There is no pussyfooting around this.
Michael Mina’s Bourbon Steak at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara is not inexpensive. It’s a special-occasion place. It’s where you go when you’re dining on an expense account to sink your teeth into an 8-ounce Snake River Farms rib cap for $110 or a Japanese A-5 Kagoshima rib eye for $34 per ounce (with a 3-ounce minimum required).
It’s not a place you’d head to every night. But then again, you couldn’t anyway. Because the restaurant is situated right on the ground level of the 49ers’ stadium, you can’t get into either Bourbon Steak or Bourbon Pub (the contiguous casual eatery) when the Niners are playing home games — unless you are a game ticket holder. In fact, the whole restaurant and pub becomes the ultimate gourmet tailgating extravaganza on game days — but only for season ticket-holders who pony up $5,000 each for the 10-game season. After the game ends, the restaurant and pub are open to any ticket holder.
Similarly, if One Direction, Taylor Swift or any other concert or special event is holding court at the stadium, you can’t get into the restaurant or pub, either, unless you have a ticket to said event.
Got all that?
When dining there, it pays to call for a reservation or to at least check the Levi’s Web site beforehand to make sure no events are happening the night you want to visit. Be mindful that the restaurant is open only for dinner; the pub is open for lunch and dinner.
Valet parking is available — free for up to two hours at lunch-time at the pub; $8 for two hours at the restaurant at night ($15 flat rate for the night after two hours).
If your head isn’t spinning already, you’re probably wondering: Is it worth the effort to go if you can afford the splurge?
Executive Chef Chris Curtiss is a Bay Area native with serious talent, having worked under George Morrone at the Fifth Floor in San Francisco and Charles Nob Hill in San Francisco under the tutelage of Ron Siegel (now head chef at Michael Mina’s flagship restaurant in San Francisco), whom he considers his mentor.
Curtiss came on board here in December, following a two-year stint at the Bourbon Steak in the Fairmont Scottsdale Princess in Arizona. The transition was smooth, he says, except for getting used to the induction-only cooktops in Santa Clara, and the sheer size of the restaurant here. It’s 17,000 square feet — two and a quarter times larger than any other Mina establishment.
Down a set of stairs in the kitchen area, a back door conveniently opens out into a walkway to the field and both the home and visiting teams’ locker rooms.
And if you look carefully in the pub area, you’ll spot a subway-tiled wall adorned with autographs from famous chefs and players.
I had a chance to dine recently as a guest of the restaurant. You check in at the host stand by entering the pub, where diners are chowing down on poutine, ribs and burgers, and big-screen TVs are blaring. If you’re dining at the restaurant, the host will lead you through a corridor that gives way to a more sedate dining room, where there are TVs, but ones disguised as elegant mirrors unless it’s a game day.
On the Wednesday night I was there, the dining room was three-fourths full, with many tables of what appeared to be business colleagues combining a little pleasure with work.
Even if you’re not a diehard carnivore, Bourbon Steak offers plenty of other options, including wood-fire grilled King Salmon ($39), a “Tasting of Spring Vegetables” ($24), and Mina’s signature “Maine Lobster Pot Pie” (market price) that is served table-side.
Chef Curtiss offered to just cook for my husband and I, so that we could try a variety of specialties.
Normally, I’m not a big imbiber of hard liquor. But Bourbon Steak offers a $30 bourbon flight that is so unique and such a show unto itself that I couldn’t resist ordering it.
Operations Manager Edward Tracy rolled a cart to our table. Front and center were small chargers holding an orange rind, coffee beans, and a cinnamon stick — each chosen to amplify those specific qualities in each of three bourbons to be poured. One by one, Tracy took an electric lighter to the orange, coffee beans and cinnamon stick, briefly toasting each one, before placing an upside-down glass over each to trap their smoky aromas.
He let the glasses sit undisturbed for a few seconds before removing them, turning them right-side up and filling them with an ounce of spirit each: the orange-scented glass with Buffalo Trace Bourbon; the coffee glass with Michter’s Sour Mash Whiskey; and the cinnamon-infused glass with Rittenhouse Rye.
It was startling to take a whiff of each. You could really smell the orange, coffee and cinnamon in the glasses. Their flavors were apparent when taking sips, too. The Buffalo Trace was my favorite of the three because it was the smoothest, with the orange beautifully pronounced. The coffee accentuated the astringency of the sour mash. And the cinnamon added a little more roundness to the Rittenhouse, the most potent of the three.
Unlike most restaurants that bring you a bread basket gratis after you sit down, Bourbon Steak one ups that with free duck-fat fries with three dipping sauces. Nori and sesame-sprinkled fries get paired with a chile sauce, while plain fries accompany a caper aioli, as well as the restaurant’s take on the In-N-Out burger sauce that’s creamy and tastes of dill pickles.
The restaurant also bakes spiral truffle buns each night. They’re like Parker House rolls, only way more buttery. Those tiny black specks are indeed black truffle bits. You tell yourself you’ll pace yourself by not devouring the whole thing. But you will.
Then, the parade of dishes starts to arrive. Chilled summer corn soup is velvety and the essence of sweet corn with smoked white shrimp, artichoke hearts and a touch of thyme added.
King Salmon crudo is garnished with bits of its skin, crisped up like potato chips. Dollops of sumac yogurt and ginger round out this knockout dish that really spotlights the oily richness of the fish.
Octopus is cooked confit in olive oil for five hours, before being grilled over mesquite, leaving it incredibly tender and smoky. Compressed caviar is shaved over to give bursts of brininess.
A tomato salad has never packed such punch. The heirlooms are marinated in katsuobushi (Japanese dried, fermented, smoked tuna), giving the tomatoes even more of an umami blast. It’s what you wish all your tomatoes could taste like.
Next, it was on to Fort Bragg uni. One version had it served in its spiky shell, garnished with Siberian caviar, avocado, white ponzu and a nutty, clean tasting, untoasted Japanese sesame oil, which all combined to compliment — not obscure — the impeccably sweet, creamy sea urchin.
The second version had the uni paired with crisp soft-shell crab with basil pesto, fresh corn salad, and a touch of fiery horseradish.
In another pairing, local rock cod was featured alongside Monterey squid in a lobster stock-reduction sauce. I don’t know if I’ve ever had squid this tender. Usually, even in the best of circumstances, there’s a slight chewiness to it. But not here.
Tempura squash blossoms graced Thai snapper, cooked perfectly with papery-crisp skin and flaky, moist flesh.
Chilled foie gras torchon came with cocoa nib “soil,” and spicy, pickled cherries, their bitterness and tartness helping to cut the richness of the fatty duck liver.
The dish of agnolotti with favas may have looked dainty, what with the small filled pastas folded just so. But what a wallop of flavor they held with their filling of braised pig’s head. The pasta was intensely porky. Chili oil and orange zest added just the right notes.
A duo of beef followed: a toothsome, 50-day-aged grass-fed rib-eye with deep minerality, and Japanese Wagyu cap, so tender and marbled you barely needed to use a knife. Think of it as butter — in meat form. Alongside were carrots cooked in beef fat. Think of them as 24 karats; that’s how luxurious they tasted.
After all that, a welcome intermezzo arrived in the form of raspberry sorbet with mango granita and cute little meringue kisses.
Then it was on to a cheese plate composed of Sonoma County’s Bohemian Creamery’s “Bodacious” (a mild, nutty cow’s milk cheese) and “Bo Peep” (a tangy, soft sheep’s milk cheese) served with hazelnut soil, pickled radish and apricot gel.
Desserts followed with a sundae in a glass, layered with creme fraiche sherbet, coconut cake and rhubarb sorbet for a girly, refreshing treat. Heavier, but irresistible was the chic take on a S’more with a plank of dark chocolate ganache, graham cracker ice cream, and a gooey vanilla torched marshmallow top.
It doesn’t end there, either. There are hand-made, wrapped Bulleit Bourbon caramels with Valrhona cocoa nibs to take home.
Dining at Bourbon Steak is quite the experience. And it shouldn’t be miss — if your wallet can take the hit.