I had just finished my first float in a sensory deprivation tank a couple of blocks away*, and was in a blissed-out, easy-breezy, super-relaxed state of mind (no Purple Kush needed). Walking into MIDDLE’TERRANEA, at the new Mina Test Kitchen, it was initially a bit of sensory overload. The gaudy brocade wallpaper that would make a Barbary Coast hooker proud (and don’t get me wrong, I love me some gaudy) from its previous incarnation as Café Claude Marina was still intact, and the low-ceilinged and dimly lit place was positively packed and buzzing with people.
While I was waiting at the bar for our table, a guest’s harissa chicken was served nearby, and I couldn’t believe how remarkable it smelled. Aroma city. My senses were a bit heightened, granted, but fortunately when it was my turn to have that roasted chicken placed in front of me, the earlier encounter wasn’t just a case of a trompe-l’œil, the nose version (trompe-le nez?). That succulent chicken was fricking delicious.
Chef Adam Sobel (of Michael Mina’s RN74) is a talented chef, but in the Test Kitchen, the two of them have created something extra-special together. Culinary alchemy. It’s a style of Mediterranean and Middle Eastern food that has been missing in San Francisco, a big step up from from your local hummus and falafel joint, something more like the food you drool over in your copy of Ottolenghi’s Plenty (or his Instagram feed), but brushed with a restaurant kitchen’s elegant and technique-driven veneer. Flavors and ingredients span the favorite part of my spice rack, from Moroccan to Turkish, plus you’ll taste Israeli, Egyptian, and Lebanese influences.
And, of course, the ingredient sourcing is tops. Vegetables are celebrated here, and you’ll have a glimmer of what a really happy vegetarian diet would look like. It would definitely have their Moroccan street corn (with chermoula yogurt) in it, and the salad of lovage, watercress, and mint with melons and halloumi and whisper of orange blossom water. (If you have any dietary restrictions, or want an all-vegetarian meal, be sure to give them advance notice.)
At Middle’terranea, it’s a set menu that you prepay for with your reservation on the website, like a ticket—it’s served family style, and for $45, it’s a screaming deal (exclusive of tax and gratuity). Like, is this SF 2015? I couldn’t believe the generous amount of food they put up. You will walk out of there quite stuffed (I even had to bring some of my food home, and it was the best lunch the next day). You will feel taken care of, and inspired too—and wanting to come back with your friends (pssst, book that big table in the back!). Also worth noting: some seats are available for walk-ins at the bar, so you can try your luck at that if you’re feeling capricious (or impatient for a reservation).
A crowd-pleaser is the warm laffa (flatbread) that you pick up like a taco, containing za’atar-cured salmon, red onion lebneh, shaved Chioggia beet, and the delightful crunch of zucchini chips inside. It was something I loved about the dishes here: texture. They pay close attention to it (and the play of temperature too).
You’ll also note a deft layering of flavors, like in the dish of beautifully ripe heirloom tomatoes, elevated with tahini, spicy lime dressing, toasted sesame, coriander blossoms, shaved onion, and then a crunch from the farro. It was a next-level tomato salad, one I’d like to have in my life, often.
My friend and I opted for the supplemental fish course ($14) and split it. A few spoonfuls of that aromatic broth, with a base of grilled lemon, saffron, and tomato, with a medley of herbs poured over the red snapper from a French press pot, and you’re like, yeah, that was a good move. (Go ahead, just pour it into my mouth.)
Sobel is experimenting and swapping in new dishes through fall, which is when this particular pop-up will be replaced with something else, so there are no guarantees that any of these dishes will be on the menu. I’m hoping they open this concept as a permanent location. They’d crush it.
You can go for the $30 beverage pairing, which has some fun picks like mead and a dry-hopped cider, or you can go for a glass of their Raventós i Blanc rosé of pinot noir and call it a day. I found sections of the bottle list to be overpriced—it would be nice to see a few affordable picks nestled in there.
I also wasn’t feeling two of the (almost) smoothie-like cocktails I tried, they needed some lightness and balance. I visited in the beginning weeks, so things like this, and service and flow are going to get smoothed out (we had a few lags in the meal). They’re working out of a galley-sized kitchen, and the menu is full of multiple courses, so I find the whole thing a bit wondrous.
Just get over there.
This review was based on one visit.
*Booking a pre-dinner float at Reboot Float Spa was pretty dreamy. Profoundly relaxing. And it did amazing things for my sore muscles and back too. If you want to check it out, use code TABLEHOPPER for $10 off! Thank me later. Mwah! Laffa (flatbread) with za’atar-cured salmon, red onion lebneh, shaved Chioggia beet, and zucchini chips. All photos: © tablehopper.com.