Michael Mina Runs the Gamut of Savory Bites

The term "gamut," originally from the Middle English and even earlier from the Medieval Latin (gamma), has several meanings. In the field of music, it's the set of pitches of which musical melodies are composed. In the 1850s, the term was applied to a range of colors or hues. In the dictionary you will find it means "an entire range or series," as in, "She experienced the full gamut of human emotions."

But Chef Michael Mina gives it a new gustatory meaning with a 20-course presentation he calls The Gamut, so far served only at his eponymous San Francisco restaurant, where he made a big name for himself as chef under its previous incarnation as Aqua.

The Gamut runs the full gamut of tastes chef deems savory to the palate. It runs the full gamut of the Michael Mina menu as well. And it also may run the full gamut of your monthly eating-out budget: the current price is $245 per person, wine pairings are an additional $150. That may seem high -- well, it is high -- but when you break it down, to about $12 per course, it's not that tough to swallow, so to speak.

Each course is tiny, elegantly showcased on artful plates in the style of Japanese kaiseki, the multi-course extravaganza that derives from ancient Zen temple meals. Tiny though they are, rich they are more so, so one definitely needs to pace oneself over the course of what will inevitably become a three-hour evening of entertainment-slash-eating.

To undertake such a culinary marathon, I brought along two men who know their way around a plate: Stan Bromley, the semi-retired but still legendary former Four Seasons Hotels general manager who had worked his way up through hotel food and beverage divisions; and Chris Barnett, a veteran journalist and bar writer who has never seen a recipe or a drink upon which he did not feel he could improve.

Bromley, who has known Mina and Aqua for quite some time, was particularly "curious to experience the newest version of what has been considered one of the city's hottest restaurant spots in the last decade or two," he said as we set our napkins in our laps and did some deep breathing in preparation for the night of indulgence. "When Michael teamed up with Ron Siegel [executive chef at Michael Mina since last summer, and before that worked at Aqua, the French Laundry, Charles Nob Hill and the Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton], it was anyone's guess whose signature would be on the cuisine, and how good it would be."

The menu changes to reflect the seasons so what we sampled may not be offered when you dine -- because (is it obvious to say in San Francisco elite culinary company?) everything is as seasonal and as local as possible. Nonetheless, all Mina offerings follow his basic philosophy: to produce full flavor in every bite and to balance acidity, sweetness, spice and fat -- as he puts it, to design "food that keeps you interested throughout the whole course."

Bromley's final verdict: "From my point of view, the substance matched the promise. The style and presentation didn't overshadow the technique and preparation of the cuisine. Yes, it was a very precious and touchy and ambitious menu -- some plates had a dozen touches in just the presentation -- but they pulled it off."

We three share in sending kudos to the waitstaff for putting up with us, as well for knowledgeably explaining what they were placing on the table and sensitively pacing the flow of plates.

Here's what we ate -- and we still can't believe we ate the whole thing -- with some notes included...

Served as a trio to start:
• Kumamoto oysters with pickled ramp (wild leeks) mignonette. We felt the vinegary pickled leeks overpowered the delicate taste of the oysters.
• Michael's Caviar Parfait, with Russian osetra, sieved egg, smoked salmon and potato shallot cake. A signature also served at some of the 19 restaurants in the Mina Group, Mina came up with it when on his honeymoon he wanted to create a special breakfast for his new bride that featured all her favorite foods. He had room service send hash browns, egg salad, smoked salmon, whipped lemon crème fraîche and caviar to their room. Mina uses hash browns as a base for a caviar tower creation. Delish, we agreed; the salty salmon was balanced by the fat of the cream.
• Sturgeon croquette with compressed green apple and hackleback caviar. Hackleback, or shovelnose sturgeon, is the smallest species of freshwater sturgeon native to the U.S. Its creamy texture combined nicely with the tart apple.

• Duo of shellfish, with geoduck-kyoho and Dungeness crab-hibiscus. Geoduck, one of the largest saltwater clams in the world is indigenous to Washington State and British Columbia. The juicy kyoho grape, with high sugar content and mild acidity, was again a splendid balance.

• Kona Kampachi sashimi with yuzu gel, ponzu, crispy rice and aged soy salt. Yuzu, the aromatic East Asian citrus, was powerful enough to offset the saltiness of everything else. And the crispy rice added just enough crunch to the other smooth textures.

• Ahi tuna tartare with ancho chile, sesame oil, pine nuts and mint. Simple tuna tartare, one notch up, thanks to the poblano, a mild chile originating in the state of Puebla, Mexico.

• Monterey Bay abalone with Tokyo turnips, shiitake mushrooms, mirin-scented rice and miso broth. Abalone, with a mild flavor most analogous to squid, was infused with the strong smokiness of the shiitake in this one. The sweet mirin and its alcohol cut through that smoke.

• Squid ink Conchigle with Maine lobster, roasted beets and curry essence. This was perhaps the most intensely flavored item on the menu, too salty for members of my eating circle. As a former Martha's Vineyard islander, I found the usually sweet Maine lobster drowned in too much of everything else.

• Jidori hen egg with Perigord truffle, cauliflower and toasted brioche. Jidori (a Japanese term most simply translated to "chicken of...") is a mixed-breed bird originally imported for its robust flavor. The egg retains some of that. The truffles, from the former French province of Perigord, considered the crown jewel of the fungi family, held their headdress high in this dish, adding their subtle aroma and an earthy flavor reminiscent of a rich chocolate here.

• Black angus prime beef ribeye, with maitake, sancho pepper, misome and potato. With his several Bourbon Steakhouses, you expect Mina to shine here, and he does. Maitake ("dancing mushroom" in Japanese) is known to the Japanese as the "king of mushrooms" for its size. Its intense woodsy, smoky flavor blended well into the butter tender meat.

• Garlic-thyme lamb tenderloin, with red onion jam, fennel, butter beans, pimento peppers. He had me at lamb. The butter beans, known to low brows as lima beans, usually bland in taste, softened the blow of spicy pimento and the subtle licorice influence of fennel.

• Dessert was a combo of Tiramisu in white (with mascarpone, coffee sponge, chicory and Benedictine), peppermint bombe (with chocolate sablé, peppermint ice cream and liquid chocolate) and chocolate lozenges (with honey crisp and cocoa crumbles). What comment can do justice to such sweetness? And after eating so well, who had energy to comment?

Michael Mina: 252 California St., near Battery; (415) 397-9222. Website