March of the Michelin men: San Diego attracts chefs with major star power


For years, superstar chef Michael Mina wanted to open a restaurant in San Diego and couldn’t.

Mina felt his global barbecue concept International Smoke — which he operates with his partner, cookbook author and TV lifestyle guru Ayesha Curry — was a natural for the region.

“San Diego was the top of my list for International Smoke,” said Mina, who holds a Michelin star at his eponymously named flagship San Francisco restaurant. “I think the food is a great fit there — you have great products and technique, such a diversity of technique, the style is global.”

But the contract Mina had on his restaurant Stonehill Tavern, at the-then St. Regis Monarch Beach in Dana Point, had a territory restriction that wouldn’t allow him to build here.

“Who signed that?” Mina said with a laugh during a telephone interview this week.

“I love it there (San Diego), it’s quite beautiful. … I really love to open restaurants in places I like to be,” said Mina, whose culinary empire spans from the Bay Area to Miami to Dubai.

San Diego can now be added to the Mina Group’s list of 44 locations. After a series of changes, the St. Regis became the Monarch Beach Resort and Stonehill Tavern was converted into Mina’s Bourbon Steak brand — minus the territory restriction.

In May, Mina and Curry (wife of NBA super shooter Steph Curry) are planning to open International Smoke at the new, upscale development project One Paseo in Carmel Valley.

Though Mina likely has the highest name recognition, he’s just one of four chefs with Michelin-rated résumés planning to open restaurants here in the coming months.

Father and son chefs Antonio and Luca Abbruzzino, whose Ristorante Abbruzzino was the first from Italy’s Calabria region to be awarded a Michelin star, are relocating to San Diego to open Il Dandy, a modern, seafood-focused Italian eatery in Bankers Hill. Their partners in the venture are fellow Calabrians Dario and Pietro Gallo, brothers and owners of Little Italy’s successful Civico 1845. Il Dandy will be located at on the ground floor of the building topped by Mr. A’s.

And Akira Back, a former professional snowboarder turned Michelin-starred chef, is opening Lumi by Akira Back, a high-end Japanese-inspired rooftop restaurant in the Gaslamp Quarter. Back has 13 other restaurants, from Bangkok to Bali, Las Vegas to Toronto, New Delhi and, most notably, Seoul, where the acclaimed Dosa is located. Back’s partner in the project is San Diego’s RMD Group (Rustic Root, Side Bar), which is also opening the swanky steakhouse Huntress in the same Fifth Avenue building.

Both Il Dandy and Lumi are expected to open in the spring.

Earning a Michelin star is considered the pinnacle of a chef’s career, the culinary equivalent to an Oscar or a Nobel prize. But the sometimes inscrutable, often priggish France-based Michelin Guide organization is also viewed by some as a dated hallmark of a fussy fine-dining era gone by.

How, then, will this march of Michelin men — or at least their names — onto the still-developing San Diego dining landscape be received?

Perhaps with a shrug, said Jason McLeod, executive chef for CH Projects, including Born & Raised and Ironside Fish & Oyster, both in Little Italy.

“I just don’t know if it’s taken off, that people get what Michelin is. I don’t know if the general public even knows,” McLeod said.

“It’s more so that Michael Mina’s name would have a bigger impact, than would a Michelin-starred chef from Seoul coming to San Diego.”

He would know about impact. In 2010, McLeod was the chef at Ria, a 50-seat jewel box of a restaurant in Chicago. Less than a year after it opened, Ria was awarded two Michelin stars. There was an initial bump in business, but when the independently owned hotel where Ria was located was sold to a major chain, McLeod and other high-level chefs started looking for work elsewhere and Ria was soon closed.

“We had two stars and it was pretty cool to have that, even if it was short-lived,” he said.

“Look, even in the cities where Michelin is, even in Chicago, it’s not a guarantee. The year we won, the two others that won two stars were from (big-name) chefs Curtis Duffy and Graham Elliot, and all three of our places closed in like a year!”

Still, McLeod said, the influx of celebrated chefs will likely elevate the region as a culinary destination — and also boost the confidence of the talented chefs already working in San Diego.

“Hopefully this will drive the expectation of our depth and our talent,” he said.

“I think it’s pretty cool here, and I think it’s only going to get better. … Hopefully instead of people leaving San Diego, they stay and we can grow the culinary talent. … (The Michelin-starred chefs are) giving us credibility, but we have to believe in it ourselves.”

Chef Back is already sold on San Diego, which he said is underrated in the food world.

“All eyes are on the San Diego culinary scene right now,” Back said. “There’s so much room for innovation and creativity, and I saw a huge opportunity when I was approached by RMD Group to collaborate on Lumi. Being able to … make my mark on what I feel is a major culinary destination made this decision an easy one.”

Mina agreed that San Diego is increasingly amassing a culinary critical mass.

“There’s obviously people right now doing some really good food there, without a doubt. When you have a city that has a really good clientele, inevitably more and more chefs want to be there and it feels like its happening right now.”

Here’s a closer look at Il Dandy and snapshots of the two other Michelin-fueled projects:

Il Dandy: Named for a sartorially sharp man with refined tastes, Il Dandy might seem an incongruous name for an Italian restaurant. And that seems to be the point.

“We don’t want to be considered an Italian restaurant because of what that represents in San Diego,” Dario Gallo said. “My brother and I fell in love with San Diego and came here to share our culture, to bring the real Italy — the Italy of 2019. With Il Dandy, we can express the the modernity of Italian cuisine.”

Promising impeccable Calabrian and local ingredients — including olive oils, citrus, ‘nduja (spreadable salami) Calabrian chiles, produce direct from small farms, seafood straight from fishermen, handmade pastas and long-fermented pizza dough — Gallo said the restaurant will eschew heavy sauces, cream and butter in favor of lighter dishes more compatible with a healthier Mediterranean diet.

Il Dandy will have a vegan menu, though not as extensive as the one at Civico 1845 (Pietro Gallo is vegan). Tableside tastings of cold-pressed olive oils will be offered.

“We’re going to steam instead of pan fry. Risotto will be made to order, not pre-cooked. It’s more about the flavors. San Diego needs to know what every ingredient tastes like. What Italian really tastes like. It’s nothing fancy, ” Dario Gallo said. “But this is going to be the revolution.”

An extensive bar program will highlight natural and biodynamic wines, contemporary Italian craft cocktails and homemade “digestivos,” or amaros, limoncellos and grappas.

The $3 million 6,700-square-foot project will have 150 seats indoors and outside. Gallo described the style as Italian Art Deco, featuring pastels and lighter-colored surfaces.

International Smoke: Mina said he hopes to open the restaurant on May 5, his birthday, and plans to be in the kitchen for one to three months, working with San Diego executive chef Chris Carriker and his staff. Mina and Curry will devise 60 percent of the menu — a international mash-up of barbecued, smoked, live-fire cooked, wood oven baked and wood and charcoal grilled vegetables, fish and meats — while Carriker is incorporating influences from San Diego and Northern Baja.

Lumi: Born in Korea and raised in Aspen, Back’s menu is heavily influenced by Japan (sushi, sashimi, wagyu tataki) as well as a variety of Baja-inspired seafood dishes (sea bass ceviche, lobster tacos, yellowtail with jalapeño salsa). He described Lumi as “a high-energy concept” and the stylish club-like, 5,000-square-foot rooftop space will also offer a wide range of Japanese beers, sakes and spirits.

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