Michael Mina’s Stonehill Tavern, Monarch Beach Resort in Dana Point, has been “re-concepted.” That’s restaurant-speak for redefining a restaurant, giving it a new name and for the most part, a new menu. It’s now the superstar chef’s Bourbon Steak, a steakhouse with Mina-style flourishes.
The room has changed, it’s lighter and brighter; the serving staff is attired in soft beige and the walls are a similar shade. It feels open and breezy; the partitions that cordoned off booths are gone. The ocean view is the same, but somehow the Pacific looks closer, neutral colors make the sky and sea seem bluer.
Most of the menu has changed, although some of Chef Mina’s signature dishes are still listed (Ahi Tartare, Lobster Pot Pie, Whole Jidori Chicken).
Initially I was sad to see that Stonehill’s signature opener, the ricotta appetizer with honey and rosemary salt, wasn’t on the table. Mina offered it as a gift from the kitchen, a more generous offering then the customary amuse bouche. I asked the server and he said not to fret, something was coming out that replaced it in the new concept, something everyone is crazy about.
He wasn’t exaggerating. A trio of French fries arrived piping hot, soon out of their sizzle in duck fat. Three sauces accompanied the spuds: green goddess, truffle-spiked aioli and “pickled” ketchup. Yes, I was impressed. One of my favorite pairings is great fries and an ice-cold martini.
I asked Mina about those fries and queried him about his challenges and successes. He has 38 restaurants, from Dubai to California, and I wanted to find out what makes them tick.
Q. So why offer guest fries to start?
A. It started with StripSteak in Vegas. Everyone had known me as very high end and formal with Aqua. We needed to break that right away. Guests need to know when they sit down, the food is going to be great, but more whimsical. They are eating with their hands, so it is a different experience. And I tell you, people loved it, so we ended up putting it in all the steakhouses.
Q. Tell me about your schedule. How do you keep up with 38 restaurants?
A. My schedule is interesting. I try to keep it balanced. I travel about half the time and half the time I am at home (in San Francisco). I used to get up and drive my kids to school, but now they are grown up, my youngest son is 16, almost 17. I go to work – working in the kitchen in the evenings and take Sunday off. When I open a restaurant, I spend a good amount of time there, from three weeks to three months. I run the kitchen until I feel comfortable. That way I get a handle on what is going on in the restaurant.
Q. What is the biggest challenge when changing an existing restaurant to a new concept?
A. Always the challenge of getting the right balance to the restaurant – that means getting the right culture in the restaurant, from staffing point of view. I always focus on that. With Orange County we’ve been there so long, it’s different. We know what the clientele is looking for. You have to listen to your customers and make sure to balance what you want to do with what your customers want.
Q. Is there anything unique about Orange County clientele?
A. Our clientele is great in Orange County; they are really into food and wine. That is a combination of Orange County as well as our (restaurant’s) location.
Q. How much has it changed food-wise from Stonehill Tavern to Bourbon Steak?
A. Obviously, it’s a steak driven concept – the meat offerings are vastly expanded. The style of cuisine is still product focused and technique focused – all but a few dishes have changed because it’s a new concept. The products that we use have the same source, the farmers are the same – still the high level that we had at Stonehill. The biggest change is the service. Bourbon Steak is really expanding on tableside service – I really like that because it’s more engaging. I believe in tableside that makes the product better. Like when you carve a Lobster Potpie at the table, that’s a different experience that carving it in the kitchen. (The filling) where it is going to sit on the crust and it’s going to get soggy. Think of all the aroma you get tableside. And items like carving chicken at the table. Then there’s the side of tablespoon service is a nice why to engage with your guests, touches of service that elevate the experience. People sometimes take steak houses a little too casual. Going to a great steakhouse can create a very memorable experience if the service is interactive.
Q. It seemed to me that many of your serving staff has remained.
A. Yes that’s true. One of my favorite things about re-concepting a restaurant is that I already have a great base that pushes the envelope farther from the very beginning … They have the ability to do things that you couldn’t do with a completely new staff.
Q. What is it about steakhouses that guests fine so endearing?
A. I think it’s a level of chicness that is balanced with comfort and accessibility. People feel comfortable ordering off steakhouse menus, no matter how modern. Nostalgia creates a little bit of elegance. ‘Love where it has headed over the last 10 years. When you go around the world a lot of what the United States is known for is their steakhouses, that is steakhouses that let chefs get involved and are focused on seasonal product and technique.
Q. What is your favorite dish on the new menu?
A. The Cast-Iron Broiled Seafood. It arrives sizzling and it topped at the table with lemongrass herbal tea that is brewed like tea so it brings aromatics to the table. I worked on it a long time. I’m a huge fan of ice-cold seafood, but frankly you can get that everywhere. So I love warm shellfish done like this. Big groups often order both hot and cold platters of shellfish.
Q. What ingredient trends or flavor profiles do you see as cutting edge?
A. Right now, Middle Eastern and Mediterranean diets are moving fast now through the United States. People are reluctant in some cases to eat sauces that contain unknown-to-them ingredients. Way more people are looking for flavor from spices; dried spices have become more and more appealing to people. It could be zaatar or simpler paprika and cumin. A twist of lemon juice, a little olive oil and good spices continues to be popular. The whole Middle Eastern flavor profile coupled with California produce is something magical. And there’s something great about how you feel after you eat it.
Q. What do you look for when hiring a new chef?
A. First and foremost, can they cook? When hiring a chef make sure that they really have come up the right way. They need to look at it as a craft; they should have started at the bottom and worked their way through a lot of techniques. And they have to be able to teach people. So, how good of a teacher they are is vitally important. Everybody talks about this younger generation in a negative way, but I have to say that they are looking for information and want to learn. You have to be able to teach them. And a chef needs to be engaging, that will walk into the dining room and talk to guests. They need to never roll their eyes if a guest asks for ketchup with their steak – just put it on the side. It’s all about hospitality.
Q. You are a super hero in the chef world. What is your biggest strength? Do you have any weaknesses?
A. Weaknesses, yes, I think I can doing anything – be a plumber, an electrician. My biggest strength is that I know how important it is to build infrastructures of talent that can communicate with one another.
Q. If you were sitting down for dinner at Bourbon Steak, what cocktail would you order?
A. Simple, I enjoy spirits and I’d take a great martini, up. I enjoy older classic drinks.
Bourbon Steak, Monarch Beach Resort, 1 Monarch Beach Resort N, Dana Point
Cathy Thomas is an award-winning food writer and has authored three cookbooks: “50 Best Plants on the Planet,” “Melissa’s Great Book of Produce,” and “Melissa’s Everyday Cooking with Organic Produce.”