Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Dish on Dining: RN74

All Aboard on a Glamorous Wine Bar
301 Mission St. (at Beale), San Francisco
PH: 415.543.7474
Dinner nightly, lunch on weekdays
Major credit cards, reservations accepted

Cities like San Francisco, New York and Las Vegas love a new restaurant opening by a celebrity chef. There are instant buzz and typically millions of dollars in design and furnishings to gawk at.

The latest high-profile entry in San Francisco comes courtesy of Chef Michael Mina, who owns 11 restaurants in five states. He’s known for his high-end tasting menu at his namesake in the Westin St. Francis, but his latest adventure takes on an intimate touch with a wine bar and casual restaurant called RN74.

Occupying the ground level of the new Millennium Tower condominium facing Mission Street, RN74 is named after the highway that runs through Burgundy’s Cote d’Or in France. Open less than two months, reservations are already filling up and the bar is regularly packed by after-work financial types (probably their way of giving the finger to the current economy).

I emailed my dining partner-in-crime, Foodhoe, to see if she were interested in checking out RN74 together. And in between our email exchanges, Mina increased the pricing of his dishes — giving some odd excuse about San Francisco diners not understanding the portions of his tasting servings. So the early word of a Mina restaurant with non-Mina prices went out the door very quickly.

Nevertheless, Foodhoe and I were still gamed to see for ourselves the latest from the Mina empire. The night we went last week turned out to be a perfect storm of food critics because sitting next to us was the Tablehopper (I didn’t realize it was her until after we left and Foodhoe pointed her out to me) and supposedly Michael Bauer was in the house prepping for a future review in the San Francisco Chronicle.

While the interior lacks the intimacy of a wine bar, there’s no getting away from the fact that Mina and partner Raj Parr have built a shrine to wine. Along the walls of the restaurant, designed like the boarding signs at an old French train station, names of wines for sale are listed like destinations. When the wine is sold, the list changes with a clap-clap-clap like the departures and arrivals of trains.

The menu itself contains pages and pages of wine and only one page for food. Our server explained that Executive Chef Jason Berthold wanted to keep the food simple and the menu flexible to change with what’s available.

Foodhoe and I each ordered a glass of wine, and we both went for the same red — the 2007 house named RN74 Pinor Noir “Hirsch” from the Sonoma Coast (at $15 a glass). The wine was smooth but not overly tannic, and blends well with a variety of dishes. Which was good because that’s what we had planned for dinner.

We started with a few appetizers, including a dish off the bar menu that Foodhoe had read about on the restaurant’s Web site. It was the Sea Urchin Carbonara ($14) with grilled bacon and English peas. The bar menu is not served in the main dining room, but our server relented in letting us order the dish after Foodhoe made a plea.

The pasta was perfectly cooked and lightly sauced to create that stick-to-your-ribs feel but not weigh you down. I enjoyed the bacon and sea urchin, or uni in Japanese, but I felt like the urchin flavor wasn’t as prominent as could be. I’ve had urchin pasta at other restaurants (namely Two at Hawthorne Lane) that were flavorful and comforting in texture, with a bit of the brininess of the sea. It wasn't the case at RN74, although the pasta was good.

We also ordered the Sauteed Pork Belly and Manilla Clams ($15), which was a decadent-looking dish with tender pork belly cooked with smoked paprika and spring garlic. Foodhoe and I used all of our bread soaking up the clam juices that were a rich reddish hue from the paprika.

I was tempted by the agnolotti ($16), which was made with Italian yellow cornmeal and mascarpone, so I gave in and ordered a second pasta dish. It was my favorite of the night, served with seasonal globe artichoke slices, arugula and piquillo peppers. The agnolotti itself was so pillowy and soft, with the perfect balance of cornmeal and cheese.

While the appetizers suited the wine bar concept, RN74’s entrees definitely resembles fine-dining establishments. Foodhoe ordered the Herb-roasted Lamb Loin ($31) while I spotted duck on the menu and quickly ordered the Liberty Farm Duck “Cassoulet” ($27).

The lamb loin served up in medallions included several plump pieces of morel mushrooms, fava beans and Tokyo baby turnips. The lamb was perfectly cooked, still pink and tender to the bite. Despite the generous helping of morels (a pricey wild mushroom), I thought Foodhoe’s portion seemed small for the price, but she said she was quite full.

My duck “cassoulet” was not made with traditional beans but RN74 uses barley. The cassoulet included sweet carrots, shiitake mushrooms, spinach and green garlic all cooked to an enjoyable tenderness. I really enjoyed all the melding of flavor that comes from cooking a cassoulet for the proper amount of time. The duck leg on top was an incredible contrast of crunchy and tender, with the meat cooked to fall off the bone but the skin fried to a crisp. I marveled at how the skin could retain its crispiness while the inside was moist and succulent.

We capped off our dinner by sharing the White Sesame Pot de Crème ($9), which was served with a pastry crisp on top. The crème was a nice creamy custard, but the flavor wasn’t necessarily enlightening. You could taste the sesame but it was subtle, and I felt that it didn't marry well with the boldness of the stewed cherries served on top. Overall, it was good but not spectacular.

Side note: The French feel is carried over in the bathrooms, which have the sound of people holding conversations in French piped in. As for the service, everyone was professional and friendly, but maybe too eagerly friendly. Our server came back to check on us several times for our order even though we’d only been sitting for maybe five minutes, and others came by to check on us also—either eager bus boys waiting to whisk away our plates or the manager checking on how we we’re enjoying the food. I’m writing this off as part of the “newness” of the place; I’m sure this will ease as they all start to get busy and find other things to do.

I like the fact that RN74 is a place where you can dine in casual attire but experience food with some flair. But it may be too grand for its own good as the wine bar concept seems to be dwarfed by Mina’s reputation and the above-average prices for the food and wine. Still, the food is worth enjoying. Maybe dining at the bar will provide some of the casual intimacy that was part of Mina’s original vision?

Single guy rating: 4 stars (French restaurant disguised as wine bar)

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

Read Foodhoe's take on our dinner on her blog here.

RN74 on Urbanspoon

Recent reviews:
Otoro: "Latest Hip Addition to Hayes Valley"
Bund Shanghai: "Hearty Northern Chinese Cuisine Done Right"
Eureka Restaurant: "A Night of Revelations at this Castro Spot"


Carolyn Jung said...

I loved the agnolotti, too. My friend Julie (my former editor at the Merc) was my dining companion the night I was there. Both she and I loved how the agnolotti was stuffed with creamy, spoonable polenta. We thought it was a genius creation. And we both enjoyed the RN74 Pinot Noir, too. Rich berry flavors and so smooth going down.

Cookie said...

I saw this on Foodhoe's blog and was wondering when you were posting yours. I love how all your pics look so different but yet they're the same dishes! One of these days I'll have to find a food blogger friend to dine with too!

foodhoe said...

Single Guy, In retrospect, I shouldn't have ordered that lamb entree and should have gone with the mushroom tempura and another dessert... I'm still thinking about those first courses! Thanks for the suggestion to check this place out.

Single Guy Ben said...

Carolyn, I think everyone's voting for the agnolotti for president! ;-)

Cookie, I think Foodhoe's photos are always super closeup because she really loves to show off the food. I'm always jealous of her shots, I think it's her camera.

Foodhoe, the starters are definitely more fun to eat. I did love my duck though. I think the menu is misleading because it says "secondi" and stuff like they expect you to order a second course. But when the focus should be the wine, then a bunch of small plates sound like the best way to go!