Michael Mina’s culinary identity suffers at Pub 1842 in MGM Grand

There’s been a trend around here lately in which eminent chefs generally known for their high-end restaurants open casual, sports-barry, middle-of-the-road places, either in addition to their more posh spots or to replace one or more of them.

They usually say it’s to extend their brand to demographics that wouldn’t otherwise have the opportunity to try it, that the downscale spots are conceived to still reflect their identities and that they want these lesser lights to have the same standards as the restaurants with which they made their names, but in a different format. In some cases, they succeed in their mission quite nicely.

Michael Mina is one of the chefs for whom I hold the most respect. He made his name working absolute magic with seafood and branched out; just among his restaurants in Las Vegas were the late Seablue, with a hybrid of seafood and Moroccan cooking styles, and the still-current StripSteak, where the meats are cooked in liquids for relatively long periods at carefully controlled temperatures. And on and on. He’s creative, innovative, and at the same time sort of quiet and self-effacing, clearly not feeling a need to live his life in the celebrity spotlight.

So it absolutely pains me that Mina’s Pub 1842 at the MGM Grand fails when it comes to preserving the chef’s culinary identity and upholding and perpetuating his standards.

Not that there’s anything really wrong with Pub 1842; hence the B grade. But, fair or not, I’d expect much more from Mina.

To start with, there isn’t much on the menu that reflects the chef’s signature style. Oh, his lobster corn dogs are there, and a jumbo lump crabcake, but after that the menu, which isn’t that extensive, is all over the place.

There were a few surprises that showed a hint of Mina’s style, such as the Tempura Maitake Mushrooms ($13). If you know your mushrooms, you know maitakes — also known as hen of the woods — are the sort that grow at the base of trees in clusters, layered and lacy, sometimes rather large, and definitely not in the shape of what most of us think of when we hear the word “mushroom.”

So how do you fry something like that? You cut it into slices and chunks and use a tempura batter, which has a lightness and crunch that turns these lacy fungi into ethereal puffs with a subtle mushroom flavor. The scallion dipping sauce served on the side was the perfect complement, the assertive but springlike flavor bringing out the best of the puffs. This is what I’d expect in a Mina restaurant.

The rest of it, not so much. Frickles ($8) were fried pickles that didn’t live up to their whimsical name because they were absolutely basic, not “crunchy” as the menu promised and with a “special” sauce that wasn’t.

The 1842 Burger ($19) was great; it just wasn’t distinctive enough to be worthy of the signature label. A nice thick burger with deep beefy flavor was served topped with caramelized onions and mushrooms, and it was medium-rare as we had asked, so it was most enjoyable. But the promised truffle aioli — which had really sold us on this burger — was undetectable. Again, good, but I know of at least one fast-food chain that does a burger in which you can both smell and taste the truffle.

The fries on the side were good, though, flecked with rosemary. That can easily become overwhelming but wasn’t in this case, and the thin fries — a whole pile of them — were nice and crisp.

So, OK, barbecue. Not something else we’d normally equate with Mina but this section was labeled “Uncle Tony’s,” so we figured that maybe there was some familial pride at stake here. From the section, we chose the A Bit of Everything Plate ($32), which brought us brisket, pulled pork and ribs.

The meats were fine, although we don’t think Uncle Tony really needs to worry about somebody stealing his recipe. The jalapeno cornbread was good, but again not exactly novel. The beans and the corn on the cob both were OK, but both kind of watery. And then there was the kale slaw. Kale’s really trendy these days and for good reason; it’s nutritious and interesting and with the right treatment, pretty good. But not enough had been done to this kale slaw to make it taste like much besides kale, which is an acquired taste. Maybe they hadn’t massaged it enough.

Just kidding.

Service throughout was kind of rough around the edges. We arrived without a reservation; when told there would be a 10-minute wait we figured no problem and found seats at the bar. Except that while there were several bartenders standing near us, nobody came over to ask what we wanted. Then one guy approached, took our order and handed out coasters, after which another quickly appeared and, ignoring the coasters, asked if we’d been helped. And, of course, the 10 minutes turned into at least 20, but you saw that coming.

After we were seated it was a while before our server appeared, and beverages continued to be a problem. With that many bartenders — and a bar that wasn’t full — we wouldn’t expect to wait so long for a glass of wine or a Coke.

That atmosphere was fine, with some whimsy shown here and there (like the “free beer” sign outside), but kind of generic. It was a little noisy, but we expect that in a pub.

When I consider the chefs at the helms of three or four valley pubs of this type, there’s nobody I respect more than Mina. Yet of the group, this was my least favorite.

There’s something wrong with that.

Las Vegas Review-Journal restaurant reviews are done anonymously at Review-Journal expense. Email Heidi Knapp Rinella at Hrinella@reviewjournal.com, or call 702-383-0474. Follow @HKRinella on Twitter.

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