Diners like it seasonal these days. M continues to romance us, but is it time to ask for more?
When M at Miranova opened in 2001 on prime riverfront real estate, it was Cameron Mitchell Restaurants' preeminent dining destination—elegant, refined and unabashedly modern. While its modern edge has worn off and newer CMR concepts have competed for our attention (The Guild House, namely), M still provides an elegant, white-linen, fine dining experience.
I've dined at M five times over the past year, and, like most Mitchell-owned restaurants, consistency was the watchword. The fifth visit was just like the first. Service was top-notch, the setting lovely but a bit dated (that's soon to change), and execution by the kitchen left little to be desired. But at what point does consistency stifle variety? In five visits, the menu barely changed despite the passing of three seasons. On the positive side, the items on the menu are always well-prepared. But the menu here seems to be set by corporate policy, no matter what produce is available from our markets or regional farms.
That's too bad, because executive chef Jeff Rabold and his team clearly have talent. Salmon ($37) with gnocchi, mushrooms, tomato fondue and lemon white wine sauce is Exhibit A. The dish requires several different skills and a deft touch. On each sampling, the gnocchi was firm but fork-tender, the utterly fresh salmon perfectly cooked, and the tomato fondue and lemon wine sauce just lively enough to provide two different, but pleasing, counterpoints to the richness of the fish and the dumplings. Everything was just right.
Recommended first courses include a tangy roasted tomato soup ($10) accompanied by a little goat cheese sandwich for dipping. The thick, bright-red soup has a wonderfully rich tomato flavor. State fair food is raised to its highest level with two mini Wagyu burgers on little brioche buns with Monterey Jack cheese, caramelized onions, tomatoes and pickles ($16). Served with a small sheaf of steak fries, it's an appetizer you may want to share. Starters of either butter-poached king crab (market price) or foie gras with orange marmalade and black pepper honey ($24) seem like excess, but they are quite tasty. You've noted by now that this is not a cheap place, but the portions are large.
The salads provide more evidence of the kitchen's skill and restraint—dressed sparingly without excess vinegar or lemon. The greens and other ingredients are allowed to shine. There's a fine plate of baby beets ($12) paired with a soft whip of goat cheese and candied pistachios in a lemon vinaigrette touched with fennel. The pear salad ($12) has both poached and fresh pears, pickled red onion and slivers of hard, salty Manchego cheese in a slightly sweet port vinaigrette. And the kale salad with quinoa, edamame, pine nuts and aged ricotta cheese ($11) is certainly worth eating for more than health.
Entrées worth considering include Steak in a Bowl, which is a sliced, butter-poached filet served on a bed of creamy, blue-cheesy potato slices—au gratin potatoes raised to new heights (8-ounce, $42; 10-ounce, $47). I have no argument with the ahi tuna ($44), enriched by a slice of quickly sautéed foie gras with asparagus, mushrooms and a sauce of black truffle and reduced meat stock—cooked rare as ordered. The high-quality fish is complemented by the earthy truffles and rich stock. I also recommend the Chilean sea bass ($45) in a lemon grass-spiked broth. This fish is easy to overcook, but once again, the kitchen here turned it out perfectly—for sea bass, that approximates medium rare—and the slightly spicy, citrusy broth is lovely. Little shrimp dumplings are an inspired accompaniment and act like soup dumplings in the broth.
Sameness and seasonality apart, I did enjoy everything I ate here, but I would skip the sushi. M offers, for example, a Dragon roll ($17) of crab, avocado, cucumber and barbecued eel, as well as poke ($18)—cubes of tuna and slivers of sugar snap peas, pineapple and red onion in a citrus/soy sauce. While these things are good, there are better versions at several Japanese places in town.
The desserts here are worth exploring. My favorite is the root beer float, which is of course, ice cream and root beer, but M prepares its float with a crunchy root beer granita and a touch of chocolate syrup. Another super sweet is Coffee & Donuts, a chocolate and espresso semifreddo accompanied by soft banana beignets and strawberry dipping sauce. All desserts are $10.
M was early to the craft cocktail trend, and the offerings remain a big strength under head bartender Cris Dehlavi, one of the finest in the city. While nary a Mexican dish is on the menu, the bar turns out one of the best margaritas in town, this one with a jalapeño-spiked agave nectar and the surprising use of smoked sea salt around the rim ($13). Make it Snappy combines sweetened Bombay gin, Dolin Blanc (an excellent dry vermouth), lemon and bitters to refreshing effect ($12).
The wine list, which garnered Wine Spectator's Best of Award of Excellence last year, is more interesting than it has been in the past. It is heavy on American wines, but offers lots of wonderful ones. If you are in the mood for an extraordinary wine but not quite ready to mortgage the house for a whole bottle, M uses the Coravin system to extract wine without pulling the cork or adding oxygen to the bottle, so the wine stays fresh. That way, you may enjoy a glass of the likes of Newton Single Vineyard Cabernet for a mere $50, which may indeed be worth every penny.
M's soft and cozy décor once was very modern and chic, with gauzy curtains separating sections of the restaurant, white linens and a theatrically lit bar. These days it seems dated, but the company says the restaurant will undergo a renovation this fall. Once the weather warms up, the best place to sit is the patio overlooking the Miranova lawn, the Olentangy River and city skyline.
As much as I like M, after five visits I just wanted to call CMR headquarters and implore: “Set them free!” Let the talented team here be in tune with the seasons and pick food more often from a farmers market than a semi-truck. With a little more freedom, M could surprise us again and keep us coming back for more.