Mina Test Kitchen- The Company Bar & Kitchen
There are Indian entrepreneur-chefs and restaurateurs hell bent on changing the perception of Indian cuisine and the experience of dining in an Indian-centric establishment. I for one, am thrilled. Am I going to say “I told you so?” You bet. It’s high time that my now 5 year old prediction that Indian food would be America’s next major trend came true. And who better to tackle this burgeoning trend then Michelin-starred Chef and restaurateur Michael Mina and his team?
The latest pop-up series from the Michael Mina Test Kitchen is “The Company,” a collaboration between Mina Group’s James Beard Award winning Sommelier Rajat Parr and Taj Mahal IHG alum, Chef Vikrant Bhasin, the totality a phenomenal value for exceeded expectations. I wasn’t sure what to expect given several underwhelming experiences in other “test kitchen” situations in the bay area. Really, when a restaurant is a pop-up of sorts, we never know what we’re going to get anymore than the proprietors can predict whether they will achieve success.
Widely different from three of my other most favorite Indian-centric restaurants in the San Francisco Bay Area- Campton Place, Saffron and Rasa, The Company’s temporary entrance onto the local food scene speaks to the breadth and depth of Indian cuisine, the likes of which America has still yet to discover even a quarter of the ways.
If Parr and Bhasin had hoped to recreate the experience of olden day India, that is, dining in the old palaces of Rajasthan, they succeeded in doing so, albeit with a modern-casual San Francisco twist. Walls are covered in cream and burgundy textured Indian-esque designs where sconces and overhead lighting cast romantic shadows as if the walls themselves had nooks and crannies. Even the bathrooms featured ornately decorated walls and dim lighting, evocative of Orient Express trains and a bygone era of grace and class. On a Friday night, the cozy interiors were jam packed, with hardly a foot between one table to the next. It makes for a wonderful date night as long as you don’t mind leaning in close to hear your dining partner or speaking up a few notches.
Service was prompt and very friendly- a clear indication of the team’s intent to break through stereotypes about bad service in Indian restaurants in America. Upon first entering the establishment, a distinct scent of ghee, curry leaves and cardamom danced in the air. Parr was working the room, chatting with guests here and there, pouring one bottle of wine after another while keeping a close watch on all the tables. His GM was equally attentive and hands-on, helping wait staff clear tables and serve dishes when overwhelmed. The servers themselves were well versed on the dishes, sharing which were their favorite dishes and why. Clearly, training had gone well- the flawless service impressive especially given a hectic evening.
With Parr’s extensive background in libations, I was excited to see creative cocktails paying homage to India. With names like Silk & Spice (spiced cashew cream, cinnamon and ginger) and Bollywood Hero (herbal rose tea, ginger and orange curacao), I wasn’t sure I’d walk out of there on my own two feet. I opted for the Royal Captain- lightly sweetened with fresh Mango purée, thick like unfiltered raw apple juice, a touch of cardamom and a definitive aftertaste of dried sweet mango with the slight bitterness of cloves, garnished with a thin dehydrated sliver of young mango.
Rasam: one of the best I’ve had in America, the tomato broth light, almost like a consommé. Clean, sharp flavors gave way to a delicious heat lingering at the back of the throat. Tangy and fresh, this Rasam had a pronounced scent of curry leaves and the perfect level of saltiness. A beautiful start to the meal.
Koshimbir: served as a trio of slaws and a side of masala nuts, my favorites in this dish were the pickled beets, thinly julienned, naturally sweet and savory, and the peanuts (a surprise for me given I usually hate nuts) which were marinated in fresh lime juice and spices.
Saffrani Jhinga Pulao: a wonderfully comforting dish that is India’s answer to every Asian nation’s proprietary fried rice, the Pulao featured large succulent prawns perfectly al dente, diced tomatoes, cilantro and cashews. This is a dish I could eat every day and not get bored, perfect especially for cold, rainy days. It was in the Pulao where Chef Vikrant’s fearlessness in seasoning came through boldly, its pronounced saltiness announcing that this was a meal created for those familiar with Indian street food and not for the typical American palate.
Kalmi Murg: Chicken was fork-fall-apart tender with salted crispy skin, cipollini onions and a complex layering of spices; no surprise given its 3 stages of marinating, including the addition of dry roasted herbs and spices into a brine. The soft but crisp texture was in part thanks to an unusual roux made from chickpea flour and butter, not regular flour. This dish will give any Roast Chicken or BBQ a run for its money.
Punjabi Fish Fry: I had dreams about this dish that night; that’s how sensual and memorable this fish was. Having spent time in India, I’ve been fortunate to have tasted many a lovely fish fry, some so good they are worth the trip to India alone. This dish certainly fits into that category, though we’d have to fly to Hawaii for another taste once Chef Vikrant returns to his homeland. Black cod falls apart at the lightest touch of the fork, despite a formidable crunchy crust composed from crushed coriander seeds. With a light squeeze of fresh lemon juice, the boldness of the crust with an ever so slightly (good) bitter aftertaste supported the cod, which melted on the tongue effortlessly. After a few bites, I forgot I was in San Francisco, memories of dinners in Bombay and Amritsar floating around, the precious scents of rich fenugreek and curry leaves deeply comforting. I mentioned to Chef Vikrant that his cooking was a mélange of French technique with traditional Indian street food to which he laughed and said his recipes mostly came from his mother’s side of the family, up in northwestern India, now known as Pakistan. That goes to show, despite my profound love of India and my time spent there, I know little of her countless cultures and foods, let alone techniques of which I mistake for French but could very well be Indian.
Another standout dish was the Dal (pictured first above) served with Roti and Papadum. Bar none, this was the best Dal I have ever had in America. This is a dish I almost always pick at or skip all together in most Indian restaurants, unimpressed by its usually lackluster flavoring, blah texture and equally unappealing color. Bhasin’s Dal blended the yellow lentils with Chunda (Mango chutney) into a thick, smooth grits-like texture with a smattering of black rice on top. Like the Rasam, there is an unabashed heat at the back of the throat that lingers. After tasting Bhasin’s Dal, I finally understood how Indians around the world could eat this every day for breakfast. With his version, I’d show up for breakfast every morning too.
The accompanying Roti was beautifully puffy with the rich scent of ghee wafting in the air even from several feet away.
To cool down a spectacular parade of elevated Indian comfort food, the 5+ hour milk thickened, eggless Strawberry Kulfi with cardamom, pistachio and lime was almost as perfect an ending as the Mango Lassi, the latter absolute perfection in its blend of real mangoes, tart yogurt, fragrant rosewater and just a touch of honey. Not overly thick, not too watery, not too sweet, not too tart and definitely the palpable taste of ripe juicy mangoes. While Mango Lassi is not really Indian (though nowadays you can find it in big establishments in India due to global influence), the touch of rosewater brings me back to India again, at the close of a meal that kept me enraptured from beginning to end.
The evening was an orchestration of familiar flavors- Indian street food gone accessible gourmet. From Indians to knowledgeable foodies to newbies to Indian cuisine (like the table next to me), a wide range of backgrounds culturally, food-wise and age-wise were dining, sharing one thing for sure in common- a display of empty, clean plates at the end of every dish that graced the tables.
Starting at $49 for a 7 course meal up to $69 for an 11 course extravaganza, Mina Test Kitchen’s The Company is very likely San Francisco’s best kept secret for most remarkable return. But you best hurry over as they’re only going to be around for a couple of months, beginning on March 1st, 2016. If you’ve never been to India or simply miss it, here’s a chance to envelope yourself in those vibrant, deep flavors and the real experience of Indian hospitality at its finest.
All photos unless otherwise noted, courtesy of Kevin McCullough.