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Heat Seeker

Michael Mina's Arcadia is trying to ignite the Silicon Valley dining scene, but it still needs a spark

By Stett Holbrook

THE QUALITY and quantity of San Francisco restaurants cast a long shadow over Silicon Valley's dining scene. While there are many top-notch restaurants here, San Francisco still gets all the glory. So when Michael Mina, the celebrated chef behind San Francisco's Aqua restaurant, opened Arcadia in San Jose two years ago as part of his growing culinary empire, he promised to bring some big city excitement to South Bay dining.

Mina, like Charlie Palmer, Alain Ducasse, Bradley Ogden and other brand-name chefs, has cashed in on his culinary reputation by opening several restaurants. In addition to Arcadia, Mina launched an eponymously named place in San Francisco's St. Francis Hotel and three restaurants in Las Vegas—Seablue, Nob Hill and Michael Mina at the Bellagio. Opening Arcadia during the low ebb of Silicon Valley's economy was either bold or foolish depending on your perspective, but it generated considerable buzz in downtown San Jose's restaurant scene.

But that was 19 months ago. After a high-profile debut, the sparkle has faded from Arcadia as it has settled into life at the corner of San Carlos and Market. Andrew Budnyj, the restaurant's original chef, left and was replaced seven months ago by Thomas Ricci, a veteran of Mina kitchens. Ricci's food is often quite good, but the quality of other dishes doesn't match their high prices. What's really missing are the people.

Arcadia feels too much like a hotel restaurant and doesn't connect with the city outside. Conventioneers with laminated credentials dangling from their necks soak up expense account drinks in the bar, and business travelers have dinner in the mausoleum quiet of the dining room. Where are all the regular folks?

The restaurant's menu hasn't changed much since it opened. The food offers gilded, upscale riffs on classics of American comfort food like lobster pot pie, Kobe beef chicken-fried steak, and liver and onions featuring seared foie gras and tiny cipollini onions. Mina popularized many of these dishes at Aqua, but years later the names are a little too cute.

One dish that has held up well is the ahi "steak" tartare appetizer ($16). The shimmering chopped tuna is molded into a stout disk and topped with a quail egg and scattered with pine nut and minced Scotch bonnet peppers. The beautifully composed plate was elegantly disassembled by our server who tossed it all together between a pair of spoons. I felt a bit like a child in a highchair waiting for my mom to cut up my dinner into bite-size pieces as I waited for him to finish, but the tableside service adds a sense of ceremony to this excellent dish. Another recommended starter is the seasonal shellfish platter ($22 for a small plate), a heaping plate of briny, very fresh seafood including oysters, little neck clams, Dungeness crab and cocktail-saucy ceviche.

The Dungeness crab cakes ($12), however, tasted more like the bread crumbs that bound them together than crab. Arcadia's "market salad" ($11) allows you to make your own salad by checking ingredients off a list. But I can spend less at Fresh Choice and make the salad I want without the middleman.

Showstopper

One of Mina's signature entrees is lobster pot pie (market price; I paid $46) and it's a showstopper. The dish arrives in a copper pot tented high with puff pastry. With surgical precision, our server sawed off the pastry lid and reassembled the Maine lobster on a plate, spooning roasted baby vegetables and a luxurious truffle cream sauce alongside it. If you order one dish, this is the one.

Also great is the tuna "pot roast" ($26). An angular hunk of tuna is seared rare and not roasted at all, but with the roasted baby vegetables and satiny pinot noir sauce "gravy" it approximates a slow-cooked, one-pot meal.

Luau-style Chilean sea bass ($28) is festively named because it's wrapped in banana leaves and steamed over citrus. In addition to being one of the most overfished fishes in the sea and a no-no among more enlightened kitchens, the sea bass was impeccably fresh and clean tasting but bland. The big flavors of the black truffle and butternut squash risotto served alongside far outshone the fish.

Kobe beef, a Japanese brand of beef renowned for its high fat content and tenderness, shows up in two places on Arcadia's menu. From the lunch menu, the $16 Kobe beef burger promised to elevate the duplex-dwelling burger to a tony house in the hills. But at that price there better be a lot of burger between those buns. The bread was superb, a toasted poppy seed-topped Kaiser roll, not too fluffy to compete with the patty within. The lower half absorbed the juices and compacted as I ate, molding itself to the burger. I love that. But the patty itself was cooked past my requested medium rare. In my book, a burger cooked beyond medium rare is hobbled right out of the gate. But overcook a burger made with Kobe beef, meat literally born and raised to showcase its tender, fatty succulence, and it ought to be a hanging offense.

From the dinner menu, Kobe beef chicken-fried steak ($28) fell short in another way. While the meat was tender and pink, the coating of truffled potato purée got in the way and masked the delicacy of the steak.

Desserts (all $8) were a mixed bag. S'Mores scored on the strength of the dense and rich chocolate pot de crème and marshmallow cream, but the caramel apple beignets were unremarkable apple fritters and the warm chocolate cupcakes tasted like, well, warm chocolate cupcakes. But the accompanying malted milk shake was good.

Perhaps the restaurant packs them in on weekends, but over the course of three weekday visits (two dinners and one lunch), Arcadia felt like a museum, quiet, impeccably clean, pretty to look at, but sterile. Dining out is as much about the food as it is the vibe and Arcadia lacks the buzz and bustle that comes from a crowded house. As a result, it makes the steep prices and occasional stumble in the kitchen harder to take.


Arcadia
Address: 100 W. San Carlos, San Jose.
Phone: 408.278.4555.
Hours: Lunch 1:30am-2pm Mon-Fri, dinner 5:30pm-10pm Sun-Thu and 5:30pm-11pm Fri-Sat.
Price range: $19-$46.


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From the May 25-31, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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