There may have been no more eagerly anticipated restaurant opening this year than that of RN74, familiarly known as "Michael Mina's new wine bar." Fans of his complicated and very pricey cooking at his eponymous restaurant in the Westin St. Francis were excited not only by the idea of the wine program put together by award-winning wine director Rajat Parr, but also by the small-plates menu: bargain Mina! Even in a restaurant that cost $4.5 million to open. Within a couple of weeks, however, the small-plates concept was replaced by a conventional menu; accounts vary as to why this happened.
The revised menu is divided into two courses, nine dishes labeled "First" and seven labeled "Second," all priced in double digits, with a ghost of the small plates remaining in a red-bordered box at the bottom of the menu as five dishes titled "Anytime," for $9 each.
When we walked in for our first dinner, we were somewhat flattened by the wall of noise. We requested a table in the dining room farthest from the large U-shaped bar space, separated from the rest of the room only by a collection of vintage railroad lamps strung on wires. The lamps, the arched ceiling, exposed struts, and signboards that mimic train departure boards while listing wines give the place the feeling of a train station.
RN74 is named after Route Nationale 74, the highway that passes through France's Burgundy region, which is reflected more in the impressive Burgundy collection in the massive and intimidating wine list (more of a book, really, that draws from many countries besides France) than in the modern American menu from executive chef Jason Berthold. He's a French Laundry vet who also produces his own wines.
After we'd decided what to eat, our server asked whether we wanted to consult with the sommelier, and we said sure — that was the point, wasn't it, of having such an intriguing list?
My friend told the sommelier that we were all having fish or fowl, so we wouldn't, for instance, want the Foillard Morgon, a red wine we liked that was on the list at $58. "Why not?" he said, brusquely, and stopped right there. Trying to help, I asked my friend whether it was a light red wine we could drink with what we were eating and he said no, it was too big. The sommelier was still silent, so my friend asked him for his preference among three French Sauvignon Blancs on the list, at which point he unbent enough to suggest a Slovenian Sauvignon called Movia, at $52. We eagerly accepted. After he left and we laughed about his rudeness, our charming server came over and told us more about the wine than the sommelier had felt like sharing.
The food was quite uneven. The best and most full-flavored things were from the "anytime" box: beautifully fried maitake mushroom tempura served with yuzu salt and a fluffy green onion mousseline sauce, and lusty smoked sturgeon rillettes topped with crème fraîche. I was less impressed with the prettily presented hamachi sashimi ($16), plated with crunchy hearts of palm, green apple, and pumpkin seed; and the warm Yukon gold potato soup ($12) garnished with fava beans and ramps — they both seemed a trifle bland. The best starter was the heartier sautéed pork belly with Manila clams ($15), amped up with garlic, smoked paprika, and parsley.
But most of the main courses left me cold. There was a pale plate of grilled cobia ($27) matched with turnips, Marcona almonds, broccolini, and Niçoise olives that didn't come together as a whole. The Italian yellow cornmeal and mascarpone agnolotti ($16, a first course ordered as a main) seemed a trifle stolid, perched among bits of artichokes and piquillo peppers. The most egregious failure was the organic chicken with fennel and apricots ($26), a large boneless breast cut in half that was visibly overcooked and should never have left the kitchen; it was dry and hard, as was the tiny square of brioche accompanying it misidentified as a "pudding."
The only main dish I enjoyed was the duck "cassoulet" ($27), with barley and shiitake mushrooms standing in for the beans, as well as spinach and carrots. I also liked our dessert, a smooth pot de crème ($9), unusually flavored with white sesame.
At a second dinner, I arrived early and perched at the bar, where I saw fried foods being served that aroused both my hunger and my interest. A server told me that they were from the bar menu, and that we could also order them in the dining room. When we were seated and I asked our server for the bar menu, he cautioned me that we couldn't order only from that, and I assured him we wouldn't.
I had already tried almost half the dishes on the dining room menu, and the bar menu offered 10 more. We started with its very enjoyable little pecan-crusted halibut fingers ($15) with brown butter rémoulade, and three glasses chosen from RN74's list of 50 wines available by the glass or taste: an Austrian and a German Riesling and a French Pinot Noir.
When we told our server that my friend would have the soft-shell crab followed by the sea scallops, and I would have the RN74 "slice" with Epoisses cheese and potatoes and then the carbonara, he became visibly upset: "No, I can't have a guest ordering entirely from the bar menu." My friend quickly suggested switching his dinner menu crab with my bar menu pizza, thereby obeying the letter of the law. But that seemed a trifle silly, so I asked for the foie gras, too.
We had a much better meal than the first one, though the waiter's anxiety seemed overblown — don't people come in and order, say, a single main course each, as opposed to our assemblage of five (and then six) savory dishes?
My favorite dish over the two meals was the delicious sea urchin carbonara ($14), a tiny-but-rich portion, with English peas and bacon. When my slice ($12) was slow in appearing, we were gifted with a plate of Serrano ham ($15). The smallish block of foie gras was a $22 disappointment. Four fat sautéed Maine sea scallops on a bed of Rancho Gordo beans with grilled Swiss chard, Meyer lemon, and capers seemed a better bargain at $29.
The bizarre deconstructed strawberry shortcake with berries marinated and roasted until they looked and tasted like defrosted frozen ones, served with rock-hard chunks of pound cake, left us with a bad impression, but not as bad as the one left by the sullen sommelier and the unsettled server. The wine list is amazing, but the rest of RN74 needs work.