Yasmine Kobt's deep brown eyes have a hard time hiding her real feelings about her restaurant, Mina's Mediterraneo. The large, airy space was a dry-cleaning facility decades ago, but when Kobt recently purchased the property, it was a skeleton of a building.
In a project that took more than a year, Kobt's construction team renovated the space into a comfortable, open dining room, with a bar and garden patio.
Kobt explains that opening a restaurant was unfamiliar to her. But as she looks around and gestures toward large windows that let in natural light, her eyes scream, I'm so proud of my place!
With help from her parents, who own Mediterraneo in Nassau Bay near Houston, Kobt decided a couple of years ago that bidding on a place was the smartest thing to do. "I felt like the opportunity was right to capitalize on real estate," she says. So she bought the rundown building -- with a sad excuse for a roof, no plumbing, no windows, and one nasty bathroom.
Today, the patio and wraparound terrace can accommodate double the interior capacity. Behind and next to the building is an enormous parking lot, and just beyond it sits Kobt's herb garden. Plus, there's a brand-new bathroom.
She consulted with Emilio Estefan, whom she'd met years ago while working as a tour manager for big-name acts such as Beyoncé, Coldplay, and Britney Spears. Estefan offered her one of his properties in South Beach -- but she was not interested in the transient clientele on the Beach. She wanted something with a better neighborhood vibe.
That's exactly what Mina's feels like -- a warehouse-style neighborhood restaurant that caters to couples as much as it attracts large families and business folks grabbing a bite on their break. The space is decorated with art-deco-era tourism posters of cities in the Mediterranean.
Kobt's family is Egyptian. She grew up in Texas and lived in New York and London. When she arrived in Miami for the first time ten years ago, she left feeling like she might have something to come back to. In Houston, her parents own Mediterraneo, which has been in business for decades and is still run by her mom and dad.
"My mom is helping the cooks out in the kitchen while she's in town," Kobt says of Mina's. Everything on the menu is made from scratch, down to the phyllo dough used in the pastries. "The only thing we buy already prepared are the grape leaves, which come jarred," she corrects with a chuckle. "My mom said I should grow grape vines outside and use those leaves, but I'm not going to wait for those to grow."
The menu is extensive and, as Kobt wanted, embraces all of the Mediterranean region -- not just Greek and Middle Eastern, which are the first cuisines that come to mind when people think of Mediterranean food.
Indeed, there are Greek dishes such as spanakopita (spinach and feta pastries, $4), and moussaka (baked eggplant with potato, bechemal, and beef ragout, $12). But there is also baked beef bourguignon ($15), coq au vin ($15), osso buco ($16), and chicken Milanese ($14). All of the dishes are her family's recipes. The coq au vin, for example, was served as a special one night at her parents' Houston restaurant. It was such a hit that Kobt decided to make it a regular menu item at Mina's.
"And the lentil soup is the same lentil soup I've been eating since I was a kid," she boasts.
We were curious if she felt "behind the game" because she's relying on a back-of-the-house staff of seven to whip everything out of the kitchen. Nowadays, the name of the game is to have an up-and-coming chef at a new restaurant and have everything on the menu be chef-driven.
"I don't have to pay a chef, so I can keep my prices lower," she says. "My mom is in there training them and making sure they know how to make everything perfectly the way she would. What chefs are studying in culinary school is what my grandmother just did on her own."
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Aiming to give Miami a great neighborhood restaurant, and possessing a tenacious knack for doing what works for her (versus what's trending), Kobt will be ready to greet customers at the door when they arrive.
Mina's Mediterraneo is open for lunch and dinner Tuesday through Thursday and Sunday from noon to 10 p.m., and Friday and Saturday from noon to 11 p.m.
Follow Alex on Twitter @ARodWrites.