Why Would Michael Mina Change His Flagship Now?

Cook like an Egyptian.

Just after Memorial Day, Michael Mina (the restaurateur) unveiled a huge change to Michael Mina (the restaurant). Long home to power-broker fare like miso-marinated black cod and Black Angus ribeyes, the menu would now reflect the contemporary flavors of the chef’s native Cairo.

With executive chef Raj Dixit, Mina brought things in a decidedly Mediterranean direction, with proprietary spice blends and a market-price reserve caviar service with a distinctly theatrical flair. As his ever-expanding Michael Mina Group owns or has partnerships with nearly 40 restaurants worldwide, why change the 14-year-old flagship now? Essentially, it was time.

“Early in my career, I’d always worked in European or French-style kitchens, and I was focused on maybe even partly not doing this,” Mina tells SF Weekly by phone. “I felt like I needed to establish myself first, because I didn’t want to do it in a casual format. There’s enough people doing that well. I wanted to do it at an elevated level.”

Mina Test Kitchen, a somewhat experimental space in Cow Hollow, was the proving ground, as the first of its rotating incarnations was Mediterranean in nature. That stuck with Mina and Dixit ever since — although Dixit notes that the revamp has grown into its own as summer produce approached its peak.

The resulting six-course, $155 tasting menu (with optional wine and reserve wine pairings for $130 and $215, respectively) now includes dishes like a smoked fairytale eggplant with tangerine labneh, chicken oyster, and tomato conserva or a Yemenite-style beef strip loin with wild ramps, white yams, and the Moroccan tomato-pepper salad known as matbucha. (This being Michael Mina, Maine lobster and A5 Wagyu supplements are right there for the taking. There’s also plenty of foie gras, in part because it was the Ancient Egyptians who discovered gavage.)

No cuisine on earth remains uncontaminated by colonial or globalist intrusions — and, with all due respect to the region’s challenging and frequently bloody history, the food of the Eastern Mediterranean may be among the world’s most heavily influenced. Europe is in its blood already, so it made sense for Mina — a chef known for a precision approach if ever there was one — to take it on from this direction. Although Dixit’s contributions to the Mina Group extend beyond this one restaurant, he’s there every day, and Mina estimates he spends 50 to 60 percent of his time there, as well.

The year-plus it took to ready the menu included trips as far as the Golan Heights, but a lot of the labor involved playing with more than 100 spices and mixing them together in various combinations. At the mention of this, Dixit perks up further.

“We had to taste through single spices from single origins, then the varietals that we were kind of obsessed with,” he says, on the same call. “It became this process of ‘Do we want botanicals?’ and ‘What spices do we really want to focus on?’ ”

The 12 in the showcase box are those they fell most deeply in love with and which show up in places like a glazed Egyptian mango with foie gras and candied ginger. There’s also a grilled wild Mediterranean sea bass with tomato-shellfish stew and molokhiya, also known as Jew’s mallow, a root from an underexplored herb family Dixit hadn’t even heard of. Surely, in those months of toying around in the kitchen, there had to be an epiphany or two?

“Yemenite spice and Wagyu beef were an a-ha moment,” Mina says. “Taking products that we’ve cooked with for years and introducing these spices mixes to them was a lot of fun. OK: This is a really fatty cut of beef and this is a spice that has acidity, some sweetness, some richness. But it’s not typical or something people have done before.”

Michael Mina, 252 California St., 415-397-9222 or michaelmina.net

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