Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Dish on Dining: 54 Mint

Modern Sicilian Comes to Mint Plaza
16 Mint Plaza (at Jessie), San Francisco
PH: 415.543.5100
Open Mon.–Sat.: lunch, 11:30 a.m.–3:30 p.m.; dinner, 5:30–10:30 p.m.
Major credit cards, reservations accepted

I notched off points for the poorly named 54 Mint, but this new Italian restaurant in the tiny Mint Plaza more than made up for it with bold dishes and beautiful décor.

So let’s get to it. The name. When you hear 54 Mint, you think it’s located at 54 Mint Plaza, like how 2223 is located at 2223 Market St. (See how it’s done?) But 54 Mint is at 16 Mint Plaza. And the story is that the name comes from the former address of the building that used to be there before it was torn down to become the redeveloped urban renewal bonanza now known as Mint Plaza.

Way to live in the past, 54 Mint people.

Despite the name, I found my way to the alley plaza that’s home to other foodie attractions like Chez Papa Resto and the Blue Bottle Café. 54 Mint is sandwiched between the two, encased in red brick and featuring an outdoor eating area perfect for sunny days.

I met my friend Ken for dinner and we were seated at a two-top in the main dining area. The restaurant has an interesting contemporary Italian vibe with a small bar at the entrance with legs of prosciutto hanging from the ceiling on one end and a dining area draped in natural light. There’s also a downstairs dining area that has no windows, imparting the feel of a wine cellar.

Where we sat, the dining area was furnished with stylish place settings and the walls were decorated with well-placed Italian pantry items. I told Ken that I felt like I was sitting in Pottery Barn or Williams-Sonoma, partly because I felt like I wanted to buy the dishes and glassware.

Alberto Avalle is one of the owners, and he’s responsible for Il Buco in New York, so there’s definitely a Manhattan-Italian sensibility to the place. (There were unusual art pieces at the host counter.)

The menu has a long list of items all without headings. I guess the idea is to offer you the freedom to eat anything you want at any time during your dinner without any restrictions. But if you really want to conform to a regular dining routine, the menu progresses from starters to appetizers to pastas to main dishes (as do the prices).

Ken and I ordered a few starters to share and they all arrived about the same time. Our server was nice enough to split the caprese salad ($10) that we ordered (so the picture shows just half a portion). 54 Mint’s version of this classic Italian salad of mozzarella cheese and tomatoes is made with fiordi latte mozzarella and beautifully plated with a swirl of balsamic dressing and olive oil and sprinkling of cured tuna roe.

All the ingredients of the salad were fresh and satisfying, but I didn’t think the tuna roe added or detracted from the dish.

We also tried the Carpaccio di Polipo ($12) or octopus carpaccio. Thinly sliced octopus was simply served with some fennel shavings and a “salmoriglio” dressing that was made of olive oil, lemon and herbs. The octopus was tender and easy to eat. I wouldn’t say this was the most flavorful dish, but it was light and reflected the quality of the ingredient.

The real interesting starter was the Arancina al Nero ($14), or fried squid ink rice ball stuffed with spicy shrimp. OK, before you all get a knot in your pants about me eating deep fried things, I will say that I generally avoid it but will try it if it’s a small portion or if it’s considered a signature of the restaurant.

The arancina was highly recommended by our server, and I was splitting it with Ken so I justified trying this plate, and I have no regrets. The lightly fried arancina actually came out like a big chunk of cake with a shrimp on top. But inside were the soft black rice and more shrimp that together packed a lot of complex flavors. This is worth breaking my no-fried-foods rule. (I enjoyed it so much I even took a picture of the inside, and I rarely take alternate shots of what I’m eating but I was so inspired by this squid ink arancina.)

For our main courses, Ken and I both decided to go the pasta route. Ken ordered the Ravioli di Ricotta e Spinaci ($16), which was spinach ravioli with ricotta cheese in a butter and sage sauce. Ken’s a vegetarian so this was right up his alley and he enjoyed the home-made pasta.

I ordered the Gnocchi al Ragu ($14), or potato dumplings with a beef and pork ragout. I have to note that there was a bit of a delay between our starters and our pasta dishes, so when my gnocchi arrived I noticed the top layer seemed a bit dried out like it had been sitting for awhile. But it wasn’t sitting to the point that the dish was ruined. After getting some fresh parmesan grated on top, I mixed my bowl and the bottom gnocchi were still warm so that refreshed my dish.

The ragout was hearty and tasty, but I felt the gnocchi, while light and plump, could have been more fluffy and shaped more round (it felt a bit too rectangle to me). Still, I enjoyed the dish.

We ended our dinner with the Fig Crostata, which reflected the season. The slice of crostata was served with a dollop of cream that had the rich texture and mild sweetness of mascarpone. The crostata itself was nice and flakey, but the figs didn’t pack a whole lot of sweetness or flavor. I wanted a sprinkling of brown sugar on top to help it out, but I guess that would have taken away from the theme of the kitchen’s cooking, which seems to highlight natural flavors.

In just the short time that it’s been open (about a month), 54 Mint has garnered a lot of attention and the crowds started to gather at the bar and entrance by the time we were done with our dinner. I don’t know if it was the food, the décor or the buzz, but I left feeling excited too. I can’t wait to come back.

Single guy rating: 4 stars (Stylish Sicilian)

Explanation of the single guy's rating system:
1 star = perfect for college students
2 stars = perfect for new diners
3 stars = perfect for foodies
4 stars = perfect for expense accounts
5 stars = perfect for any guy's dream dinner

54 Mint on Urbanspoon

Related restaurants you might like:
Flour + Water: “The Personal Touch in Your Pizza”
Bottega: “Working Out the Kinks … NapaStyle”
Adesso: “Everyone Loves Free Food and (Not Free) Salumi”


foodhoe said...

I'm surprised you gave it 4 stars as your descriptions sound as if you were not very impressed with the food. Could those 4 stars be due to the fact that you had fried foods and loved it?

Hungry Dog said...

I agree with foodhoe! ;) Anyway, that arancina looked amazing. I'm with you on the name, how dumb!

Single Guy Ben said...

Well, the fried arancina was the best dish of the night, but I liked everything else too. I guess reading back, I was trying to find things to critic and it really is just nitpicking. Overall the food was top notch and good quality with nice presentation, thus the 4 stars.

Carolyn Jung said...

This gives me hope that the cute little restaurant has gotten better. I went a few months ago, and it was a real disappointment. And I'm usually fairly easy to please. But the food was just average in some parts, and downright bad in others. Here's hoping the improvements they've made stick.

Cate O'Malley said...

The arancina is making my mouth water - sounds like a fantastic meal!

Big Boys Oven said...

ths dessert looks awesomely good! figs wow! my favourite one!

Cookie said...

Thanks for blogging about a new spot in SOMA! We just moved there and have been scopping out the neighborhood. We both LOVE Italian food and that gnocchi looks right up our alley!