Starting from Scratch

Michael Mina’s new restaurant at International Market Place blends the star chef’s world-class experience with local flavors.

Michael Mina’s home base may be in San Francisco, but he is in love with Hawai‘i, and isn’t afraid to show it. The acclaimed chef, who has just opened a restaurant in Waikiki, has been coming to the islands with his family for vacation for over 20 years. “It’s the only place we go,” he says, noting he and his wife even have plans to retire in Hawai‘i. “We tried a different place for vacation once. Never again. Nothing matches up. We love the culture. We love the people.”

But with 20 restaurants in his portfolio, stretching from his eponymous San Francisco flagship to steakhouses in Miami and wine bars in Seattle, the fact that he is only now getting around to opening a restaurant here, the right question might not be “Why open in Hawai‘i?” but “What took you so long?”

Mina laughs at that question—between juggling a career that’s on a 20-year hot streak and his family life with his wife and two teenage sons, he’s been busy.

Stripsteak Waikiki is now open in the new International Market Place. On a visit to the islands in July, Mina was in the last stages of wrapping up the details, finalizing the menu and strategizing a two-day food truck tour of O‘ahu to introduce the concept to island residents. “I’d tried at least six other times,” he says, about his goal to open in Hawai‘i. “Projects would get pretty far down the road and something would happen.”

But he’s quick to point out the silver lining to the near misses. “Sometimes you realize things are meant to be because all of a sudden, this project became available to us, and I think it’s the ideal spot—just really excited to be part of it,” he says.


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Mina brought his dishes to the streets of Honolulu in July with a pop-up food truck to promote Stripsteak Waikiki (photo courtesy MINA Group).

There are other Stripsteak restaurants in Mina’s portfolio—one each in Miami and Las Vegas. But Mina, who won James Beard Awards and Michelin stars for his previous restaurants, says the steakhouse concept is more of a loose framework for opening restaurants that reflect the character of the location. “We make sure that we never duplicate the menu,” he says, noting that aside from a few staple dishes, the rest of the menu is totally original. “The reality is products are different; people’s palates are different in different places. That’s the joy of opening in multiple places: learning about the culture and putting your own twist on dishes.”

Here in Hawai‘i, Mina plans to take advantage of the super fresh island produce and seafood as well as local culinary traditions. “Th is is the first Stripsteak that’s going to have a sushi and poke bar,” he says about his play on the oyster and lobster tail type of platters commonly found at steakhouses.

Beyond top-notch ingredients, Mina is also excited about showcasing a Japanese influence on the menu. “In a traditional steakhouse, they’re thinking a steak sauce or a rich meat demi-glace, while we’re thinking yuzu koshu or ponzu,” he says, of some unexpected island-style twists on the menu. The yuzu koshu, for instance, he likes because it’s light and acidic, which makes a striking counterpoint to the heftier cuts of meat.

The menu overall skews lighter than a stereotypical steakhouse, a feature that Mina was keen to implement. “I really wanted to take an approach of going to a steak-house and wanting to feel like making good decisions for yourself,” he says, noting that he’s seen an uptick across his restaurants in customers seeking lighter, healthier fare.

“We see so many people that want to stay away from carbs—and we’re having fun with it,” he says. “The amuse bouche [at Stripsteak Waikiki] when you sit down is duck fat French fries, and we’re saying ‘we dare you to stay away from carbs.’ But if that’s what you want to do there, are many items that are geared that way. Over 50 percent of the menu is where you can stay in that clean eating [realm]— beautiful clean proteins and seafood.

You walk away feeling a little better.”

That “feeling better” quotient is something that Mina feels is a natural fit with Hawai‘i’s weather and focus on healthy living. “Hawai‘i really lent itself to it with the products, the cooking and the weather that’s here. It’s lighter and fresher and more vibrant, and you’ve got all these beautiful fruits, [so you can] pull those flavors in the food.”

Beyond the menu, Mina is especially enchanted with the location of the restaurant in the new International Market Place in Waikiki. “I love the name,” he says, about which he feels has resonance with the multi-cultural concept behind the restaurant.

Even though the space is situated in prime Waikiki, Mina says his big focus will be on getting local people to come. “I know local people don’t like to go where there are a lot of tourists,” he says, with a laugh. But having seen the blueprints for the new International Market Place, which also includes a new restaurant from Roy Yamaguchi and the first Saks Fifth Avenue store in the islands, Mina says that the new entryway and parking structure should make a night out in Waikiki easier. The key, he says, will be creating a unique restaurant experience. “We’ve got to give them something that’s worthy of making the trip.”

Because of his frequent travels to the islands, Mina is deeply familiar with what makes for a standout island experience— the kind that could entertain both locals and visitors. He has high praise for the restaurant scene, making special note of Merriman’s and Mala Ocean Tavern, as well as Maui’s brunch standout, The Gazebo, which his two sons won’t let him skip any time they’re all on-island. He’s also already fluent in the chef culture. “A couple of the chefs I’ve followed for years are Alan [Wong] and Roy [Yamaguchi], so I always eat where they are.”

But for Mina, the challenge will come from not copycatting what’s already here and creating his own take on the dining culture. “I know well enough that I’m not going to be the person who takes a dish— there’s so much history in something like a kalua pig—we’re not going to do that,” he says, of the way he will approach incorporating island-style cooking on his menu. “We would do our version—use the flavor profiles and do our versions. That’s the style that I cook, I’ll take influences, seasonings and put my own spin on it.”

And when it comes to citing local influences for what will be on his menu, the ingredients always come first. “The highlight to me is something like Maui onions—what you can do with them,” he says. “There’s a lot of great product.”

What becomes clear when talking to Mina about Stripsteak Waikiki is that it’s not intended to be a generic cookie-cutter type restaurant with a famous name attached. He is deeply invested in melding his world-class experience with the local culture here to make something unique. And as a bonus: it’s a good excuse to keep making the trip.

“I’m so happy I’m finally getting to open in Hawai‘i—many more reasons to come [here],” he says.

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