I had to try out RN74, the latest venture by Michael Mina and sommelier Rajat Parr, located in the south of Market (SOMA) district of San Francisco, if only because the opening has been the buzz of the town and I’ve been walking past it every day while it was under construction (it is located in the Millenium Tower, a recently opened luxury apartment building).
RN74 is named after the route national 74, a French motorway that runs through Burgundy. Mina’s initial plan had been for a wine bar with small bites, but according to Michael Bauer, food critic of the San Francisco Chronicle: “The initial wine-bar concept may have been a little quick out of the gate. The day after opening, RN74′s small-plates menu gave way to the more traditional appetizer/main course format and pricing structure. It seems that people were only ordering two dishes, but the accountants needed them to order three or four to make the numbers work. In addition, patrons were lingering as potential diners were turned away. The abrupt change initially caused a little stir, but now people are accepting RN47 for what it is: a great wine-centric restaurant that gives the wine bar concept a white-tablecloth turn.”
I had to include that comment from Bauer as an introduction because it explains many of the things that went wrong when I dined there this week. First, what I like about RN74: interiors. Modern, industrial with touches of a 1920s Parisian gare (train station). The restaurant and bar are airy and spacious with just the right amount of light: ingenious wooden slats in front of the windows allow you to see what’s going on along Mission Street, but they shield diners from curious passersby. On the wall at far end is a sign board that resembles the arrival/departure board of a train station and on it they display the “last call” wines, that is, special deals on the last remaining bottles at the restaurant.
Wine list: I have never seen such an extensive list of French wines (over 2,000) in San Francisco. I indulged in a wicked fantasy of ordering the 1870 Chateau Lafite-Rothschild to celebrate the birthday of my dining partner, but at $12,500, we decided that turning 45 did not warrant such an extravagance (it might be better spent on plastic surgery, however, my dining companion does not look a day over 40). To be fair, there are many reasonably priced wines by the glass* at RN74 and you won’t have trouble finding one you’ll like. Still, if you are used to wine prices in France, Italy and Spain, you will find RN74 needlessly expensive. But that’s the way it is in San Francisco.
*The term “reasonably priced wines by the glass” has been abused. In this part of the world, it means good wines by the glass under $20.
Case in point: I had a glass of the Regis Bouvier Bourgogne “Montre Cul” Burgundy 2007 (pinot noir) which was light and just okay ($12). My dining companion had Le Haut Medoc de Giscours, Bordeaux 2005 (cabernet sauvignon), also good but again, completely forgettable, definitely not worth the price ($16). We have had better wines for under $15 a glass in France, Spain and Italy, so I do NOT consider $20 to be the threshold of reasonableness. San Franciscans, with the highest cost of living in the United States, apparently do.
Food: They have not completely done away with the small plates, despite the accounting department’s protestations. RN74 offers two kinds of starters: the fancy ones (over $9) and the “anytime” small plates ($9), the latter being a much better option after you’ve nearly had a fainting spell choosing from among the reasonably priced wines by the glass.
My favorite starter is the maiitake mushroom tempura – delicate and crispy – from the anytime list. My dining companion had the agnolotti stuffed with mascarpone; it was silky and luscious ($16). The main dishes are wonderful. I had an absolutely divine duck “cassoulet” which is a crispy leg of duck served on a bed of barley, shiitake mushrooms, small blocks of carrots and sausage in a piquant sauce. For dessert, we shared a white sesame pot de creme which was marvelous.
What I did not like: Keeping in mind the accountants’ mandate, RN74 made sure that the restaurant is packed with a LOT of diners so close to one another that you can hear exactly what is being discussed at the next table. I wouldn’t mind so much if Warren Buffet were sitting next to me dispensing secret stock tips. But I don’t take very kindly to restaurants, least of all expensive ones, that squish you in with so many others.
Shortly after our starters arrived, the staff suddenly whisked away the empty table next to us, leaving a large, unpleasant gaping hole. Although this act answered our silent prayer for more privacy, we were left with a large void on one side. Recognizing the opportunity to get away from the noisy diners to my left, we moved our table to the right, filled in the nasty void, and finally felt comfortable. We did complain about this gaping void to the staff, as well as their failure to notice it and help us move our table. They apologized.
My point here is this: the staff should have seen that taking away the table created a large unpleasant space next to us and should have helped us move our table. They also should have noticed that diners are too close to one another to have a comfortable, discreet dining experience. RN74 is not the place to dine if you want warm, personal, attentive service. It is efficient and correct, but in a cold way. The restaurant misses a soul. It feels like a chain restaurant, albeit an expensive one with an impressive wine list so you can impress business associates, parents, prospective clients and investors. (Note to self: it is a chain restaurant.)
Other irritations showing lack of attention to detail: The music was awful. They were playing a cheesy song that sounded like something from Maroon 5, a band that grinds out syrupy Top 40 hits. We explained to the staff as we were heading out that the music they were playing when we stopped by two weeks ago for late afternoon drinks – a saucy French rendition of a Burt Bacharach tune — was much more appropriate. Indeed, the bathrooms already stream audio from old French movies. Why not be consistent? The staff explained to us that the DJ, who is located in Los Angeles, puts together the music selection for RN74 and the other Mina restaurants. Interesting. I guess he must have mistakenly piped in a Maroon 5 number which had been destined for another part of the Mina empire. I must add one thing here on music: the restaurant which has the best music in San Francisco is Otoro Sushi in Hayes Valley.
Would I come back to RN74 for dinner? Probably not, unless someone else is paying or I am desperate for a late night meal (San Francisco is an early-to-bed community and few places serve food after 10:00 pm). I would not have been so fastidious about the details had the restaurant been a cheap dive, but the lack of soul, the failure of the staff to pay attention to detail, the tables too close to one another, and the ghastly music do not justify the prices they charge.
I may come back for drinks with friends for lack of anything else in this area. However, the owners managed to destroy the atmosphere in the bar by putting in a TV where people can watch baseball and football games. The addition of a TV makes it feel like a cheap sports bar. Query: was this another brilliant recommendation from the accounting department? How does it feel to drink a $300 bottle of Burgundy with good friends, attempting to have a quiet conversation, and at the same time watching fans at the other end of the bar scream at the hapless San Francisco Giants losing yet another match? Am I missing something?
Summary: RN74 is a big disappointment. The chic, urban space that had been intended to be a fabulous wine bar with delicious small plates attracting a younger audience has been replaced by just another fancy restaurant with older clientele, smushed tables and cheesy music on one end anchored by a cheap sports bar at the other. Because I live in the neighborhood, I wonder when we will ever get what RN74 had in mind when they started. But perhaps, the residents of the Millenium Tower, where many apartments are listed for over $2 million, will find RN74 just their kind of place.
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