Ta-ta-ta-tapas! Small dishes, big potential at Mas

From the look and feel of it, an architectural and culinary renaissance is about to hit Belmont. And its name, from the Spanish for "more," is Mas.

Dish popped into the old Hog Heaven spot at the fork of Hinton and Carlton Avenues last week to see how things were shaping up at Kirby Vernon and Katie Swensen's soon-to-be tapas haven. What we found was a place still far from complete, but already abuzz with activity.

As a big fan of urban renewal and of small, savory dishes done right, Dish is doubly optimistic about this new eatery set to open (at least for private parties) in a month or so– inspectors and permits willing. The fact that the brick oven, once finished, will take a month to dry before it can start baking breads and other goodies makes us want to start praying for miracles.

We just missed Vernon, but were lucky to get a personal tour by architect Alexander Kitchin. After months of work, it's not too much of a stretch to visualize how stunning, yet also somehow practical and unpretentious, Mas will be. Though it's bound to drop jaws, or at least spark smiles, the design, which could be described as "Gaudi goes industrial," is perfectly appropriate for a tapas bar in Belmont. It's obvious that those involved in the project have respect for both the architecture and the existing community of this downtown neighborhood, made up mostly of century-old, low-rise buildings, garages and workshops, and private residences– and that they hope to blend in and unify, not dominate.

Among other dazzling details, the main restaurant will feature a 54-foot hand-hammered copper bar (crafted by local artist Alexander Collier) extending from inside out onto the curved patio, a sunken lounge with mosaic-encrusted walls, custom lighting, and a special high-temperature dishwasher that conserves water as it cleans. Set to open about six months after the restaurant is an adjacent café. (Dish hopes they keep the nifty, hand-glazed pastel cinderblock walls.)

Dish discovered that this promontory promises more than good eats in a well-crafted setting. Studio 206, the ever-blossoming mind-and-body fitness center on Market Street, plans to open a Belmont annex just above the restaurant. We love the idea of going from "downward dog" to raising a glass of Rioja in the time it takes to walk down a flight of stairs. Studio founder and director Chris Friedman feels that her satellite studio "dovetails perfectly" with the new tapas bar.

Mas may imply excess, but chef Tomas Rehal (of Continental Divide and Mono Loco tapas night fame) assures us that that his menu will be "rustic, not refined." Just like the building, Mas' menu will interpret tradition with an inventive, improvisational flair. Rehal says he'll strive to stay true to Spanish tapas (he spent over a month tasting his way through Northern Spain with Vernon) as much as possible. But because Charlottesville is a long way from San Sebastian, he will also look for local equivalents wherever possible and improvise with the seasons.

Rehal also promises reasonable prices (from $1-$6 for tapas, twice that for entrée-sized raciones), and a pared-down kitchen staff that he says will virtually guarantee consistent service and quality. We hope he's right.


Say hello to the new Métro:

Further proof that an upbeat, inventive decor (combined with stellar cuisine and service) is the way to win the hearts of Charlottesville diners is the made-over Métropolitain. While Mas' doors are still being crafted, this French-with-a-twist queen re-opened hers for dinner last Wednesday, November 13. Pull up a bar stool or a blue-backed chair, and let the new colors and flavors of Métro make you say oui.