Photo Credit: Michael Mina
Michael Mina’s status as a culinary superstar is solidified. He could easily hang-up his toque and coast on the success of his numerous celebrated restaurants. But lucky for SF and the dining public, Mina’s passion for good food and constant exploration of ‘flavor balance’ keeps him contentedly cooking for appreciative audiences.
Mina strives to create incredible meals that make patrons take notice, experience delight, and wonder, “Exactly what was in that dish?” At his latest venture, Middle’terranea, Mina’s vibrant and creative offerings easily elicit this desired reaction.
The funky ‘pop-up’ in the former Café Claude space on Greenwich at Fillmore in the Marina/Cow Hollow is part of his Mina Test Kitchen, an experimental project of continually evolving menus showcasing a variety of cuisines. Middle’terranea, with its focus on eastern Meditteranean dishes, honors Mina’s Egyptian roots and is the first three-month theme.
Mina partners with chef Adam Sobel in the creation of Middle’terranea’s prix fix family style menu ($45 per person, with an additional $39 for wine pairings) featuring dishes that combine seasonal California cuisine with the bold spices and rich flavors of Israel, Turkey, Egypt and Lebanon.
Diners are encouraged to begin with one of two ‘Specialty Concoctions’ likely not found on any other bar menu in town. Each is a nod to the two chef’s respective heritages: ‘Land of Milk & Honey’ (Sobel is Jewish) with vermouth, dates, carob, honey almond milk, egg white and soda, and the ‘Ashraf’ (Mina’s given Egyptian name) vermouth, Kina l’Aero d’Or, apricot, lemon and lime juices, and Greek yogurt.
Then the experience begins. Each successive item in the multi-course menu awakens the taste buds and creates anticipation for what comes next. First, a tiny popsicle brick of frozen limonana topped with a small peach square drizzled with olive oil, served on an ice cold tile. The presentation is fun, unexpected, and refreshing. Then it’s a Laffa ‘taco,’ a warm, fire blistered round of flatbread filled with berbere-spiced tuna, fried eggplant dip, crispy zucchini, pickled chilies, labneh and spearmint, which diners are instructed to fold and eat like a taco.
A trio of salads follows. The first included watercress and mint with toasted pistachio, Persian cucumbers, heirloom melons and olive oil-soaked halloumi (a soft cheese). Then avocado with pickled hot pepper, summer vegetables, fried walnuts, kataifi (shredded phyllo dough) and schug. And finally, heirloom tomatoes with shaved spring onions, crunchy farro, toasted sesamo, coriander blossoms, tahina and spicy lime dressing. The varied ingredients in each salad are perfectly composed to create explosions of flavor with each bite.
Creamy and luscious hummus is next, topped with fried cauliflower and crispy chicken skin, roasted garlic, dried cherries and fresh marjoram, served with more of the warm, crispy laffa. At this point, guests are provided the option to add a supplemental ($14) course of red snapper and aromatic broth, a dish Mina’s mother used to make, or move on to the main course of harissa-marinated roast chicken, or charred yemenite brisket ($10 supplemental fee) accompanied by a trio of: roasted baby eggplant, Moroccan street corn, and smashed and fried fingerling potatoes. The intense, nuanced flavors belie the humble nature of the simple vegetables.
Dessert somehow seems to contain restorative properties: a frozen Greek yogurt with preserved lime and cardamom honey, with a toasted sesame mango tarta provides just enough sweetness to satiate a sweet tooth. This type of dish is an example of why the ‘Mediterranean diet’ is a model for healthful living.
Like its ‘pop-up’ nature, Middle’terranea is fun and unpredictable. With the original Café Claude décor of burgundy damask wallpaper and gold gilt mirrors, and a lite rap background soundtrack, Mina, Sobel and their professional and friendly staff have created a dining environment that’s eclectic, and oh so haute, just like San Francisco itself.
Middle’terranea: 2120 Greenwich St., San Francisco is open for dinner Wednesday-Saturday. Purchase tickets via Resy at MinaTestKitchen.com.
Photography by Kevin McCullough