a picnic, we rounded up the troops to drive to San Francisco to check into our hotel, relax, and prepare for the final meal of the trip at Michael Mina.

But, somehow, one of the east-coast visitors made us stop at In-n-out on the way to the city. That's right! You're only in Norcal once every 4 or 5 years. Why not? So, of course, despite living here, and being full to a ridiculous level, I had fries. And they were good...

As for Michael Mina, I must say, I was pleasantly surprised. I'd heard mixed reviews, and in particular, I'd heard that many people felt it was overpriced and that the food really wasn't the star of the show, that rather it was about ambiance, tourists being able to say that they had been there, and the caché.

According to our visitors, Little-R was right, when he said that he expected Cyrus to out-perform Michael Mina. They said it did. But really, that's nothing to cry about. If people in Sonoma are arguing about whether Cyrus is out-performing French Laundry right now, and if you throw in price as a factor, and trust the descriptions from our visitors (Best meal of my life, I hate fancy restaurants and I felt welcome, plus it was some of the best food I've ever eaten..., they brought a whole plate of sweetbreads for me when I jokingly mentioned that I was disappointed with the few that were on my entrée -- and they only charged me $15 for it...) I would not be surprised that Cyrus is outperforming FL according to some -- with arguably equally caliber food, amazing service, and more flexible options for appetite and timing, all for less than a luxury car-payment... Let's just say Cyrus is very high on our to-visit list now.

Standing on its own, however, Michael Mina is no slouch. It is at the same price-point as my least favorite Michelin Two-Star Manresa, and better than Manresa in every way that I care about. In fact, it's definitely on the short list of best high-end restaurant meals I've ever enjoyed.

The service was slightly more stiff than I prefer, but given the location, I can understand that my more relaxed preferences may not be the same as the majority of their clientele, and I can not fault their execution -- it was precisely timed, knowledgeable, and polite.

The location is amazing (something locals may run the risk of forgetting): it's in a gorgeous historic hotel facing Union Square.

The wine list is extensive, and the servers and sommellier are knowledgeable, kind, and willing to recommend (politely) their preferences, even when they may be less expensive than the bottle you suggested. Specifically, the sommellier recommended we go with a lower priced Merry Edwards Pinot Noir than the one we had selected, and the table enjoyed two bottles of his recommendation (the 2005 Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir) with joy (although I opted for white wine by the glass to pair with my very light fish-based meal selection, I tasted the Merry Edwards and found it to be lightly earthy-on-the-nose, light balanced fruit, and a pleasure to drink that would have been wonderful with the majority of the table's selections).

The trio approach to serving food is fun. I liked the idea of three variations on a common theme all in one plate. I've seen it done occasionally on some menus, but I've never seen an entire menu based on the concept (with a few classic options for those who wanted to opt out). I found it clever, and I know it takes more time and effort to do 3 well-prepared approaches to an ingredient than 1, so I also found it technically impressive, and a great way to educate my palate about variety in food.

The trio welcome platter was an excellent way to start a meal. And the pinnacle of the triangle immediately focused the group on a lively conversation -- it was a small cup of uni panna cotta, topped with uni suspended in a gelée, and a sprinkling of dried seaweed and toasted rice pearls. Immediately, people had opinions. Many people made a face at the strong flavors. I found it to be one of the best flavor/texture combinations I've ever had. And, I was very impressed with the bold move of offering fish-pudding to start. That takes confidence!

Perhaps part of the reason I loved my meal was that I was in the mood for something lighter and I went the fish route. I have since learned that Mina's rise to excellence was partially as the co-founder and conceptual developer of Aqua, so perhaps my desire for seafood was a wonderful coincidence.

Regardless of why or how it ended up in front of me, the tropical crudo trio was one of the best (if not the best) preparations of raw fish I have ever enjoyed. The fluke, well, I didn't expect to be wowed, but I was. Kampachi, I expected to adore, and I did. But, in particular, I was amazed at how much I enjoyed the spanish mackerel, which typically, I avoid in sashimi form, due to what I perceive to be its overly fishy flavor. The quality of all three types of fish was divinely fresh, the servings were larger than I would have expected, and each collection of 3-4 slices was perfectly plated on a 3-grooved long plate, with gorgeous mini-cubes of the selected accoutrements and colorful glazes of sauces below, that when eaten together in the same bite with the fishes made me *very* pleased.

I very much enjoyed my salted, seared, and poached presentations of cod as the second course as well. And the white burgundy the server selected for my pairing was one of the best flavor pairings between wine and food I've ever had.

The cheese plate was amazing, as evidenced by my ability to eat all of the cheese and many of the selected side-flavor presentations despite my need for perfect posture due to the expansion in my belly from the day's picnic, wine-tasting, in-n-out, not to mention my growing self-preservation sense that after the last 36 hours, I should really avoid all food.

All-in-all, I was very impressed with the restaurant, the service, the food, the wine, the location, and, how they handled our large party of 7. All courses were served French-style at exactly two perfectly timed moments (women, then men). Dishes were cleared unobtrusively. Wine was poured appropriately and politely. They added a gratuity of 20% to the bill, which while some may find presumptuous, in our case was somewhat of a blessing because it effectively killed all discussion of gratuity (unlike the occasional discussion that an added tip on top of 18.5% for the group can incite) -- because the service had been impeccable for 3.25 hours, we were more than happy to pay 20% and no one felt the need to ask if the others were tipping more. And, they accepted 4 credit cards and divided the bill into 1/7, 2/7, 2/7, and 2/7 without a lifted eyebrow.

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