FOOD- THE EATER- Oh, sir? Can I have some Mas, please?
PHOTO BY RYAN HOOVER Johnny Ramone once defended his band by observing that if you didn't like the current song, you should sit tight because it would be over in about a minute and you might like the next one. The same might be said about Belmont's Mas Tapas' brief but exciting dishes. And there are other ways in which Mas is kind of like the Ramones: despite the occasional yawner, everyone seems to love the place, and it's easy to understand why.
Maybe there's even a conscious subtext in the restaurant's design and function: obviously, the Spanish concept of tapas— smaller dishes that people share around the table— has a correlation to the Ramones' short songs. And tapas, like the Ramones, did not become a household word in America until the ‘90s (too late, alas, for the town's first tapateria, La Barraca, which opened circa 1989 and closed a year or two later).
The Ramones and Mas both have appearance and tempo galore: black clad and swift, never manic, never strained, never assaulting– made to look easy (I'm talking about the band on the one hand, and Mas's service on the other). True, the servers at Mas tend to be more attractive, polite, and clean than the Ramones, even if they have to work harder to achieve the hipness to which Dee Dee– the only Ramone to die of unnatural causes– was tragically born. But the model still works.
The inner space is functional mod: exposed brick and a long concrete bar behind which both kitchen fires and cooks smolder; comfortable booths along the window, and in back, down a half-level, a cool non-smoking room with tables and a lot of headroom. The patio is out front, a big triangle that even with prodigious umbrella cover can get hot on a summer night before the sun sets behind the trees.
It's obviously a restaurant, but one person pulled his bike up and asked me if I knew where Mas Tapas was. The sign says "Bar Tapas," echoing the unpretentious signs of Barcelona tapas bars.
On our first visit, rain threatened, and we sat at the concrete bar, drooling over the displayed boquerones, tortilla espanola, and fresh fava beans while we sipped cold Stellas and nibbled on spiced olives. Then we moved to a booth at the entry, from where we could observe the waitstaff at the cash register work up a healthy lather.
We managed to just squeeze onto the patio on our second visit. On a third visit, we came early to brave the Spanish-style heat as we took our choice of patio seats.
We didn't have a wine list yet, and one of the waitresses, obviously on the new side, didn't know the Basque wine whose name I couldn't remember. But before she could finish saying "Um," she tapped a passing and more Mas-seasoned waitress who knew it immediately: "the Ameztoi. Sure." And soon it was in my hand.
It will not be useful, however, to attempt to relate each Mas dish to a Ramones song (although it is tempting to compare the ensalata de arugula, with its hard-hardboiled egg quarters, uncut grape tomatoes, scant manchego, and overly simple vinaigrette to the amusing but also uninspiring "I Don't Care" from Rocket to Russia).
We're partial to the tapas format (and the Spanish don't have a monopoly on it— think of Chinese dim sum and Greek mezethes, to begin the list)– and Mas' food is mostly delicious and exciting. And even though by working the tapas vein, chef Tomas Rahal avoids some of the challenges of putting together perfect combination plates, he still comes up with some wonderfully unexpected groupings.
We could eat datil con tocino— dates wrapped in applewood-smoked bacon, which arrive still sizzling in a small cast-iron pan— as often as we listen to "Rockaway Beach" without getting bored. What comes next is up to the customer.
One of owner/chef Rahal's most important and effective dictums is that he never uses restaurant food distributors like Sysco.
"I send them packing," he says. "They laugh and say, ‘You'll come back to us,' but I won't. It wouldn't be worth doing at all if I had to do that."
This doesn't mean that everything's perfect; but it does differentiate Mas from most other restaurants at the level of palette, which is purely its own.
The house-baked bread has a fine, chewy consistency with a slightly sweet undertone and a dark, crisp crust. You can't get it anywhere but here, where you can order it as one of the cheapest tapas, or find it accompanying dishes like the generous and rich queso con alcachofas, a hot artichoke and goat-cheese spread with gooey onions and herbs; or the perfect almejas con salchicha, tiny Manilla clams in garlicky, lemony broth with parsley and a bit of sweet sausage. We found ourselves mopping out both bowls with the last of the pan.
Success in simplicity ("Hey Ho") lives at Mas in the form of broccolini salteado— sauteed in olive oil, garlic, and Jerez Amontillado, a dark sherry. It has the crunch of freshness and crisp of high-heat searing, perfect for picking up with fingers to munch (Rahal says utensils and individual plates are a concession to Charlottesville patrons).
Or in patatas bravas, roasted potatoes, hotter than you can eat when they arrive in the small black pan, and truly spicy. The potatoes are complicated only by the slightly dull (needing the zip of salt and or lemon) garlic aioli (which is, along with garamont goat cheese, nearly ubiquitous at Mas).
But there are also small masterpieces of production (Phil Spector, anyone?) like the arepas con carne, a crisp-browned corn tortilla filled with shredded Kobe beef short-rib meat and a hint of goat cheese offset by a nicely acidic roasted tomato salsa. The sautéed morel mushrooms, morillas salteados, flavored with shallots, Amontillado, sweet butter, and thyme, are a softer, velvetier version of our own homecooked morel crisps in butter, salt, pepper, and parsley. We selfishly worked on the arepas and morillas while members of our party stepped away from the table.
The wine list is extensive yet focused, with a great sampling of Spanish cavas, sherries, blacos, rosados, and riojas. Especially pleasing is the Basque white tzakoli; try our favorite, the Ameztoi Getariako Tzakolina, a light acidic crisp beauty with slight effervescence. Cavas and tzakoli are best drunk young. Kind of like the Ramones.
PHOTO BY RYAN HOOVER
PHOTO BY RYAN HOOVER