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Thursday, April 9, 2009

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With its intimately dark interior, walnut panels, pink-glass candleholders, and an exotic backdrop mural – midi from the Joie de Vivre boutique hotel collection is a new baby in town. Located in the Galleria Park Hotel, the mid-size restaurant opened about three weeks ago on the middle ground between Financial District and Union Square. Designed by Michael Guthrie, the two-level space is sleek yet warm, crisp and inviting, with contemporary feel and leisurely charm. Executive chef Michelle Mah, the 2006 SF Chronicle’s Rising Star, is now a fully risen one. Her California-French (a.k.a. new American) cuisine bares that infinitely subtle yet unmistakable personal touch that cannot be taught in any school, called talent. (Michelle holds a B.A. in Ethnic Studies from UC San Diego, and an AOS from California Culinary Academy). Born in Seoul, Michelle moved to the United States with her family at the age of three, and grew up on her mom’s traditional Korean cooking. She started her path to “chefhood” by cooking for her friends in college – all the way thoroughly encouraged by her parents to “become a doctor or a lawyer” and do something “useful” with her life… Now, Michelle’s mom asks her for recipes… and you would, too. From her soup of the day, which was a crimini-leak on the night we dined, to her pan-seared skate wing, adorned by fried capers, to the bittersweet chocolate pot de crème, the whole meal unfolds as a nuanced symphony of aromas, flavors, and textures. It could be brandy-reconstituted mushrooms, or the brown butter lemon sauce, or a combination of sea salt caramel and whipped crème fraiche, but her spins off of the classic recipes make diners boldly stick their forks in each other’s dishes, and discreetly lick their plates. When you drop everything and go to midi (what I recommend you do, like, right now…) start with fresh oysters. They rotate with the fresh supply, but if you hurry up, you’ll catch those Pearl Point meaty sweeties from Tillamook farm in Oregon. It’s an ecstatic eye roll number one. My dining companion praised pork rillette with pickled radishes (here’s one from Korean kitchen staples) but… I couldn’t make him to share… If you are a die-hard Francophile, like moi, try duck leg confit – good to the bone, served with the medieval verjus (now making a comeback) in its ginger-rhubarb variety. On the side, there is red rice, a relative newcomer from Camarugue wetlands in Aix-en-Provence, mixed with bits of toasted almonds for added nuttiness. It’s a standout delicacy, cooked to perfection. I didn’t care that much for pea tendrils, just because their occasional whiskers can be rather tough, but fava leaves were a great sub for the “evergreen” spinach. Dessert menu, also created by multi-talented Michelle, thoughtfully includes “minis” – tiny portions of daily changing sorbets and pastries for those who try to keep it reasonable. A delectable marjolaine and a cup of foamy espresso add a sweet finale. The experience would not be complete without the tastefully selected and nicely priced wine list, compiled by Catherine Green, the hotel food and beverage director, and Aaron Paul, the restaurant manager. The service is friendly, personable and attentive. Street parking is relatively easy. In a word, if the truth is not always in the middle, in the case of midi, it is. At Galleria Park Hotel, 185 Sutter St., San Francisco. Call for reservations 415-835-6400 or visit Photography by Yuri Krasov. 1. A dining room view. 2. Chef Michelle Mah. 3. Pearl Point oysters. 4. Skate wing. 5. Pot de crème.


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