Located at 252 California Street, this establishment previously hosted a few of Chef Michael Mina’s most noteworthy restaurants, including AQUA, an elegant seafood restaurant on which he established his esteemed chef reputation over 20 years ago. Fast forward to today and it’s the home of the new Estiatorio Ornos, a bright, lively restaurant inspired by the idea of philoxenia or Greek hospitality.
Mediterranean vibes; open windows; stalactite-like white chandeliers; flowing curtains; coral and sea green accents; lemon trees and more create a unique, fun ambiance that plays up the Ornos Beach getaway inspiration. Though the dining itself is as upscale as can be, the restaurant itself is anything but stuffy or pretentious.
The newest iteration of the space offers guests an impressive tasting menu along with an à l la carte experience that pays homage to the Mediterranean seafood experience. The menu is comprised of dishes from three chefs and Executive Chef Daniela Vergara, formerly Executive Sous Chef of MINA Group’s high-energy, Hawaiian concept Trailblazer Tavern. The menu highlights elevated dining and cooking techniques featuring shareable, seafood-centric dishes inspired by the food each of them ate growing up at home.
Highlights include Mediterranean Sea Bass grilled with steamed greens ‘horta’; Dover Sole phyllo-crusted served with skordalia, haricots verts, and caviar sauce; and grilled lamb chops ‘paidakia’ with cretan-style potatoes; ouzo prawns with scallions, crushed tomato and feta grilled octopus with santorini capers, gigante beans, red onion and more.
One of the coolest aspects of Estiatorio Ornos? The fact that it has on its team San Francisco’s first ever fish sommelier. Mark Borges, who has been with MINA Group for over three years, is the fish expert who sources the freshest fish from the Aegean Sea where the product is delivered overnight. He expertly guides diners through the specialty fish selections, while recommending preparation techniques based on the diner’s taste – including grape leaf-wrapped, whole-roasted, salt-crusted, or simply grilled.
Adding to the dining experience are other interactive culinary carts include a “spread cart” showcasing dip selections such as Tzatziki, Hummus, Melitzanosalata (charred eggplant, lemon, and parsley), and Tirokafteri (barrel-aged feta and roasted chili peppers), and a “pastry cart” showcasing traditional Greek sweets.
I chatted to the Estiatorio Ornos team on the restaurant’s design, ethos, inspiration and more. Here’s what they had to say.
Tell me about the restaurant renovation, redesigned dining room and the expansive bar. It’s a beautiful restaurant, a lot different than what it used to look like!
Ly Dao, Hennessey Dao Collective: Taking inspiration from Mediterranean grottos of antiquity, Estiatorio Ornos San Francisco marries comfortable organic textures with stylish sophistication. The space walks the line between the old world and elegant contemporary design. Its niches feature sculptures handmade in Greece and serve to create a sense of mythology.
Beneath the dramatically high ceilings are large organic white chandeliers, serving to draw one’s gaze upward. Wrapped around the coral tiled bar is a floating blue mural hinting at the characteristic blue water reflections of the caves that pepper Mediterranean shores. Throughout the gleaming white space are coral and sea green touches which are pulled directly from the oceanside villages of Greece itself, transporting guests to the Greek Isles.
Talk about philoxenia – Greek hospitality, and what that means to the restaurant and staff as they welcome guests.
Chef Michael Mina: MINA Group has made a name for itself by providing phenomenal, five-star service across all of our restaurants. Partnering with Chef Niko and Chef Jerry gave us the opportunity to expand on this and be inspired by the hospitality reminiscent of the Greek Isles. We want guests to feel the warmth and lightheartedness of an evening in Mykonos wash over them at Ornos – being taken care of as not just a diner, but as family.
What is the inspiration for the restaurant and menu? What are the menu highlights?
Chef Michael Mina: When reopening the 252 California space as Estiatorio Ornos, I wanted to return to the seafood roots of its days as AQUA. The menu is a culmination of the Greek culinary traditions of Chef Jerry and Chef Niko and the seafood I grew up eating with my family, immigrants from the Mediterranean seaport city of Alexandria in Egypt.
Must-trys on our menu for me are the Petrale Sole–it’s a take on a dish I’ve worked on for years, which is phyllo-crusted served with skordalia, brussels sprouts and caviar sauce; the Mediterranean Sea Bream is a stunner, it’s presented tableside, whole, and salt-crusted, before being deboned and served; and a surprise favorite on the menu has been our Spanakopita salad – we’ve deconstructed the classic dish to present a savory salad layered with spinach, crispy phyllo and goat cheese.
Talk about the impressive tasting menu and its Mediterranean and Middle Eastern heritage.
Executive Chef Daniela Vergara: The tasting menu – the Ornos Experience – gives us the opportunity to truly display philoxenia. Put your evening in our hands and we’ll take care of the rest. The Ornos Experience is always in flux to present our best dishes and give guests a four-course tour, allowing them to experience every part of our menu.
You have San Francisco’s first-ever Fish Sommelier! How did that job come about? Who is he and what’s his background to have this role?
Chef Michael Mina: The fish sommelier actually evolved at our restaurant in Hawaii –MINA’s Fish House. I discovered one of our new team members was not just a server, but a top-rated sports fisherman. I invited him to take on a new role in our dining room – sharing his expert knowledge about the fish, the sourcing, and the best ways to prepare them with our guests.
As Ornos is so seafood-centric, it was a natural progression to introduce this position here as well. We have promoted Mark Borges, who has been with MINA Group for over three years to be the fish sommelier at Ornos. He works closely with our Executive Chef Daniela Vergara to learn about the fish and our purveyors, so he is prepped to educate diners.