Diners hit the jackpot at Michael Mina's restaurants, where fine-dining meets downright fun. Colleen Clark serves up the places, spaces and travel experiences that inspire the star chef
"Growing up in a huge Middle Eastern family, dining was always an event," star chef Michael Mina says. "Dishes came for four, five hours, and everyone's talking." From his early days at legendary San Francisco restaurant Aqua through James Beard awards, Michelin stars and 19 restaurants, he's managed to infuse his elegant, technique-driven fare with that kind of lively, familial warmth.
"You'd expect given the type of food we serve for the restaurants to be whisper joints, but we try hard to bring energy and life to the dining experience," Mina says. His signature tableside preparations add performative flourishes that involve diners in the act of cooking. And at his new outpost of Bourbon Steak in Los Angeles, he's upped the theatrics with a grand piano, hearkening back to Old Hollywood steakhouses and supper clubs.
With that winning combo of high roller cuisine and good old fashioned fun, it's no surprise that Mina has become a beloved Sin City fixture with four outposts, from his eponymous white tablecloth spot at the Bellagio to his gastropub at the MGM Grand.
"Opening a restaurant in a casino is like opening one in a small city. You have to figure out how you're going to fit into the neighborhood," Mina says. He's doing his best to be a good neighbor, taking a break from his new LA restaurant to throw a poolside pig roast and do a star-studded takeover of the Aria buffet with chef friends Jean-Georges Vongerichten and Masa Takayama as part of Bon Appétit's Vegas Uncork'd foodie fest. Read on for Mina's top travel eats:
Go-to room service order?
I love BLTs.
Favorite street food destination?
Roli Roti, right here in San Francisco. Thomas does it right with a perfect Porcheta sandwich!
Most inspiring ingredient that you've discovered while traveling?
I was amazed by the different flavors and aging of bonito in Japan.
World's best food market?
La Boqueria, the incredible food market in Spain with origins dating back to the 1200s.
Travel food vice?
Coffee, LAMILL when possible.
Best city for drinking?
How do you pick just one? I'd say it's a toss-up between Vegas and Miami.
Best food souvenir?
I do a lot of wood-fire cooking at home so whenever I can find antique nickel pans, I love to get them for my collection.
What country or region's food most inspires you? How have you bought that back to your restaurant/s?
Japan, definitely. They go through the ultimate thought process for balance, flavors and technique. The flavors are clean, fresh, bold – the best. I'm thrilled to be partnered with Chef Ken Tominaga to open PABU and The Ramen Bar in San Francisco this summer.
In Vegas, it's Bellagio. There are so many layers of beauty there, and the more time you spend, the more it opens up. I also love classic hotels. And Four Seasons for their friendliness and customer service.
Hotel pet peeves?
I hate the tiny room, too-cool-for-school hotels. I'm more of an old school guy.
Most memorable travel meal?
It's a tie between Can Roca in Spain and Kanesaka in Tokyo. You know when you hear about a city or a style of food for so long and you finally go there? Well, Spain and Tokyo are the two places that I've gone where the food just over exceeded my expectations. And my expectations were high.
If you could open a restaurant anywhere, where would it be?
A little spot in Hawaii on the beach with just wood-burning equipment and raw foods. Grilled food, simple sushi. It's my retirement plan.