Michael Mina is an incredible chef, an astute restaurateur and a fine gentleman by any account, but his sense of timing might be a bit off. Last week, we were supposed to meet in New York City, but a raging snowstorm kept us a borough — and a phone call — apart. The only other time I've met the San Francisco–based Mina was six years ago, when we were co-hosting an event at Bourbon Steak, his first entry into the Miami market. It was a luxury restaurant inside a private resort opening just as the economy was about to melt down.
Mina, stuck in snowy New York after a five-week sojourn in sunny Miami, where he just opened the new Michael Mina 74 inside the Fontainebleau Miami Beach hotel, laughs at the memory of Bourbon's early days. It's easy for him to have a sense of humor, now that he has 19 restaurants spread out across San Francisco, Las Vegas, Washington DC and beyond, but six years back, he must have been nervous.
"I used to joke, Did I just not realize it, or did you guys not tell me this is a private club and nobody in the world thinks we're open to the public," he recalls of the Bourbon Steak opening at Turnberry Isle, a high-priced community in Aventura, just north of Miami. "It's not where you want to be as a restaurant, and to clinch it, there's an armed guard out front. Coupled with the economy, it made for a tough first year."
How things have changed. As Mina tells us in this Q&A, Bourbon Steak at Turnberry Isle is now amongst the strongest restaurants in his growing portfolio, and his relationship with owner Jeffrey Soffer, who now heads the Fontainebleau Miami Beach, led to Mina getting a dream space inside the 1,000-plus-room hotel, underneath the entrance to the perenially hot nightclub LIV. And as we revealed last week, Mina's since signed on to take over the space that Gotham Steak is exiting, also in the Fontainebleau, with plans to open a Japanese-American steakhouse called Natsusteak this fall. Maybe his timing ain't so bad after all.
So you just spent some time in Miami getting Michael Mina 74 off the ground. How's it looking?
It looks great. The designers who did it are AvroKo. The space is really cool because it’s kind of an underground space. It has low ceilings which really work in our favor when you go down to this hidden, modern day supper club. AvroKo has this really good way of designing chic but yet very social spaces and this one really has that feel to it — great vibe, high energy, but still with an elegant touch to it.
You tend to emphasize food in your restaurants but you're also into the details, like design and music. What appealed on this project?
I feel that to create those dining experiences that people leave and remember and go out and want to tell other people about it, it obviously starts with the food and wine and beverage, but design and feel and ambiance and service have so much to do with it. You have to really understand your market. I’ve always been dying to get to Miami Beach and especially to Fontainebleau — I’d had a couple of offers before and I was holding out, hoping to do something at Fontainebleau.
So Michael Mina 74 is a new concept that's not only a restaurant but a cocktail lounge and nightclub. What can you tell us about that?
We wanted to feel like that same energy that people come with [to the hotel] and a lot of times are leaving with plans afterwards, we wanted to have the restaurant keeping their standards with the food and service and be part of their evening, so the nightlife piece is very seamless. You come in and have the music playing; we have a DJ starting at about 11. The restaurant has a natural transition into a more lounge-y feel by about midnight.
I'd read that you were originally going to make this another RN74, which is your wine bar concept in San Francisco and Seattle. Why the change?
The reason it went to 74 and not RN74 is that Route Nationale 74 is through Burgundy, and RN74 is very much a French bistro. Those menus are more geared toward Burgundy, France and with some California influence. What we wanted to do with 74 is go more into the American bistro side, which opens it up to the whole globe since American food is very global. [In Miami, people] eat really late. And seem to do more afterwards. They don’t just dine and go home. We felt that we wanted to create a restaurant that had a real high energy and went really late. Five nights out of the week we’re doing food 'til 3 in the morning.
Miami’s a different dining environment but gets compared to Las Vegas because there's so much tourism. Since you have restaurants in both cities, what are some of the similarities and differences you've noticed?
Biggest similarity hands down is people coming to dinner are usually looking to have a really good time. They’re looking to party and that’s what I loved about Las Vegas. I didn’t know what to expect when I got to Las Vegas, but what I learned quickly was that it wasn’t as much like San Francisco, where there’s a lot of business being done at the tables and people were very serious about food. People are serious about food in Miami and in Vegas, but a lot of times they’re also celebrating. It’s a destination to celebrate, to go out. I love it because of the energy, and I think that’s definitely a similarity between Las Vegas and Miami. I’d say that for about 70 percent of the people, the evening is not stopping at the end of dinner.
Anything totally different about the two?
The time that people eat. You’d think Las Vegas would be later than it is, but it’s not. Miami just blows me away. At 11:30 p.m., 12 o’clock, you’re doing full seatings. You’re seating 75-100 people. In Las Vegas it’s over by 10. We get a 5:30 or 6 p.m. seating in Vegas. You don’t get that in Miami at all.
The menu at Michael Mina 74 features a lot of seafood; it seems very informed by what's fresh in Miami.
Always. First and foremost, whatever local product that’s good, you want to use it. So if you look through that menu, one thing is that the Fontainebleau has this fishing boat, and it’s not some little boat that goes out for PR reasons. It’s a serious boat. We built these shellfish carts around it and it turned out to be such a cool thing. Sometimes when you do a new restaurant you do new things and some work better than others, and this one has worked really well. We get spiny lobsters, amazing stone crabs, a lot of amazing things off the boat, and you don’t know what you’re going to get until you get them that day.
So the shellfish platters are like starters?
We have these five shellfish carts that get wheeled around the dining room. I love it. I think it’s a great way to start your dinner. What we do is we build it right at the table for you, so you get to pick exactly what you want. There’s three people at the restaurant who are in charge of the shellfish and they come to your table and talk you through the shellfish and help you order.
What about the seafood entrees? Have you discovered local fish that have surprised you?
A lot of people have asked me what’s your favorite entrée or what would you order, and I tell everybody it's the pompano. That fish in particular — as a chef, it’s an amazing fish to use. Usually when you have fatty fish it’s like a black cod or something that’s a much larger fish. The snappers down there are beautiful. You get probably three or four different types of snappers that are all great.
Does the Miami dining crowd have any qualities that you have to specifically cater to?
You have to make sure you’ve got dishes that are protein-heavy. Good, clean proteins. Like we’re doing a shabu-shabu there with real Japanese wagyu beef and a really great dashi broth. You can’t believe how much you sell because it’s straight protein. The food has to have flavor. You have to be careful so you keep it balanced. Well-balanced food that has real flavor to it is what they’re looking for.
You're doing an ambitious cocktail program at Michael Mina 74, with bottled cocktails, punches and the like. Is Miami primed for this?
You know what it is? It’s patience. The concept of the drinks are amazing. Punches, and we’re doing drinks on tap. We’re doing bottled punches that we’re bottling ourselves and then bringing them to the table and carbonating them. We understand the palate of people and note the lighter drinks here, the more refreshing drinks. We really embrace that. What I mean by you have to be patient is that you want to think you’re just going to open the doors and be known for it, but it takes time. When we did Clark Bar in San Francisco across from Bourbon Steak, we came in with this incredible beverage concept and program and it really took about a year, and then people started talking about it.
Is it easier or harder than getting people to buy into a menu?
What you find with drinks is it’s not the commitment of dinner, so the more people hear about it, they start talking about it, and they’re like, we should try it. It’s not like committing to go for dinner. Over time, it just builds up and you gotta stick to it. Stick to putting the time and effort, making all the different types of ice. Everyhing it takes.
And you think it’s a good fit for Miami?
Definitely. We’re selling so many specialty cocktails and punches that I’ve been amazed by it.
But Miami nightlife isn’t typically about creative cocktail culture, right?
I’d say it’s the staff getting comfortable with it. I don’t know how surprising it is, but probably 25-35 percent of people are drinking specialty cocktails as opposed to beer andwine or your classic mixed drinks.
How hard was it opening Bourbon Steak in Turnberry in 2007, and how is it today?
It wasn’t like we opened the doors and it was terrible but we were hoping to be busier than we were. What we realized really quickly is that this is going to be one of those restaurants where you have to stick to your guns. If we can stay true to what we set out to do we’re gonna build people one by one.
And how's it doing today?
We have 19 restaurants and it killed all our restaurants on New Year’s Eve, and it’s grown every year. Very few restaurants grow every single year, because different things will happen over the course of the year and some might be better than others.
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