Fish Four Ways

Merrill Shindler - March 2010

Michael Mina, emperor of fish cookery, has designed his new Las Vegas fish house around cooking techniques.

Every night, crowds gather in front of the Treasure Island Hotel & Casino on the Las Vegas Strip to watch scantily clad pirate ladies sail into mock battle on a pair of ships floating in a lagoon. A short distance to the south, a volcano erupts with clockwork regu­larity in front of The Mirage. Continuing along the Strip, great bursts of multicolored spray fly hundreds of feet into the air in front of the Bellagio. It's all a great show—so very…Vegas. And for diners at Michael Mina's American Fish in Aria Resort & Casino in the grand and gala City Center complex, there's a show as well, wreathed with fire, smoke, Sturm und Drang. It's the show behind the glass-fronted kitchen—which the ubiquitous Mina has configured…backwards—so that the gawkers won't miss a thing.

"That was our concept from the beginning: At American Fish, what's usually in the back is what's in the front. As a rule, the guests don't get to see the flames right in front of them—they can only glimpse them shooting up from grills in the back. But in this case, we've put the fire right in front of the window."

The result is an eminently Las Vegas restaurant in the city's newest hotel. "It's a show," says Mina. "I want the diners to see everything. I want them to see the flames. To do that, we had to reverse the line and the pickup. It took some rethinking, because that's not how our cooks have worked. But it was worth it. Diners see the drama. And that's Las Vegas."

Mina's show is built around a trio of wood-burning grills, a line of fire pits custom-built by J&R Manufacturing of Mesquite, Texas, with cast-iron pans parked over the flames "like a campfire," says Mina. "The temperature stays consistent, and the food in the pans absorbs the smoke from the wood fire. We're about to add a hand-turned rotisserie, which allows fish to get hot enough that its skin can caramelize. That doesn't happen with an electric rotisserie. In a way, we're moving forward by going backwards. These are old-fashioned techniques. But they're techniques that work brilliantly."

His favorite of the three grills is what he calls "the cool one." It's a salt grill, with salt layered on a pan over the wood. In this case, it's the salt that takes on the flavor of the wood. "We place the fish in cast-iron pans, set between a layer of salt top and bottom. The fire blazes below the salt, and the smokiness comes through holes we had custom-drilled in the bottom of the cast-iron pans."

It also allows Mina to prepare his "fish qua fish"—the tools may be custom-made but the preparation is downright primal. "To cook a piece of fish on salt, you need virtually no seasoning at all—just the salt, some citrus, and a fresh bay leaf. That's it. The fish steams in nice dry heat in the salt. It comes out perfectly. And you get a more subtle salt flavor than actually seasoning something with salt."

Just behind the grills is a Wood Stone wood-burning oven used for the mixed seafood grill, steaks, and whatever specials can use a touch of wood burning. Though it's visible from the dining room, it's really the blazing fire pits that offer the show.

The menu at American Fish, a restaurant designed as a stylized outpost of the Pacific Northwest, with actual living aspens behind the bar (only in Las Vegas could you have aspens-under-glass), is essentially divided into four different cooking techniques. One is "Baked in Sea Salt" (Tasmanian ocean trout, diver scallops, branzino, or rack of lamb). Another is "Wood Grilled & Smoked" (bigeye tuna, mustard-marinated black cod, a mixed seafood grill, or a choice of steaks). There's a section of dishes "Griddled Over Cast Iron" (cornmeal-crusted rainbow trout, bacon-wrapped sturgeon, Kurobuta pork, or free-range chicken). And then, there's the preparation that raises the most eyebrows—"Poached in Ocean Water" (turbot, John Dory, Hawaiian snapper, or organic salmon from British Columbia). A style of cooking that's pure…serendipity.

"I was in Hawaii doing an event," says Mina. "I was in the water, swimming with my kids. And I began thinking about the water. I had seen the technique once in Mexico on a menu. But I never thought about using it. And then, in the water, it occurred to me—why not? I was doing a lobster dish that night. So, I decided to poach the lobster in ocean water from right in front of my hotel. I couldn't believe the flavor. The lobster was salted, but not overly salted. It tasted like the sea. It was incredible. The more I got into it, the more I understood it, the better it became.

"Now, we put our fish in a Cryovac bag with ocean water for 24 hours. It doesn't cure it, which is the strangest thing. It doesn't brine it. It's a whole other thing. We use no seasoning. And it comes out perfectly. We get the water from Hawaii from Garden & Valley Isle Seafood, one of our fish suppliers, who collects the water from where they're ocean farming, where the water is really clean. It's shipped in plastic bottles, like the way any water is shipped. Two gallon plastic jugs, always from the same spot," Mina says. Once the restaurant receives the water, they sterilize it, boiling it for 15 minutes before filtering it through a coffee filter and storing in the refrigerator to preserve freshness. "I'm really enjoying this," Mina says. "It's so simple. It just hasn't been done."

Ironically, Mina—who's best known these days for his slew of seafood-intensive restaurants—didn't begin his career as a piscatorian. He was born in Cairo and raised in Ellensburg, Washington, which is closer to Yakima than Seattle. While attending the University of Washington, he worked in the restaurant at the Space Needle, which he liked well enough to leave college and enroll at The Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York. But it wasn't until Mina moved to Los Angeles to work with executive chef George Morrone at the Hotel Bel-Air that fish became his life. Not at the Bel-Air, but at the San Francisco restaurant called Aqua they were hired to create.

"George and I visited San Francisco to look at the space and work on the concept. It didn't become seafood until we noticed a void in the city—San Francisco was in need of a great fish restaurant. It's the type of city where you want to eat fish. But when we asked the concierge at our hotel where to go, he said there's Tadich Grill and Scoma's. We wanted something like Le Bernardin in New York City. And he said there was nothing like that. So, it became clear that seafood was the way to go."

Aqua became San Francisco's defining seafood restaurant. And once Mina had committed to his "true fish house," he stuck with it. "We had Aqua for more than 11 years and never put anything but fish dishes on the menu except for one chicken dish at lunch. Never put a steak on the menu. We only did fish, which in some cases we handled like meat, with red wine sauces. You do it that long, you get real creative with fish. You learn to love it. That's the fun part. It's a great challenge as you get into fish—there are just so many kinds."

Mina landed at the right culinary place at the right culinary time. In the years since he opened Aqua, the American taste in fish has undergone, well, a sea change. Simply speaking, we are no longer a nation of sole meunière and tuna in a can. "In 1991, when we opened Aqua, we sold maybe four tuna tartares a night. Now, my restaurants sell 200 a night or more. It's a signature dish. People expect it. And they expect raw fish. Sushi changed the way we eat. And it's how people want to eat now. They want simpler preparations. What we're doing now is about the purity of the fish—we've gone from the European/French style to a more Asian style. Very clean. Very light."

And for Mina, the aesthetic of seafood—the Zen of seafood—never pales. "Fish is never boring. Fish always feels more delicate. You're handling it, cutting it, doing everything so carefully. When you're cutting meat, you just throw it down on the board—it won't hurt it. Fish needs finesse. I feel very passionate about fish. But I'm very passionate about all our ingredients. I thought salmon was a whole new fish the first time I tasted it cooked well. I was used to it being cooked for hours. I thought I had never had it before, but I had."

At American Fish, Mina tries to give his seafood a twist, a variant—to do what he's done before, but in a different way. "One of my signature dishes is lobster potpie. So in this case, I'm doing lobster Wellington—lobster, prosciutto, mushroom duxelles, truffle beurre blanc under a puff pastry crust. It's fabulous, very indulgent. We do our shrimp cocktail with shiro ebi shrimp from Japan, very delicate, very flavorful. Our fried clam bellies are made with geoduck clams, served with a geoduck sashimi on the side. We do a lobster corn dog, a smoked salmon BLT, an oyster chowder. Our steamed mussels come with chorizo. And wait till you taste the sweet potato puree with marshmallows. No seafood, but so good."

For Mina, the creation of American Fish—with its four dominant techniques—needed the grandeur, vision…and deep pockets of a Las Vegas resort to exist. "I was lucky to be able to create a kitchen from the ground up, with three fire pits and a giant circulating poacher. I'm able to use my techniques at a very high level. These pieces of equipment were designed to use these techniques in ways they've never been used before. In the past, I could do a dish or two using them. Now, I can do the whole menu. We've been able to perfect these techniques because we now have the space, and we now have the equipment."

For Mina, a master of seafood, American Fish is the culmination of his journey through the seas over the past two decades. "I wanted to do what Jean-Georges Vongerichten is doing at his steakhouse next door. I want to elevate the American fish house. I made it a point not to have a raw bar, not to do surf 'n turf. Instead, this restaurant is about cooking over wood, over smoke, over salt, in ocean water—every one a great technique. I want to re-create the notion of the fish house. American Fish has the heart and soul—and the ingredients—of a classic fish house, but done in a new, fresh, more sophisticated way. I never get tired of fish. It's always challenging you. But when it's done right—it's so beautiful."