Mina's Mediterraneo opened a few months ago but feels like it's been around for years. You could credit the food, which features cozy dishes like mac 'n' cheese, coq au vin, and spaghetti Bolognese. Or perhaps it's the setting -- a refurbished Haitian church on the Upper Eastside's NE 79th Street, a road known more for traffic than remarkable cuisine.
You've probably passed Mina's and thought it would be a nice place to try. But when Friday comes along, you forget about this discreet, narrow building and its boxy black-and-white sign. Nothing about Mina's begs for attention. This kind of restaurant waits around for you like a parent at a playground.
One day, though, you'll drive into the sweeping parking lot and greet the short, cheery Haitian guy who helps you find a spot even when the lot is empty. Before you know it, you'll tear into spanakopita, drink Moroccan beer from the bottle, and order extra servings of dip from the soft-spoken waiters in black. The besara is a grassy mash of fava beans, cilantro, and celery topped with fried onions and crammed with dill. Mina's baba ghanouj combines eggplant with chickpeas and tzatziki. It's smoky and pasty, and plays exceptionally well with others -- particularly the harissa-marinated feta cheese or tahini spiked heavily with cumin.
You can make a meal out of it with two or three servings of stuffed cabbage. Smothered in tomato sauce and filled with rice and meat, four chubby pieces arrive on each plate. And at only $6, it's worth requesting a few more. Add an order of grape leaves. They boast a similar stuffing, cooled by a bright tzatziki.
The cooking at Mina's might remind you of a potluck supper hosted by friends from Egypt, Greece, Italy, Spain, and France. The kitchen is led by Yasmine Kotb and her mother, who personally trained the staff in the family's most cherished recipes. Slurp the lentil soup, a dish that Kotb ate as a kid. It's thick, creamy, and puréed; the bowl is scattered with golden baked pita chips that double as spoons. I can't think of a more soothing after-school snack.
There are other reminders that Mina's is run by a family and not a chef. The lamb osso buco, slow-cooked in red wine and carrots until its meat is plump and tender, rests atop clumpy mashed potatoes. The chocolate tart, prepared on a gluten-free almond crust and paired with whipped cream, is too rich. The baklava, doused in honeyed syrup and layered with crushed pistachios, is tougher than it should be. Mina's has its share of shortcomings, but they're more quirks than flops.
It helps that no complaints can be uttered about the bill. On a recent visit, a meal for four -- including beer and wine -- Indeed, Mina's is a lovely place to share. Moussaka, layered with eggplant, béchamel, potatoes, and beef, is fragrant with cinnamon. It's also crowned with tiny, blistered spots of white sauce. The baked beef bourguignon stacks hunks of meat, braised with pearl onions and mushrooms, beneath a thick layer of mashed potatoes. It's where shepherd's pie meets Julia Child, an offering that tastes best washed down with a bottle of Lebanese wine the first day of winter. "This place feels like it's not in Miami," sighs a curly-haired woman on a Friday night.
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The Israeli salad offers a lighter take. It couples chunks of cucumbers, tomatoes, radishes, and bell peppers in a lemon vinaigrette. Sure, it's listed with a choice of chicken, shrimp, or salmon. But like other parts of Mina's, it comforts for its simplicity and unfussy charm.
In this airy warehouse space, festooned with vintage travel posters and a chalkboard wall, the paella is a good plate for a family of four. The Valencian rice dish offers more protein than rice. Calamari, shrimp, chorizo, mussels, and chicken cram into a shallow iron pan. Its grains are tinted yellow, scattered with slivered red bell peppers, and adorned with lemon wedges. And although it could use more salt, when the waiter stops by your table to check in, you tell her everything is all right.
Follow Emily on Twitter @EmilyCodik.