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Star-Bulletin Features

Wednesday, June 21, 2000

At this restaurant, you will have the fish

For Chef Michael Mina
of Aqua, it's all fish,
all the time

Cook with fish master

By Betty Shimabukuro


Say your restaurant only serves fish, but a customer comes in and insists on a pork chop.

What to do?

"If we have to, we'll go down the street and get a pork chop," says Michael Mina of San Francisco's Aqua restaurant. "But I'm going to make them try first."

Try his fish, that is -- at least a bite of one of the dishes that have drawn national acclaim to the restaurant and its 32-year-old chef.

"Ninety percent of the time you hit it and they love it."

Mina was at the Manele Bay Hotel recently as part of the Lanai Visiting Artist Program, serving two signature dinners and teaching a cooking class on lobster.

Special to the Star-Bulletin
Michael Mina prepares a lobster dish during a
cooking demonstration at the Manele Bay Hotel.

His audiences included several fans of Aqua, and their primary question: Will the young superstar be opening a restaurant in Hawaii? This is, after all, an extremely fish-friendly place.

Mina's answer was a definite maybe.

He's very interested in a collaboration with a resort in Wailea, Maui, or possibly one on the Kona-Kohala side of the Big Island. The question is when, and the only clue he'd give is that he'd like to split his time between restaurants in Hawaii and California once he reaches his semi-retirement years.

But Mina says it won't be a matter of decades. He'll have to slow his pace sooner, he says. "If I'm still doing this at 61, I'll be in a box."

Visiting chefs

Under the Lanai Visiting Artists Program, chefs prepare dinners Saturday and Sunday nights and offer free cooking demonstrations Sunday afternoons. Events are open to the community.

The schedule:

Bullet Craig Shelton: Chef-owner of the Ryland Inn in Whitehouse, N.J., known for French-American fare using produce from his own organic garden. July 8 and 9, Lodge at Koele.

Bullet Johanne Killeen and George Germon: Husband-wife team famed for grilled pizzas and oven-baked pasta dishes served at Al Forno in Providence, R.I. Aug. 19 and 20, Lodge at Koele.

Bullet Norman Van Aken: A founder of "new world" cuisine melding Caribbean and Central American influences at Norman's in Miami.

Call (800)-321-4666 or visit

Mina has been in restaurant kitchens since the age of 15. He took over as executive chef at Aqua when he was just 25, and won the James Beard Foundation's Rising Star Chef of the Year award in 1997.

He also consults for Aqua at the Bellagio in Las Vegas and Pisces in Burlingame, Calif.

With a name like Mina's in the kitchen, a restaurant can insist that its customers eat fish, but when Aqua first opened in 1991, the chef didn't yet have all that starpower.

San Francisco was simply the right place for him, Mina says. It has a sophisticated restaurant market that embraces seafood. "San Francisco is a city where you have the clientele that understands what you're doing. That is the stage I had to develop my style and my personal philosophy."

Aqua seeks to be "high-end, fish-only," Mina says, and sticks with the concept. "I didn't want to give in to what everyone else with a fish restaurant gives into."

Mina is known for a worldly blend of bold flavors and for taking techniques more familiar to meat dishes and applying them to seafood.

Hawaiian Swordfish Au Poivre, for example, served at Manele Bay, is a treatment normally given to steak. The dish included shrimp dumplings wrapped in pancetta and a port wine sauce.

But Mina's favorite pairing is probably fish and foie gras.

"I use the most foie gras in the United States," he says, 100 to 120 pounds every week.

He'll serve it, for example, with potato-wrapped trout. "The fattiness of the pairing works."

Mina says he sticks with fish because of the challenge to continually create vibrant tastes around it. He's not a purist, though.

"I really enjoy cooking fish, but I never do it on Sundays when I'm at home. I always cook meat."

Cook with fish master

By Betty Shimabukuro


Michael Mina's restaurant creations are many-layered productions that could be difficult to recreate at home -- besides, how much foie gras do you have in your refrigerator?

But he does offer these simple instructions for the preparation of fish on the grill:

Use a moist, white-fleshed fish, filleted or whole. Layer lemon and orange slices, garlic, herbs (he likes rosemary, but whatever you like is fine) and a drizzle of olive oil on a piece of foil. Place fish on top. Repeat layers on top of the fish. Seal fish in foil. Then comes the important part: poke several holes in the foil.

Grill the whole foil-wrapped package. Juices will drip through the holes onto the coals, causing a few slight flare-ups, which give the fish a smoky flavor. Open it up and the fish will be moist and intensely flavored, Mina says.

"It's a nice way to cook at home because you don't have a big mess on the grill, but you do have a very sophisticated dish."

At one of his dinners on Lanai, Mina steamed opakapaka in a similar manner, although he did fancy up the dish with a fennel sauce.

If you're up for something with a few more steps, try Mina's salmon, served on a bed of asparagus and topped with potatoes and grapefruit slices.


20 jumbo asparagus stalks peeled
8 Red Bliss potatoes
Salt and pepper to taste
4 5-ounce salmon fillets
2 ounces olive oil
2 ounces balsamic vinegar
3 ounces butter
16 grapefruit segments (2 grapefruits)
Grapefruit Vinaigrette (recipe follows)

Preheat oven to 500 degrees. Blanch asparagus in boiling salted water until tender, approximately 4 minutes. Cool in cold water.

In a saucepan, cover potatoes in cold water with 1 tablespoon of salt. Boil until tender. Remove and cut in half.

Season salmon filets on both sides with salt and pepper. Heat oil in large sauté pan. Add salmon. Cook until golden brown on both sides. Remove fat. Place in preheated oven for 4 minutes.

Warm 2 ounces butter and balsamic vinegar in saucepan until butter starts to melt. Add potatoes. Toss until warm. Warm the asparagus in another saucepan with remaining butter. Season with salt and pepper.

To assemble dish: Place five asparagus stalks in center of plate. Place salmon on top. Place four potato halves and four grapefruit segments around plate. Drizzle 2 ounces of grapefruit vinaigrette over top. Serves 4.

Approximate nutritional information, per serving: *1050 calories, 67 g total fat, 17 g saturated fat, 125 mg cholesterol, greater than 1000 mg sodium*


1 cup grapefruit juice
1/4 cup honey
3 shallots chopped fine
1 teaspoon ground coriander
9 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon chopped Italian parsley
Salt and pepper to taste

Reduce grapefruit juice by half in a non-reactive pan. Pour into a bowl.

Heat honey until honey starts to brown. Add to grapefruit juice.

Saute the shallots slowly in 1 tablespoon of olive oil until translucent. Add to grapefruit mixture. Add remaining ingredients.

Whisk until blended. Adjust seasonings. Makes 1-1/2 cups

Approximate nutritional information, per 2 tablespoon serving: 125 calories, 10 g total fat, 1.5 g saturated fat, no cholesterol, 5 mg sodium without salt to taste.*

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