Last week, my friend Wilfred organized a trip to Michael Mina’s restaurant in the Westin St. Francis hotel in San Francisco. The attendees were the same group of six of us who went to the French Laundry last year (almost exactly a year ago, in fact). Unfortunately, that’s where the similarities end.
Don’t get me wrong. Michael Mina’s was very good, verging on excellent. We got a great table in the corner, where we were able to look out on two sides at Union Square. And the food was very good. We think the wine might even have been better than what we had at the French Laundry. But the overall experience was decidedly more prosaic.
I’ve been trying to think of why. Part of it was the environment. Making the hour-long pilgrimage up to the French Laundry was part of the experience. Ducking in off of Union Square doesn’t give you the same sense of separation between the mundane and the sublime. Also, I didn’t like the restaurant layout. It was one large room with high ceilings, which meant that conversations from all the tables combined to create a fairly loud background din. We didn’t quite have to shout to be heard across our six person table, but we definitely had to speak up. At the French Laundry, the space was quiet and intimate, with small dining rooms containing only a few tables each. Even the presentation of the food was less satisfying; the waiters came and presented our dishes in much the same way as they did at the French Laundry, but lacked the same panache and elegance (perhaps Mina needs to hire a choreographer, like the French Laundry).
As far as the food, I got the seasonal tasting menu, with the lobster pot pie from the classic tasting menu substituted in. And it was very good. But it didn’t have the same playfulness that the French Laundry menu did. One of the things that amazed me most about the experience at the French Laundry was the way different tastes melded synergistically in my mouth to create a new experience; last year, I described the big goofy grin I would get on my face at the first bite of each course. I only got that a couple times at Michael Mina, with the lobster pot pie and the banana tart.
I don’t think it’s just that I’m idealizing the French Laundry experience in retrospect, either. Everybody at the table agreed; the French Laundry ruins your appreciation for anything less. One woman had been to one of the best restaurants in Japan a month after we went to the French Laundry last year, and had felt “Eh. It’s good, but no French Laundry.” Alas. This is why the French Laundry is considered the best restaurant in America. Having now been to Chez Panisse and Michael Mina in the last year, I have to admit they’re not at the same level.
But we still had a great time – it’s a good mix of people, we spent a solid five hours eating dinner and dessert with good conversation and good wine. An excellent evening out. Not something I can afford to do every week, or even every month, but it’s nice to treat oneself occasionally.