With more than 25 restaurants across the US making up his empire, Michael Mina has to be one of the City’s most prolific Chef restaurateurs. Since the SF Bay Area is his home base, it has the highest concentration with a total of ten establishments. We haven’t made it to all ten, but we do like Pabu and eating at the bar of his namesake restaurant. There were some misses for us too, like the Bourbon Steak and Pub at Levi’s Stadium, but we didn’t eat there on 49er game days. Perhaps the 49er tailgates that he oversees are great, but it’s members only for season ticket holders. We had often wondered if perhaps Chef Mina might be overextended, but his latest entry to his extensive portfolio, The Mina Test Kitchen, proved us wrong.
Taking over the Cafe Claude space in the Marina, Chef Mina decided to open the “test” kitchen where he would try out different concepts that may or may not turn into a real restaurant. The first incarnation of the “pop-up” dinner series is called Middle’Terranea, where he and Chef Adam Sobel (former Executive Chef/Partner of RN74) came up with a concept that is near and dear to their hearts: the cuisine of eastern Mediterranean countries. Chef Mina was born in Egypt and Partner/Chef Sobel is half-Israeli, and their passion for reflecting their cultural heritage comes through loud and clear in this first concept.
Reservations for the very affordable – and excellent – $45 multi-course meal served family style are secured via a pre-paid Resy ticketing system. All diners are served mostly the same menu; the only choices are a supplemental fish course or a selection of grilled meats. Beverage pairings are $39, purchased in advance or once seated. We purchased a couple of tickets as soon as we got notice that they were available.
Brown paper covered tables are pre-set with hand-stamped menus and tins containing silverware.
The decor didn’t change much from when it was Cafe Claude, with French-influenced velvet fleur de lys wallpaper and the ornately gilded bar.
The “loophole” (no spirits) bar program includes some very innovative cocktails. We started with a Lebanese Blonde (Cocchi Rosa Americano, Tempus Fugit Kina l’Aéro d’Or, Mango, Lemon) and an Ashraf (Dolin Dry Vermouth, Kina l’Aéro d’Or, Apricot, Lemon & Lime Juices, Greek Yogurt). Both drinks were very good, but the Ashraf was spectacular (note that every server will probably tell you that Ashraf is Chef Mina’s given Egyptian name). Who would have guessed that Greek yogurt would work so well in a cocktail?
The first course, The Greet, is a beautiful and refreshing mini popsicle made with frozen limonata containing basil strips. A small cube of a white peach and basil bud were drizzled with olive oil and sprinkled with sea salt.
The next course, Laffa, turned out to be our favorite of the evening. We each got a warm flatbread topped with salmon cured with Za’atar (an eastern Mediterranean spice blend that typically includes oregano, sumac and sesame seeds), red onion, beet labneh (a fresh cheese made with yogurt), fried zucchini and salmon roe. We did opt for the wine pairing and the Laffa was paired with a mead from Sap House Meadery from New Hampshire (not pictured).
We were instructed to fold the laffa in half and eat it like a taco. It was so good that we wolfed it down pretty fast.
Next up was the Salatim course. Salatim is an Israeli way of starting a meal with an assortment of small salads and dips. Michael Mina is pretty well known for serving dishes in trios and that custom continued here. Starting from top right of the photo is the avocado salad featuring pickled hot peppers, summer vegetables, fried walnuts and kataifi (shredded pastry dough) that was all dressed with schug (a spicy pepper sauce). The top left of the photo is a marinated cherry tomato salad made with Saganaki-style Halloumi (cheese), sesame seeds and medjool dates that was dressed with a brown butter saba vinaigratte. The last salad (photo front) was a watercress, lovage and mint salad that came with persian cucmbers, toasted pistachios and watermelon. The watermelon in the salad was a nice surprise, pairing well with the cucumber and watercress.
The Salatim course was paired with a Greek white wine: 2014 Sigalas Assyrtiko from Santorini (not pictured). For some reason, our server had brought out four glasses and poured out this and the next course’s wine pairings which made for a very crowded table. The other two glasses were filled with a 2014 Raventos i Blanc Rosé of Pinot Noir from Spain. At the time, it wasn’t clear to us whether the two different wines were meant to pair with specific salads (and there were no instructions), so we drank both until our server came back and told us that the second pair was meant for the next course. She came back and poured a little more of the second wine when she realized her mistake.
A Mediterranean meal can’t be considered complete without hummus, and the version here was excellent. Accompanied by a basket of warm flatbread, the hummus was topped with roasted cauliflower, crispy chicken skin and dried cherries.
Vegetables were served up next, arriving as a Mina threesome. From top right was a Moroccan street corn dish flavored with Chermoula yogurt, feta, orange zest, mint and green onions. Smashed and fried fingerling potatoes topped with a tomato sauce (shown left). The last vegetable dish was roasted baby eggplant and peppers flavored with sumac, sesame and oregano which was topped with labneh.
There is an optional fish course with a supplemental charge that we passed on since we were already getting full. The main course features char-grilled meats with two choices: chicken or beef (supplemental charge of $10). We opted for one of each and the charred Yemenite brisket was paired with a 2011 Mas Dix Priorat from Spain. The 16-hour slow cooked beef was spiced with cumin, coriander, turmeric and cardamom then topped with roasted red pepper. The portion was thankfully small, and we pretty much decided that some of the extra cost was to also cover the upgrade of the wine.
We also received a generous portion of the Harissa-marinated whole roasted chicken. It was good, but it probably could have used a little more cooking time to get a crispier skin (and some of the meat was too pink for our liking). The chicken was paired with a 2013 Domaine de Fontsainte Corbières red wine from France.
All of the various items, plated.
Even though we were full, the dessert course had to be eaten since it was excellent. A small strip of toasted sesame Tárta that was topped with mango slices was precariously balanced over a bowl that contained a deliciously light but rich tasting frozen Greek yogurt. The drizzling of cardamom honey tied both components together. The dessert was paired with a 2013 Domaine de Durband Muscat de Beaumes-de-Venise from France.
The overall meal, especially given the caliber of both partner chefs, was an excellent value at $45 per person. The wine pairing, at $39 was an okay value – the pours were rather meager and we probably will just order off of the bottle list for future visits. We did end up taking some of the chicken and vegetable items home since there was a lot of food. Our check arrived with a box that contained house made nougats which we later enjoyed.
Chef Mina (and his son in chef’s garb) made the rounds with some tables for a quick chat.
A view of the outside of the restaurant shows how nondescript the Mina Test Kitchen is.
We overheard Chef Mina letting another table know that he already has an idea for the next pop-up series when Middle’Terranea ends it’s run sometime in the late fall. We’ve already made reservations for a return trip; now it’s your turn to do so before they turn into something else.