Pick of the Month #3 is a shot from 1998 of an ill fated restaurant named Loongbar at Ghirardelli Square in the Fisherman's Wharf area of San Francisco.
A wild and exciting Space. Unfortunately the food critics were less than kind to this one... It closed in only 13 months.
The Client: Real American Restaurants & American Express.
Lighting Design by Celeste Gainey of Gotham Light & Power
Assistant: Ron Igoe
This image done at dawn was part of two "all nighters" at the restaurant. Always fun to begin at closing, which in this case was 11:00pm and then work until the sun comes up and the morning and the employees start streaming in. The restaurant provided no extra help on this one, so we styled with what we could forage. The highlight of this image happened when the shooting was done. Ron Igoe had done a great job of lighting the three huge(12")candles atop the pagoda display in the center.
Wonderful and I'm sure expensive beeswax candles with 1/2 inch wicks. I must say they look quite nice. They were new and had never been lit, but we decided that they would add an extra layer of excitement to the final image. The decision was made to light the three huge candles. Have you ever tried to blow out a candle with a half inch wick that has been going for an hour? I've got news for you, you can blow all you want, it will not go out by blowing without spraying hot wax all over. We considered water, but ruled it out. (this eventually was the right solution) Ron's brilliant and memorable solution was to snuff the candles with a small drinking glass. Here's where the memorable physics lesson comes in. Candle, fire, drinking glass, oxygen, Vacuum??? Did anyone guess vacuum? Well the fire went out, and at the same time consumed any remaining oxygen in the drinking glass( on top of this warm mushy beeswax candle). For those of you who have ever seen an egg sucked into a narrow necked bottle with the aid of a match, then you guessed it. The vacuum created by the lack of oxygen in the glass abruptly and mightily pulled the glass several inches into the huge candle with a death grip. After 30 minutes of hard work the drinking glass was saved. The candle didn't look so good, but fortunately the top was not visible from the floor level. Sometimes what seems like a simple solution is not. The water worked just fine. Lesson learned. Enjoy the image.
Douglas A. Salin Photographer
647 Joost Avenue
San Francisco, CA 94127
1999: After only 13 months in business, Loongbar -- the acclaimed San Francisco restaurant conceived
by chef and author Mark Miller -- has closed. It will reopen this summer as an Asian restaurant
called Ana Mandara, with an infusion of cash from actor Don Johnson. Loongbar was an
ambitiously innovative effort, combining pan-Asian cuisine and decor. However, its Ghirardelli
Square location was off the beaten path for locals, and its serious cooking was not geared toward
the many tourists frequenting the area. Miller left Loongbar last November to its majority owner,
Real American Restaurants.
November 30, 1998
Professor of the Palate
Mark Miller, the Indiana Jones of cooking, brings a spicy cross-cultural
approach to American tables
By Jeff Morgan
Mark Miller loves spicy food. The restaurateur, chef and prolific cookbook author also loves wine.
Miller is convinced that, contrary to popular opinion, there is a happy marriage for both, and he has
attempted to prove it at any one of four ethnically diverse restaurants he has created. These venues,
which stretch across the United States from coast to coast, include Coyote Cafés in Santa Fe, N.M.,
and Las Vegas, both featuring chile-accented Southwestern cuisine; Red Sage in Washington, D.C.,
offering modern American cooking with a Western twist; and the Asian-inspired Loongbar in San
"There are always wines that work with spicy foods and forward flavors," says the 49-year-old Miller,
who looks boyish despite his thinning hair, close-cropped beard and grueling travel schedule. His
peregrinations take him across the country nearly every other week and lead him into uncharted
ethno-culinary waters, where he has weathered withering attacks by intestinal bugs and other
While Miller's multicultural interests have led him to geographical destinations where chile peppers
and other sizzling spices are often favored, his mission in life remains broader than simply reconciling
four-alarm foods with fine wine. "I've tried to educate people about non-European flavors," Miller
says. "If America is ever going to have its own great culinary culture, it will have to embrace the
flavors found outside Europe and incorporate them into its own tradition."
With the advent of pan-Asian, Tex-Mex and other cross-cultural cuisines, it would appear that Miller's
concept is taking root, thanks partly to his own extensive efforts.
"Mark has always been interested in pushing the envelope," notes Alice Waters, the renowned chef
and owner of Chez Panisse in Berkeley, Calif. "I remember when we first ate cactus paddles at Fourth
Street Grill [a Berkeley restaurant that Miller opened in 1979]. No one had eaten them before. Mark
would always invite all the food and wine people from the [San Francisco Bay] area over to sample
Miller's culinary crusade began nearly three decades ago when he was enrolled at the University of
California at Berkeley. After graduating in 1972 with a bachelor's degree in anthropology and Chinese
art history, he became a teaching assistant there while pursuing his graduate studies. In 1975, his
interest in food led him to publish a food-and-wine newsletter called Market Place with two
like-minded friends (including Joel Peterson, who founded Ravenswood winery in Sonoma Valley the
This was not, however, the first time Miller had displayed an analytical interest in food. While he was
growing up in Massachusetts, he showed an unusual exploratory predilection. "I'd go through my
grandmother's cupboard and just taste things--as an experiential pursuit," he recalls. "I'd throw the hot
dog away and taste the relish. Or I'd drive my mother nuts by opening all the cereal boxes at once to
taste the differences."
A family friend from Guatemala first introduced the young Miller to Southwestern cooking. "When
[he] came along with tacos and salsa rather than bologna on white bread, I knew he was on to
something," the chef recalls.
In 1976, Miller's Berkeley home was not far from Chez Panisse, and he ate there with some regularity.
When chef Alice Waters asked the budding spicemeister to help out at the restaurant for a few weeks,
while she was away in France, he had never worked in a
Those few weeks at Chez Panisse turned into two and a half years. "I fit in, and I liked working in the
kitchen," Miller remembers. He credits his early experience at Chez Panisse for giving him a
professional foundation. But Waters remembers that even during Miller's apprenticeship, he was
stretching for something beyond his contemporaries' plats du jour.
"I have this really vivid image of Mark, back then, rubbing whole fish with this spicy concoction of
exotic Mexican herbs and spices," Waters recalls. "He wanted to grill them outside. We had never
done that before at Chez Panisse. Mark has always been both a student and a teacher."
Ultimately, Miller left Chez Panisse to open Fourth Street Grill, where he would have more freedom to
develop his own style of cooking. He soon noticed that his customers were particularly fond of his
spicier dishes, a phenomenon that encouraged him to explore that arena more deeply.
With his own restaurant as a laboratory, it was easy for the former anthropology major to make the
shift from cultural research to culinary experimentation. "I would travel to places like Spain and
Morocco and bring their dishes back to Fourth Street," Miller explains. The restaurant prospered, and
the chef subsequently opened Santa Fe Bar and Grill, also in Berkeley, with a uniquely non-European
focus. "We did only Southwest, Caribbean and Cajun. There were no European prototypes."
Researching spicy foreign dietary customs has not been without its hazards, however. "I don't even
count food poisoning," Miller declares. "It's a slight inconvenience." He wears his more serious
brushes with gastrointestinal illness as badges of honor. "I've had amoebic dysentery six times," he
says. "Once I lost 18 pounds in one month. The doctors couldn't figure out what was wrong. Finally,
they discovered that I'd picked up a bug in Peru several years earlier."
During a trip to Guatemala, Miller was stricken with such intense intestinal pain that he was
hospitalized. "Nothing worked until I went to a local shaman," who fixed him up with an infusion of
pounded local herbs, stems and roots.
If Miller's culinary adventures seem to resemble Indiana Jones' exploits in Raiders of the Lost Ark, it
is because Miller operates from an anthropological perspective. "I have to go to the source to taste it,
to know it," he insists.
That desire (and a falling-out with some of his partners) ultimately led him to sell his shares in his
Berkeley restaurants. In 1985 he moved to Santa Fe to devote himself exclusively to Southwestern
cooking and the diverse possibilities offered by chile peppers. He opened the first Coyote Café in
Santa Fe the same year. Red Sage made its debut in 1992, and the second Coyote Café was opened in
The spacious and visually breathtaking Loongbar, Miller's most recent project--and his most
ambitious to date--was also his most frustrating one. He conceived the San Francisco restaurant to
promote spicy Asian cuisine brimming with complex flavors that are sometimes unfamiliar to Western
palates. Miller designed Loongbar himself, and launched it in February 1998. Although his
partnership in the project with San Francisco's Real America restaurant group (the majority owner)
was dissolved in September, the restaurant's evolution illustrates the challenges confronting a chef who
dares to question the status quo.
The first stumbling block was the suggested wines he listed with each dish on the menu. "We went
through 450 wines to find 20 that matched the food perfectly," says the chef. But, he says with a touch
of dismay, "No one ordered them. They still ordered the wine they thought they wanted--or
recognized--even if it didn't go with the food. They'd simply say, 'We'll have a Chardonnay.' I wanted
to help people navigate the menu with wines I had worked with. But Americans don't like being told
what to do."
Within weeks, the suggested wines were removed from the menu. "So much for that idea," Miller says
with a shrug.
Even Loongbar's inventive menu items foundered on what the chef calls a fickle, lazy American
palate--one that seeks out comfort foods more readily than new flavors. At Loongbar, Miller tried to
evoke the traditions of various Asian cuisines. "I was conveying three palate areas: Japan, which is
purity of flavor; Southeast Asia, high aromatics; and Central Szechuan, a smoky, layered cuisine [that
can also be quite spicy]. People aren't eating real Asian food today in America."
Loongbar was not Miller's first professional brush with Asian cooking. Although no longer involved
with them, he was a founding partner in two East Coast restaurants called Raku--one in Washington,
D.C., the other in Bethesda, Md. Both restaurants serve traditional Asian fast foods--the Japanese
word raku refers to something that appears simple but is actually complex.
With Loongbar--the first part of the name, loong, is the Chinese word for "dragon"--Miller tried to
launch a more upscale venture, and this is immediately apparent from the elegant oriental decor.
The original menu featured dishes like tea-smoked squab and camphor-smoked duck,
cinnamon-roasted rabbit, steamed chile pork buns with tamarind ginger sauce, and whole roasted red
snapper with litchi and habanero chiles. The food was as inspiring as the restaurant's exotic and
artistic ambience. Yet some diners--including one influential local restaurant critic--did not seem to
understand or appreciate what Miller was presenting. Reviews were mixed.
"People didn't want squab, pork and bones on their plates," Miller laments, suggesting that his
cooking was too challenging for some customers.
"I don't think it was the food," says his friend Alice Waters. "I loved it. But the restaurant wasn't
necessarily accommodating to many of the people [tourists] who frequent Ghirardelli Square--the
prices were a little high, and the entrance was hidden around the corner. It was a difficult proposition.
"Mark sure knows how to do inexpensive food," she adds. That's true, and due in part to the fact that
much of his inspiration stems from cultures that are far from wealthy. Eventually, Miller and Real
America decided to shift the restaurant's focus.
"The menu is drifting more toward seafood," Miller says with resignation. "The prices will be a little
And Miller himself will be gone.
Nonetheless, the peripatetic chef continues his jet-setting pace. The professor of taste says he averages
300 airplane flights annually and manages to visit all of his far-flung restaurants with regularity. He
travels to Europe, Asia and South America two to three times a year, teaches cooking classes
throughout the United States and works as a food consultant and "palate coach" for such clients as
American Airlines, the Japanese Rice Council, Nestlé, Kellogg's, Taco Bell and Procter & Gamble. He
is also working on a new cookbook, his ninth.
As if all this were not enough, Miller is considering opening a restaurant in Shanghai. "It's very
exciting there," he says enthusiastically. "Chinese food is going through a revolution. For the first
time in Chinese history, you have the development of the middle class." He compares what is
occurring today in China to what happened after the French Revolution. "Before the revolution, most
cooks were hired to work in the private homes of the rich. It's still the same in Mexico today, where
most restaurants are for tourists or business people. But I've seen 50 to 100 restaurants open in one
year in [the Chinese city of] Chengdu."
Evidently, Miller's challenges at Loongbar have hardly dented his desire to work with Asian foods. He
remains a staunch champion of non-European cooking, and his books and restaurants continue to
broaden the dining horizons of many. Those who have the good fortune to attend one of Miller's
lectures on chiles and wine will be quickly won over by his passionate pursuit of high-spirited flavor
combinations. It's what drives the "ethnoculinologist" to brave the uncharted waters of Third World
kitchens. "As I get older, I'm trying to learn so much," he says. "But it seems I have less time to learn
Miller poses the old existential question, "What's the object of life?" He responds with a simplicity
that belies his intellectual approach to both living and eating. "It's to have as much pleasure as
possible." For Mark Miller, pleasure is about learning, and that means approaching the world with an
open mind--and an open mouth.
Soothing Wines for Fiery Dishes
Mark Miller believes that spicy chiles and wine can make a fine match. The chef-restaurateur is a
champion of Southwestern and Asian cuisines--both of which make liberal use of fiery spices. And
while he is a firm believer in following authentic recipes from his adopted culinary cultures, he has no
scruples about pairing them with the European tradition of mealtime wine. The trick, of course, is
choosing the right wine.
"With spice, there's a longer finish to food, so fruitier wine with lower alcohol works better," Miller
says. He avoids pairing tannic wines, like young Cabernet Sauvignon, with chile-infused dishes.
"They clash," he explains, adding that softer, round wines with forward flavors seem to work best with
many of the meals served at his Coyote Café restaurants in Santa Fe, N.M. and Las Vegas. For white
wines, Miller leans toward Sauvignon Blanc and white Rhône blends that use Viognier, Roussane or
Marsanne; for reds, he prefers Syrah, Grenache or Pinot Noir. "I like New World wines because they
seem to show more fruit," he observes.
Miller cautions against lumping spicy food into a single category. "People tend to look at only one
component," he says. "But a mole [a spicy Mexican sauce] has 29 different components. Who's to
say it's spicy when it has all these other elements? Spice is not an end-product; it enhances flavor."
The chef is also quick to point out that not everything he makes is fiery. Southwestern fare, as featured
at Coyote Café, for example, can be intricate and satisfying without spice. "Even a simple tortilla has a
complex flavor in terms of corn, toast and fat," he says, adding that aged Chardonnay offers a
toastiness that blends well with this and other corn-based dishes.
Miller regularly gives cooking classes throughout the United States. For wine aficionados, however, it
is his presentation on chiles and wine that strikes the most resonant chord. In one lecture, dried chile
peppers occupy center stage on a tray in front of each taster. Some have names that resonate with a
certain familiarity--ancho, cayenne, chipotle, habanero. Others, like chilhuacle, chilcostle, guajillo, onza,
pasilla de oaxaca and tuxtla, appear downright exotic.
He explains that chiles originated in the Amazon jungle and were widely used in the diets of the
Aztecs, Incas and Mayas. Spanish conquistadors brought chiles to Europe, and by the mid-1600s the
New World spices had reached North Africa, India, Southeast Asia and China.
Miller leads his subjects through the chile tasting. Small bites are necessary, as overzealous--and
overheated--munchers soon discover. But as the tasting progresses, Miller's descriptions of the many
flavors in each chile recall a similar vocabulary for wine tasting.
Some chiles are fruity, with citrus, raisin, plum, cherry and black currant notes. Others offer more
tropical tones, leaning toward mango, coconut and papaya. Most interesting, perhaps, are those chiles
that evoke coffee, chocolate, licorice, nuts, smoke, grass, tea and black pepper.
When it comes to pairing chiles with wines, opinions vary on whether whites work better than reds.
But it does seem, as Miller suggests, that supple New World varietals match more convincingly with
complex, spicy chiles than do leaner red Bordeaux or steely white Burgundies.
The wines Miller prefers with spicy dishes are also attractive from an economic point of view. "I look
for less expensive varietals, because they use less wood and show more fruit," he says.
With the current proliferation of wood chip-soaked fighting varietals, Miller's theory may not be
totally sound today. But his own cooking and wine suggestions clearly demonstrate that there is a
place for wine in spicy, non-Western dining traditions. And that's good news for wine drinkers who
love Chinese, Vietnamese, Thai, Indian and Southwestern cooking.--J.M.
Chef Bio: Mark Miller
The internationally recognized chef, restaurateur and
author attributes his interest in regional and ethnic
cooking to having studied anthropology at the
University of California at Berkeley. In 1979,
two-and-a-half years after graduation, Mark Miller
undertook his first venture opening the Fourth Street
Grill in San Francisco. The restaurant is now
considered a classic of the American wood-fire grill
genre. Due to his interest in the American Southwest
cuisine, Miller opened the Santa Fe Bar & Grill in
Berkeley and later moved to Santa Fe to open the
now legendary Coyote Café.
In 1992, Miller opened the Red Sage in Washington,
D.C. forging a new regional cuisine, defined as
"modern Southwestern," and captured the spirit and
style of the American West in both design and
cuisine. In December of 1993, Miller mastered the
true modern Southwestern style with the opening of
the Coyote Café and Grill Room at the MGM Grand in
Continuing to draw inspiration from different
cultures, Miller turned his expertise and passion to
Southeast Asian cuisine and opened Raku an Asian
diner in two D.C. locations. Diners can experience
Millers take on local ethnic dishes from Japan,
China, Thailand, and Vietnam. He also opened
Loongbar ("loong" being the Chinese word for
dragon) in Ghirardelli Square in San Francisco.
>From the beginning of his career, Mark Miller
received critical acclaim and honors and has been
recognized as one of the most influential chefs. He
received awards for all of his restaurants, including
"Best Southwestern Restaurant" for the Coyote Café
by the James Beard Foundation in 1996. Miller is the
author of nine cookbooks, including the best-selling
Coyote Café Cookbook, the Great Chile Book, The
Great Salsa Book and Mark Millers Indian Market
Cookbook. In 1992, Miller further popularized
Southwest cuisine through retailing the Coyote
Cucina line of specialty products, based on the
recipes from Coyote Café. Miller is also an active
food consultant and a key speaker on national and
international panels on history and sociology of
Mark Miller is owner/operator of Coyote Cafe in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and at the
MGM Grand in Las Vegas; Red Sage in Washington DC; Raku in Washington DC and
Bethesda, Maryland; and Loongbar in San Francisco. He also has an academic
background in anthropology. He thinks one reason Americans have steered clear of
the study of food is that it makes them uncomfortable. "Probably because of our
Puritan heritage, food borders on a taboo subject, like sex," he says. "Plus, there's a
romanticism with food. It's very emotional, and it's associated with idealistic
things-mother and home and comfort. Most Americans don't want to disturb their
romantic imagery by thinking about digestion or other physiological processes."