If one of the qualities of a great restaurateur is the gift of reinvention and seizing opportunities, then Michael Mina stands at the top.
Mina, who started as a chef and still leaves his heart in the kitchen, is involved in 34 restaurants from coast to coast, ranging from American to Italian to Japanese to French cuisines. Now he’s entering the barbecue genre with International Smoke, which takes over what was previously RN74. Mina created RN74 to showcase his then-wine director Rajat Parr’s love of Burgundy. They built a restaurant that housed an astonishing collection of great French wines with an equally compatible menu.
Several years ago, Parr went on to start his own winery and to head up other projects. While RN 74 was doing fine, it was ready for a new concept.
Mina met Ayesha Curry, a rising cooking star (who happens to be married to Warriors shooting star Steph Curry). Together they hatched the idea of a barbecue pop-up at his Mina Test Kitchen, where he has tried out various concepts from Middle Eastern to Italian. (Currently the Test Kitchen is temporarily closed.)
The barbecue pop-up went over so well that in November Mina converted RN74 to International Smoke, partnering with Curry. It was an instant sellout. In December, less than a month after opening, I received an email saying the restaurant was accepting reservations for March.
Charcoal-grilled shellfish platter at International Smoke.
A three-plus-month wait for a seat at a barbecue restaurant? Seems unimaginable. But when you look beyond the surface it begins to make sense. With a menu that spans the globe and looks at smoked and grilled food in the broadest terms, the restaurant taps into a diverse clientele.
In fact, Mina and Curry are so confident in the concept’s success they have already signed a lease on a property in Houston and are looking at sites in Florida, Southern California, Washington, D.C., and elsewhere.
I had to turn off my initial skepticism; on the surface the Smoke concept seems to go against the grain of what makes San Francisco dining so special: Instead of a local, specific cuisine, Smoke has a global menu that highlights a dozen styles. It also plays upon the celebrity of a co-owner who is not a seasoned chef. And Smoke has expansion plans while its concept has barely jelled — it waves its ambition from the start.
By the end of the third visit, however, I was a fan.
Mina brought on the design firm Bishop Pass from Los Angeles, which also designed his Japanese-inspired Pabu. The designers strategically remodeled the space, leaving RN74’s metal ceiling beams, meant to replicate the look of a European train station. The biggest change was to enlarge the lounge and to incorporate an area previously used for private events. Fortunately for me, this new space is used for walk-ins. It accommodates more people than the 78-seat dining room.
Chicken karaage at International Smoke.
Bishop Pass used other clever tweaks, such as removing the louvered shutters from the bottom of the windows (where they obscured the view of the street) and installing them on the top of the two-story windows so the outside world is brought inside.
The restaurant is also attracting one of the most eclectic crowds, drawing from Mina’s base — including the residents in the Millennium Tower, where the restaurant provides food for the owners’ lounge — and Curry’s followers, as well as fans of Steph Curry.
The menu reflects that diversity. The offerings go beyond ribs — which are some of the best I’ve had in the Bay Area — to Vietnamese barbecued pork chops ($28) with glass noodles and lemongrass-scented meatballs; Korean miso cod ($39) with kimchi fried rice; and Armenian lamb chops ($38) glazed with pomegranate.
The United Nations of flavors starts once diners order and are given a complementary bowl of barbecued potato chips and a Jamaican hot sauce that reflects Curry’s heritage.
From there the menu moves to Denmark, with a smoked salmon and bulgur wheat appetizer ($17); to Vietnam for Wagyu shaking beef ($19), quickly sauteed table side and presented with lettuce cups; and to Italy for smoked burrata ($16) with squash, Brussels sprouts, apples and pecans. The dish comes to the table covered with a clear glass dome white from the smoke circulating inside, and it perfumes the entire table when the dome is lifted by the knowledgeable waiters.
The Kalua “instant bacon” ($17) is similarly presented; it turned out to be one of my favorites. It includes steamed buns loaded with the smoky meat, pineapple salsa and teriyaki sauce, creating a clever merging of cultures. The same goes for the Thai shrimp tom kha soup ($15). The fragrant broth is accompanied by Curry’s corn bread muffins, some of the best I’ve had with their bold flavor and refined texture not far removed from a coffee cake.
The dome lifts on the Kalua “Instant Bacon” at International Smoke.
This mixing and matching of cuisines could easily go awry, but it’s kept in line by Jeremy McMillan, formerly the executive chef of Mina’s Bourbon Steak in Arizona and now corporate chef for the upcoming International Smoke locations, and Greg Engelhardt, who worked at Mina’s now-closed Sea Blue in Las Vegas.
The food may make a barbecue purist from Texas, South Carolina or Tennessee cringe, but just about every dish is appropriately seasoned and executed. My skepticism remains as to what it might be like next year when the additional places have opened, although I will note that Mina, more than just about any other chef-restaurateur, has a way of keeping quality up even as he opens more spots. But for now I’m all in.
In fact, only one dish truly disappointed: the Vietnamese barbecue pork chop, in which the grilled meat was flattened and mounded with glass noodles in a fish sauce stacked with clams and meatballs that brought me back to a lunch I had in Hanoi a few years ago. The problem: The meat was soggy and had lost most of its texture.
Curry and Mina have devised clever ways to cover a lot of culinary territory. The smoked pork ribs ($21 half rack/$38 whole) come in three flavors: an American barbecue that tastes distinctive from the regional sauces I’ve tasted, a New Mexico rub and a Korean chile paste.
Smoked pork shoulder ($18) is treated similarly. It’s used with American pulled pork sliders; New Mexican tostadas; and Korean scallion crepes.
The presentation of the Argentine rib eye ($45) is striking. It comes in a cast iron pot lined in a nest of hay used for smoking the beef. The waiters, who are well-schooled in the menu and the art of service, then take the steak back to the kitchen where it’s sliced and arranged on a platter with pumpkin puree, Brussels sprouts and chimichurri sauce. The earthy smoke permeates the meat without destroying its flavor.
Sinaloa chicken at International Smoke.
The menu also features nine sides such as a carne asado baked potato ($11) that could stand on its own as a main course. Weighing in at more than a pound, the potato was filled with meat, Oaxacan cheese, crema and cilantro.
For dessert, Curry contributes her key lime pie with cinnamon toast crust ($11) and Mina offers his banana tart ($12), which he must see as his lucky charm because it shows up on several of his menus.
The restaurant’s cocktails are expertly made. They also offer three Pickle Backs ($9), consisting of a shot of spirits paired with pickle juice. I’ll come back for the taqueria-style version with Espolon Blanco Tequila and the sweet, spicy juice found in the popular jalapeños and carrot escabeche. The two elements play well off each other. There’s also Moroccan with Buffalo Trace Bourbon and turmeric and Yemenite curry, and Suntory Toki whisky with a back of lime, soy and yuzu juice.
While prices on the food may seem expensive, the portions are generous and easily shared. In fact, Mina says that figuring out how much to serve has been one of the challenges in the new restaurant. Those who frequent barbecue joints expect ample portions, and those who live in multimillion-dollar high-rises often want something more restrained.
The bar at International Smoke.
The best deal is the tasting menu for $56 a person where many of the best dishes are served, including the tom kha soup, ribs and grilled Waygu. Charcoal-grilled shellfish can be added for $20 and includes oysters, shrimp and Maine lobster tail. Individually it would cost much more just for that portion of the menu.
So even though I entered International Smoke a skeptic, I came out as a convert to its multicultural approach to barbecue, and smoked and grilled foods.
★ ★ ★
Food: ★ ★ ★
Service: ★ ★ ★
Atmosphere: ★ ★ ★
Noise: Four Bells
301 Mission St., San Francisco; (415) 543-7474 or www.internationalsmoke.com. Dinner 5-9:30 p.m. Sunday-Thursday and until 10 p.m. Friday-Saturday. Full bar. 4% SF surcharge. Difficult street parking.