In late June, Michael Mina turned the idea of a restaurant on its head in San Francisco when he announced The Mina Test Kitchen, a pop-up that would allow his team of toques to experiment with different culinary concepts. “The Test Kitchen is an ever-evolving and exciting concept, allowing us to both test out possible restaurant concepts and dishes, as well as showcase our amazing culinary and beverage talent,” Mina said. “We’re utilizing the space to tap into different cultures and ways of eating, allowing our teams to collaborate and come up with fun, inventive ideas while gaining instant feedback from guests.”
The first idea, Middle’terranea (a fusion of Middle Eastern and Mediterranean cuisine), debuted in late July at an old French restaurant in Cow Hollow. Nothing about the space or its moody, boudoir-ish décor changed, allowing Mina’s culinary team to focus completely on what it does so well — food and service.
Middle’terranea is a joint project between Mina and his corporate chef, Adam Sobel. “I started working for the Mina group in 2011, and it is by far the most dynamic job I have ever had,” Sobel said. “The opportunity to collaborate with chef Mina allows his chefs to spread their wings and do their thing.” A trip to Israel inspired Sobel to study the unique cuisine of the region. Combine that journey with Mina’s Egyptian heritage and Middle’terranea was born.
“This is something that I’ve been wanting to do for a while,” Sobel said. “When I got back from Israel a few years ago, I told Mina that SF is really missing something. Could we build a legendary restaurant with the base of it being Middle Eastern and Mediterranean cuisine?” The Test Kitchen allows them to explore that possibility. Mina’s staff curated the selection of wine, beer, cider and mead from the highlighted region. If it’s a roaring success, there is a chance that the concept could turn into a full-fledged restaurant somewhere down the line.
With just a few months under his belt, Sobel is wildly enthusiastic about the project. “It’s been incredible!” he said. “It’s so exciting. We are sold out every night. It’s a 40-seat restaurant and we are doing 100 covers a night. It’s a little kitchen and the chefs are shoulder to shoulder. I feel [like] I am 16 years old again.”
The multi-course meal is served family style with the dishes arriving on large platters, giving a communal, home-like feel to the experience. On the menu, you’ll find an olive oil-soaked halloumi, thick creamy hummus and delicious harissa-marinated whole roasted chicken that Sobel says he “could eat every night.” Each dish is a delicate balance, an explosion of flavors. “Everything is hot and cold, crunchy and spicy, tangy and sweet,” Sobel added. Roughly five of the dishes will change in the next couple of weeks, but Middle’terranea (open Wednesday through Saturday from 5:30 to 10:30 p.m.) will delight crowds into October.
Although Sobel couldn’t reveal exactly which direction the Test Kitchen would go after that, he did mention the type of cuisine: Italian. If that one is anything like the current theme, foodies can expect a recipe of authentic sauces, specialty cheeses and an old-school dining ambience.