I don’t want to like carefully crafted rough interiors. I don’t want to hang out with the too-hip-for-words post-college twenty-something crowd. I don’t want to wait a hour for a table standing in cold doorways inches away from the pouring rain. I do all of these things, however, at Mas Tapas, the ultra-popular restaurant bar in the fashionable Belmont district in Charlottesville. And I want more.
The place embodies a dining paradox for me. It seems to throw in your face all of the hypocrisies that have corrupted the foodie movement, extolling the virtues of locally grown produce while serving up Kobe beef and wild Alaskan salmon, catering to a crowd that knows more about Wolfgang Puck than Alice Waters. In the post-organic era, chefs waxing poetic about the importance of whatever the trendy food stuff of the day is tend to irritate me. But it is clear from the simplicity of the preparations, the exceptional quality of the ingredients, and the precision skill used to craft his dishes, chef-owner Tomas Rahal has a passion for food that cannot be tarnished by such cynicism.
Rahal’s lack of humility about his creations is at times infuriating, a quirk only made tolerable by his flawless delivery. He actually used the word “incomparable” on the menu to describe the Jamon Paleta Iberico, a dish simply of thinly sliced long aged acorn-fed Spanish ham with Manchego and bread, an adjective I simply cannot leave unchallenged. After hastily trying the meat by itself, I found it quite good but far from the best I have ever had, and started to rebuke Rahal’s hubris. But after pairing it with the cheese and bread, the razor thin slices of pig were transformed as if by some magic trick into a masterpiece of fleeting unearthly flavor and I was forced to recant my criticism.
The wait staff is the near pinnacle of their profession. Fine dining it isn’t, but they excel at making their customers happy. With a restaurant this popular, I have often seen the staff develop an unfortunate air of superiority that the crew at Mas have thankfully avoided. Usually smiling, they navigate the hipster mayhem with deft skill.
The wine list can be daunting as Mas maintains a broad selection, most being unusual or rare. But the staff offers intelligent informed suggestions for wine with a complete absence of pretense and snobbery. The Spanish wines in particular are a treat, and the staff is eager to offer you suggestions for one that will suit your tastes.
The food, though… The food is the reason to go to Mas. It is magnificent. Unable to speak, eyes rolled back in your head magnificent.
When you look at the menu and see Papas Bravas, the natural instinct is to think, “roasted potatoes? Are you kidding me?” But when the beautifully golden yukon gold potatoes appear, the air perfumed with garlic you actually get excited. The alioli is perfect, balancing the spiciness of the rub without making the dish heavy.
The grilled shrimp, Gambas Al’ Parilla, is a popular item on the menu. Although I find them far from extraordinary, the large prawns are always of the highest quality and cooked brilliantly. Sprinkled lightly with sea salt, I usually opt to eat them without the alioli to better appreciate their subtle sweetness.
The menu torments me, tossing up selections that seem nonsensical, daring me to order them. Shrimp croquettes, Croquettas De Gambas, are light and airy, not a hint of greasiness that is the bane of such dishes. But the plantains make this dish. Yes, plantains! Their mild sweetness perfectly counters the heartier elements, but somehow without imbuing contrast.
But the dish that destroyed any last vestige of food snobbery was the Carne Asada. Yes, my dear readers, a humble dish simply of grilled hanger tenderloin served up with a smoked tomato alioli. With the first bite, indescribable flavor consumed my taste buds. I literally forgot where I was. The light sauce blended with tart roasted tomato kissed with smoke perfectly framed the thinly sliced beef. The meat was not tender, but gave unconvincing resistance to the tooth, as if whispering “no” before capitulating to my clumsy advances. Eventually, my wife leaned across the table, gently touched my neck, and asked “are you ok?” When I came to, I felt actual embarrassment, glancing around the restaurant worried that someone had seen me.
Once the plates were cleaned, my wife and I finished our drinks over the light conversation one can only maintain after such an intense experience. We stumbled through the crowd back into the rain leaving our hypocrisies behind.
I want to not like Mas Tapas. It is too fashionable for me to willingly submit to them. But they demand that you like them. If you utter a single disparaging word about the food, they will make a liar of you. But if you are willing to submit, especially if you can enjoy having your preconceptions confounded and shoved back in your face, a finer dining experience than Mas Tapas you will not find.