I often have to thank my lucky stars that I live in the San Francisco Bay Area, it truly is a culinary wonderland, with amazing local produce and so many great restaurants to enjoy. I read that local award winning chef and restaurateur Michael Mina had started a “pop-up test kitchen” where he is pairing up with talented chefs from the Mina Group to explore new concepts that will change every three months. The first pop-up dinner series is a collaboration with Adam Sobel executive chef of RN74 called Middle’Terranea. The menu is a celebration of Eastern Mediterranean cuisine, inspired by Mina’s Egyptian heritage and Sobel’s jewish roots. The chefs are blending local ingredients with the flavors of Israel, Turkey, Egypt and Lebanon, all served family-style in a lively location in the Marina. Not my favorite locale, because it’s so far from BART, but my tastebuds were tantalized and my curiosity hooked. I met my friends Ben who writes Focus:Snap:Eat along with frequent dining partners Daisy and P. This is the inside of the restaurant which used to be Café Claude with dark wood paneling and romantic lighting, so we opted to sit outside because it was a gorgeous sunny day and I’m a fan of bright, natural light for photographic purposes…
In the taxi, I received an intriguing text message from the restaurant reminding me that I’m due for dinner and included a recommendation to order the Ashraf cocktail, (which they mention, is Michael Mina’s real name). It is made with dry vermouth, Kina l’Aéro d’Or (an aperitif also known as the golden aeroplane), apricot, lemon and lime juices, and greek yogurt. It was lovely – tart and creamy and helped cool my tastebuds on a couple of occasions when I bit into a spicy pepper.
We exclaimed over the beautiful popsicles of frozen limonata, topped with olive oil-drizzled cubes of peach, sprinkled with sea salt, and basil bud. They were fun to eat and refreshing, full of bright flavors of the summer to wake up our tastebuds.
The first course was called Laffa, wondrously tender, chewy and crisp pita bread fresh from the oven. It resembled a taco but had the unexpected flavors of Berbere-spiced ahi tuna, baba ghanoush, crisp fried spring onions and a smear of greek yogurt that was rich and tangy. Berbere, whose name means hot in Amharic (a language spoken in Ethiopia), is a chili-spice blend that is essential to ethiopian cuisine and added intriguing and bold flavors to the dish.
We really enjoyed the Salatim a course of three brightly colored salads full of earthy vigor. Grilled Stone Fruit Fattoush, with shaved cauliflower, radish, persian cucumber, crunchy strips of pita, chilies, mint oil. Fattoush is a Lebanese salad made from toasted or fried pieces of stale pita bread, and the combination of textures was exciting and fresh. The grilled fruit was luscious and added sweetness which balanced the acidic sumac and the pungent mint oil.
The next salad had a sliced avocado underneath a mound of pickled hot peppers, thin slices of summer vegetables, fried walnuts, and was topped with shredded phyllo pastry dough called kataifi that is from Greece and schug, a classic middle eastern condiment from Yemen that is made with jalapeño peppers, garlic, fresh coriander and cumin seeds. The kataifi and walnuts added a thrilling crunch to each bite of the creamy avocado, which resonated with the sultry flavors of the spicy schug.
The last salad was sweet from pieces of medjool dates rolled in toasted sesame seeds combined with marinated cherry tomatoes, pan seared halloumi cheese which was salty and curdlike (not at all melty) and strands of pungent peppery watercress tossed with a mouthwatering brown butter-saba vinaigrette. It was an unusual combination and I usually don’t like sweet salads, but I couldn’t stop digging in for another bite.
The hummus plate was a super deluxe version, more beautiful than any I’ve ever seen… a feast for the eyes!
The hummus, a pureed chickpea dip, formed a base topped with spicy lamb ragu, toasted pine nuts, pomegranate, crispy zucchini chips, and sprinkled with spicy za’atar. It was full of flavor and contrasting textures, each bite was so good scooped up with the crisp and chewy flatbread.
I ordered the Garlic prawn shakshuka (which was a supplemental course for $12). It was a small dish of fried quail egg in matbucha (an African dish of cooked tomatoes and roasted bell peppers seasoned with garlic and chili pepper), with tender garlic prawns sprinkled with spicy aleppo pepper and fragrant dill blossom which combined to make an intoxicating aroma. This tasted even better than it looks and I will now order shakshuka anytime I see it on a menu because I love runny eggs in sauce and it is fun to say shock shoe ka.
The main course was harissa-marinated roasted chicken that was cut into pieces and dusted with chili powder and spices. The chicken was juicy and tender and the skin was browned and beautiful to behold.
Underneath the chicken were the smashed and fried fingerling potatoes that were liberally coated with the spicy schug sauce.
We elected to try a plate of the Charred Yemenite Brisket ($10 supplemental), which was not on the menu. The brisket was tender, cut into small cubes and mixed in with spicy roasted vegetables which was undistinguished and plain.
A vegetable dish came alongside the entree, Moroccan Street Corn, mixed with chermoula yogurt, feta, cayenne pepper, orange zest, fresh mint, and green onions. Chermoula, is a classic Moroccan blend of spices with fresh coriander and cumin and fresh chilies, which gave it a rich herbal and spicy flavor.
I was glad we chose to sit outside in the bright light, look at how dark the interior of the restaurant is.
The MINA Test Kitchen Pop-Up Series began in July 2015 with Middle’terranea running through Fall 2015, Wednesday through Saturday evenings from 5:30pm-10pm.
Tickets are $45 per person, exclusive of tax and gratuity for a multi-course family-style tasting menu. An optional beverage pairing is available for $39 per person.