54 Mint is a small, two-story Italian restaurant which lies within Mint Plaza (formerly known as Jessie Lane). I’ve only recently discovered Mint Plaza and surprisingly, have now eaten at all four establishments within its small confines all within a single week. I didn’t even realize 54 Mint was among the others (Thermidor, Chez Papa, and Blue Bottle Coffee) until it was recommended by a local art guru with whom I was chatting during an Enrico Donati retrospective. My escort and I were debating where to dine on a Saturday night without reservations and Kendy assured me that 54 Mint would be just the place.
We were fortunate to arrive at a prime time on Saturday night and be able to get a table immediately without a reservation. I learned later why… I admired the surroundings; gorgeous inset brick walls next to clean white painted brick, shanks of prosciutto and sausages hang carelessly from hand-forged wrought iron suspended above the bar, and warm wood tables complete an atmosphere of comfort. The high ceilings are not necessarily conducive to intimate conversation as the surrounding discussions became a bit pervasive. And I will grant that the waitstaff were exemplary in their appropriately accented cordiality. But we were here for food…
My friend and I started with two different antipasti starters, Carpaccio di Polipo – thinly sliced octopus carpaccio with shaved fennel, extra virgin olive oil, and smoked paprika dressing – and Frittura di Paranza, deep fried daily catch of calamari, smelt, and rock-shrimp with smoked paprika aïoli. Now this last description is what was written on the menu, however what arrived did not include any shrimp whatsoever, just the calamari and smelt. And I could detect no smoked paprika in the aïoli. While the calamari was fairly well-prepared and not rubbery, the smelt was slightly on the fishy side and a bit tough. I give great artistic points to the gorgeous presentation of the octopus carpaccio; so thinly sliced to be transparent. It was actually quite flavorful and was probably fresh, however it was obviously prepared well before service as the sliced cephalopod mostly stuck to the plate, something which should not have happened had it been freshly sliced and laid out.
For our mains, my companion opted for another antipasti, the Sardine alla Griglia, grilled sardines with olive oil toasted bread while I was anxious to try the pasta, Rigatoni alla Carbonara, short tubed pasta with local organic eggs, “guanciale,” black pepper, and parmigiano. Again, I question the freshness of the fish. The sardines were exceptionally mediocre. Not only were they less fresh, but the preparation of grilled with squares of bread was unenlightening and insidiously boring. Except, perhaps, if you are after some obsequious religious reference to fishes and loaves. The pasta was equally uninspiring; laden tubes with thick and pasty carbonara made only slightly interesting with the addition of the guanciale.
I am sorry my FOOD at 54 Mint wasn’t more memorable, because it has so much potential. The servers were fabulous and despite forgettable food, I had a very pleasant, memorable evening with a charming friend. But the conversation and camaraderie is what I will remember moreso than unexceptional cuisine. Lastly, a note: 54 Mint is located at 16 Mint Plaza (at Jessie St), San Francisco, CA 94103. Why it isn’t called 16 Mint escapes me. I don’t want to try and figure out where the name came from as I don’t particularly care to figure out why others are so enamored with this restaurant.
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