Let’s get one thing straight right off the bat:
Michael Mina isn’t just a chef. He’s a culinary mastermind, a trend-setter and a visionary when it comes to food, and if you haven’t had the luxury of eating at one of his many fabulous restaurants (18 to be exact, with 5 in Vegas alone), you’re missing out. He’s been awarded almost every culinary trophy you can think of (James Beard winner times two, Bon Appetite chef of the year, Michelin stars, Wine Spectator awards, getting the drift here?) and is responsible for the single most delicious thing I ate in 2010… The lobster pot pie.
The year was 2010. Wait– you know that already. The place was Michael Mina restaurant in the Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas. We were having the tasting menu, four courses of “tastes” that were more like full-on meals. Caviar with smoked salmon and creme fraiche on golden brown potato cakes, kobe rib eye steak with butter-poached porcini mushrooms, an array of insanely delectable desserts like glazed chocolate brownies and white chocolate brown sugar wafers… and a lobster pot pie. Gorgeous, flakey buttery crust, roasted winter vegetables, and huge chunks of tender lobster basking in a brandy and lobster cream sauce, all individually portioned into perfect little pies. Rich, gluttonous, dreamy, and totally, completely perfect. It was a religious experience. I may have been raptured.
So when I caught word that Michael Mina was opening up a restaurant here in Los Angeles, I was pumped. Lobster pot pie? Twenty minutes from my house? Whenever I want it? Jiminy Cricket was right, guys! Dreams DO come true!
Except here’s the thing: XIV (pronounced “14”, apparently. When in Rome..) does the pot pie a little differently. As in, it isn’t served in individual little pies so every person can have the pleasure of cracking the crust and eating down to the bottom. It’s served family-style, one big ol’ pie that the server kindly hacks up in front of you and portions out to everybody, ruining the crust, cooling the creamy interior of the pie so that the last bite’s cold, and basically ruining the entire experience. I mean, it’s still delicious, and the recipe’s the same, but I want my own pie, damnit!
Anyway. It was the best manager in Hollywood (meaning my manager)’s birthday, and so we went to XIV to give it another try. And since it was a celebratory evening, we decided to give ‘er with the tasting menu. The restaurant itself is gorgeous, designed by Philippe Starck in deep rich tones, soft yellow lighting, comfy chairs and extravagant sofas to relax in, fireplaces, candelabras, kind of like what Professor Xavier’s study might look like at the X-Mansion. We couldn’t help but notice, however, that it was rather empty. As in, dead as a doornail. Servers leaned against the empty bar checking their phones, kitchen staff with glazed eyes and idle hands stared off into the distance… If it wasn’t for those expensive antique rugs covering the floors, I’m pretty sure you would have been able to hear an echo in there. It was obvious: XIV was in a slump.
But have you ever noticed that the quieter a restaurant is, the worse the service is? After several minutes, we were finally greeted by our lackluster server with a menu to peruse.. and then five minutes after that, our server returned to half-heartedly take our drink orders. The shining glimmer of hope that this was still a restaurant by the Michael Mina we’d grown to love was the little plates of complimentary naan bread that arrived to quell our appetite. Salty, buttery, chewy and delightful, served with a delicious honey-yogurt dipping sauce. Things were lookin’ up! Except when I took a glance at the menu, which had changed drastically. Gone were the gourmet comfort food offerings I was so looking forward to, replaced by a scant list of a few “share plates” and a couple of ho-hum entrees. None of which was the lobster pot pie. It was gone. I was starting to see why the place was empty.
The rest of it all went down like this:
First course: (individual portion) a tuna “truffle”, minced tuna rolled in crispy crumbs and served with a salty yuzu and soy sauce on the side and (for the table) a “stuffed” avocado with crab, which was more like a halved avocado, turned upside down, and placed inelegantly on a hunk of crab salad.
Second course (20 minutes later): (individual portion) a very basic beet and chevre salad and (for the table) a slightly soggy fried green tomato with burrata cheese and an overpowering and bitter mustard vinaigrette. Where on earth was Michael Mina in this food?
Third course (another 20 minutes later): (individual portion) a thin slice of duck prosciutto draped over sweet and sour kumquats, and (for the table) a wild mushroom “tart”. In quotes because it was more like a pile of sauteed mushrooms over a puny little piece of pastry. Really?
Fourth course (yet another 20 minutes later. Did I mention this restaurant was basically empty? What were they doing back there, growing kumquats?): (individual portion) pigs tail ground into gamey little nuggets, then breaded and deep fried, and (for the table) a glorious bowl of truffle mac and cheese, dusted with breadcrumbs and baked until crispy. Yay, mac and cheese!
Fifth course (you guessed it): (individual) grass fed skirt steak served medium rare with a side of pickled moroccan vegetables, and (for the table) a lamb tagine with couscous, dates, and green olives. This was the best course so far, and the most satisfying, but it still wasn’t a wow. And for $95 a head, didn’t we deserve to be wow’d at this point?
Sixth course: a dessert trio– black forest cake with cherry sauce, donuts and vanilla shortbread with earl grey anglaise and citrus cream, and a passionfruit panna cotta with white chocolate mousse. The donuts won that round by a landslide, but at this juncture, after three and a half bleedin’ hours, I think we were just relieved to see the end of it all.
Now, I’ve gone off about tasting menus in the past, how gluttonous and unnecessary they can be, but I will say that the portion sizes on this one were just right. But it was forgettable, a little disappointing, and slightly sad. And not worth the hefty bill for our party of five ($700 with an automatic 20% gratuity added for our waiter, Mr. Personality). I think what it boils down to is, no one wants to be eating on a sinking ship, and unfortunately, XIV’s on its way to Davy Jones’ Locker.
However… Don’t hold this against Michael Mina. I have a feeling he hasn’t been behind XIV in a long, long while. This just wasn’t his food, plain and simple.
So in other words, lobster pot pie: I still love you.