Now this is a menu.
Sometimes you can sit down at a restaurant and suss out what you should order based on your own preferences and a quick scan of some keywords. (That doesn’t always work, but y’know: sometimes.) Ayesha Curry and Michael Mina’s hotly anticipated International Smoke’s list of dishes is so multipolar, so rooted in all the world’s comfort foods, that I basically stared at it in total paralysis for five full minutes every time I went in. The American South, Southeast Asia, Japan, the Caucasus, Patagonia, and the Mediterranean are all represented, and represented well. The hardest part is building a meal that slaloms around the hazard of eating nothing but meat without also feeling like there are other meat dishes you’re missing out on.
Much of what’s found at 301 Mission St. in the former RN74 is excellent, but in spite of the emphasis on the culinary powers of airborne particulate matter released by combustion, a couple of dishes had a severe paucity of flavor. The Hawaiian teriyaki on the Kalua “Instant Bacon” ($17) was meek, a total eclipse of the hearth, and a lot of that could be fixed by choosing something other than a steamed bun, which smothers it like a wet pillow. It’s especially a shame because this is one of the dishes that’s not so much served as revealed from under a cloche swirling with applewood smoke.
This is an important point, because International Smoke’s biggest weakness is the occasional emphasis on flash over substance. A staffer mentioned that of the drinks, the Gina Jamaica, allegedly has its own Instagram profile because the name is also Curry’s alter ego. That’s cool, but the sharply acidic drink isn’t that special, and the rounded, honeyed Curry Up Now ($13) is better.
But the Instant Bacon is the exception that proves the rule. And about the smoke: It’s pumped under the domes for a full minute through a device not unlike a cannabis vaporizer then whisked out to the floor within two minutes. It makes an appearance at several points — like burrata with squash, brussels sprouts, apples, and pecan — and if you happen to be eating at the bar in close quarters with strangers, everyone gets a whiff. And I don’t always see the point. Nested in its vegetables almost like a poached egg, the smoked burrata ($16) was quiet and under-salted on one visit and spot-on on another. Even with cheese’s absorptive powers, it’s not picking up all that much smoke.
Oddly, other dishes with more readily apparent smoke flavor didn’t involve the dome — like the grilled shellfish. Oysters are oysters much of the time, but these buttery, yuzu-and-panko numbers on hot salt had the best nose of any Oysters Rockefeller I’ve ever tasted. And the smoked rib tip mac ’n’ cheese is like an extraterrestrial ambassador from Planet Holyfuckingshit here to school the earthlings in how it’s really done. Granted, it presents some of the most uncomplicated flavors the human palate can detect, but it’s basically a high-end Frito pie sans Fritos. At only $12, it’s a must. Owing to the jerk spice, the double duck wings ($16) were another example of taking a less-than-highbrow category of food, in this case a pub classic, and making it as good as possible.
Plenty of un-smoked dishes are great, too, in particular the Thai Shrimp Tom Kha ($15 for two). They’re creamy, citrusy, and spicy in equal proportions, with shards of watermelon radish poking out. Whatever you do, start with these little flavor blasters, as they come with cornbread, too. Although I would have preferred it unmixed, the avocado-and-quinoa salad with jicama and black beans ($14) was fresh and well-dressed, like a fancy version of Eatsa — and you need something just like this to balance everything you really want to order.
The mains are where the whimsy and experimentation fall away and the full-portioned seriousness (read: Mina) takes over. The pomegranate lamb chops ($45) consist of four separate pieces of technical excellence: the chops, the salty ground sausage, the grilled vegetable skewers, and the foundational rice pilaf. However unfashionable they might be, why change a thing about them? I wasn’t sold on the inclusion of yogurt and grilled pita with the Punjabi-spiced fish fry ($32), as it felt a little contrived. (Not that the lamb calls out for more stuff on the plate, but they’d work better there.) Paired with a $14 glass of Edmeades Zinfandel, that petrale sole is right at home, thinly breaded and kept aloft with a smack of charred lemon.
The granddaddy is the Argentine ribeye ($45), which was brought out to me then sent back to the kitchen for its formal replating. It feels like it’s meant for everyone around you to marvel at the ostentation. (Inhale that burning hay, ye mighty, and despair!) It’s a thick slab dusted with chimichurri and enough pumpkin to keep any bitterness from curdling things, and in spite of the initial theatrics it’s otherwise almost modest, a simple preparation of medium-rare beef allowed to do what it does, enhanced best by a 2015 Antoine Sanzay Cabernet Franc ($16).
Jeremy McMillan, formerly the executive chef at another Mina restaurant in Arizona, runs this kitchen. Curry’s influences felt a little fainter than I would have imagined — although the worthy key lime pie with Cinnamon Toast Crunch ($9) is unmistakably hers. There’s also a banana bread pudding with beautifully caramelized bananas, although when I think of bread pudding I imagine something thick and gooey and not a slightly tough three-quarter-inch-thick pancake.
International Smoke is not yet open for lunch yet, but a distinctly Mina-esque exactitude is already apparent. (The website has seven distinct menus, although the prices may no longer be accurate.) There’s also a measure of control-freak silliness, as when the P.R. handlers asked at least one food writer not to mention that International Smoke is in the Millennium Tower or that it’s a barbecue restaurant, both of which are true. Please pardon my eye-roll, which just made my office tilt further than the Millennium Tower’s luxury penthouse. While I have to agree that this restaurant will lose a nonzero amount of business because a few neurotics think it will collapse on top of them, it’s not as though top-notch P.R. was going to suppress that information. But this is the absurd world we live in.
Still, International Smoke is, above all else, fun. Forty-five dollar entrees or not, every time I went in, I steeled myself for a level of nouveau-riche tech-bro nonsense that never materialized. (“This place should be so much douchier,” my date said on visit no. 1.) It’s courting people with deep-pockets, but definitely food lovers over expense-account braggarts. Be warned that within 10 minutes of the 5 p.m. opening every seat is basically full, and that it looks like RN74 with a graffitied-over structural column. But for a social media-savvy collab, this one isn’t blowing smoke.
International Smoke, 301 Mission St., 415-543-7474 or michaelmina.net