Mas is a Charlottesville original. For the uninitiated, it defies easy description.
Perhaps the closest analogy is attending a dinner party at a friend’s house. This is not just any party, though. It is a rollicking gala of small plates of beautiful food, world class wines, and hoards of fun-seeking people, all set in a cavernous space inspired by Gaudi and Frank Lloyd Wright.
Mas has indeed hosted many parties over the years. Musical acts like Dave Matthews, Robert Randolph, Modest Mouse, and Gomez have all partied at Mas. Just last year, Mas celebrated Rioja week by roasting a baby goat and opening their Riojas. All 40 of them. And, then there are Mas’ anniversary parties, where, chef-owner Tomas Rahal says, “neighbors, regulars, guests, staff, and sometimes exotic dancers mingle and party hard.”
Yet, even when not hosting events like these, Mas feels like a party. Consider the porrón. No aspect of Mas better captures its party-like atmosphere than this glass wine vessel, shaped like a cross between a decanter and a watering can. If you ask for a porrón of wine at Mas, your server may ask if you want glasses with it — not how many glasses you want, but if you want glasses. If you say no, you will be left to your own devices to figure out how to deliver wine from the vessel to your mouth. Tilt your head back, tip the porrón towards you, and see how far away you can pull it from your mouth. While novices may splash some wine on their clothes, the day’s stresses will wash away.
Of course the porrón, common in many parts of Spain, is not for everyone. “I went on strike and demanded a drinking-cup as soon as I saw a porrón in use,” wrote George Orwell in Homage to Catalonia.
Likewise, Mas may not be for everyone. Nor does it try to be. Its steadfast adherence to its unique identity means that not every aspect of it will appeal to all comers. “If you don’t like it,” says Rahal, “you’re going to have to go to another place.” Fortunately, people do like Mas. Lots of them. The very things that turn some people off Mas bring back legions of others day after day.
To understand Mas, it helps to think in terms of two sets of influences: those before Mas opened, and those since.
As for the first, Mas is largely the product of the vision of its chef-owner. Rahal’s vision, in turn, is a melange of themes drawn from his experiences and travels before opening Mas. For the food: immediacy, simplicity, rusticity, fresh, and low-processed. For the feel: neighborhood, communal, and sharing.
Rahal was the youngest of five children raised in Isle of Hope, Georgia, a small suburban island off Savannah. Rahal’s mother was a divorcee who worked several jobs just to make ends meet. Despite the tough times, Rahal recalls his childhood as “idyllic.” It was a marine-oriented existence, he says, in a place rich in natural resources. Fish, oysters, ducks, and other water fowl. If they could catch it, they would eat it.
At seven years old, Rahal’s Saturday morning chore was to go crabbing. His grandmother would make crabcakes with his haul. Rahal’s grandmother was not the only good cook in the family. All the women were great cooks, Rahal says. He fondly remembers large gatherings around the food they prepared, using whatever was available. Immediacy. Communal. Sharing.
From Isle of Hope, as a teenager Rahal went to New York City to study ballet. To maintain the healthy diet that serious ballet requires, Rahal and his ballet partner hired a Japanese woman to come to their apartment and cook for them. Watching her cook one day, Rahal was moved by her meticulous attention to detail. “From the food preparation side, that was really big,” says Rahal. “What got me hooked was the knives,” and “how careful she was with everything.” Simplicity. Minimalism. Rusticity.
From New York, Rahal moved to Northampton, Massachusetts to attend college. There, a favorite breakfast restaurant, of all things, stands out. “They were able to distill the most basic things you want for brunch,” even in something as simple as a waffle. Fresh. Low-processed. Immediacy, again.
“The very thing from my childhood kept following me wherever I went.”
Rahal soon left Massachusetts for the University of Virginia. (Again, as with the first three entries into The Charlottesville 29, we have UVa to thank for Mas. Go Hoos.) While at UVa, Rahal spent two summers in Portland, Oregon, working in the kitchen of Besaw’s, a neighborhood restaurant tucked into a blue collar part of town with body shops and lumber fabricators. Rahal was struck by the feel of the restaurant. Neighborhood.
That sense of neighborhood was largely behind Rahal’s longtime desire to open a restaurant in Belmont, in Charlottesville. “What I loved about Belmont is that it reminded me of so many other places I had been.” With its tree-lined streets and neighborhood economy, it made Rahal think of Portland’s Laurelhurst, Providence, Isle of Hope, and Astoria, NY . “This is one of those places,” says Rahal.
But, before being in a position to open his own restaurant, Rahal had a lot to learn. He spent more than seven years working in various restaurants in Charlottesville, as well as one in Providence, RI.
Rahal’s Path to Mas
Raphael’s (Providence, RI): 1994-95
Market Street Cafe 1995-96
Mono Loco 1996-97
Contintental Divide 1999-2002
In 2002, Rahal learned that a building in Belmont that he had long eyed was for sale. With the help of a couple of other investors, Rahal lept at the opportunity. Although the building was then home to an audio shop, Rahal knew exactly what he wanted to do with it. He had a vision — a vision that was shaped by his experiences in Isle of Hope, Portland, New York, Charlottesville, and elsewhere. Rustic, immediate, low-processed food in a neighborhood setting that encourages a communal dining experience.
In January 2003, Mas opened its doors. Nearly ten years later, Mas continues to thrive, and Rahal’s vision remains integral to Mas’ identity. “Your mission has to be really strong,” says Rahal. “We’ve stuck to our mission.”
Of course, vision is not everything. German war strategist Helmuth von Moltke the Elder once said: “No plan survives contact with the enemy.”
In the restaurant world, there is a similar phenomenon. As much as a restauranteur’s vision can help define a restaurant, once it opens its doors it becomes a product of new influences that the initial vision alone could not have anticipated.
Rahal not only acknowledges this, he embraces it. Perhaps the biggest influence on Mas since it opened has been its’ purveyors. Mas is “driven by the materials,” Rahal says, “and by extension the producers.” With a vision focused on immediacy, Rahal’s preference is local purveyors, who he knows well. We are lucky in the Charlottesville area, says Rahal, to have such wonderful purveyors, and it is their products that are the stars of the show at Mas. Polyface, Caromont, and Free Union Grass are just a few that Rahal cites as examples.
Another big influence on Mas has been the customers. Rahal says that Charlottesville is full of “well-traveled, seasonal diners.” “You’re not going to blow them away with your new idea.” Instead of trying to blow customers away, Rahal has learned from them. While Mas customers do have their favorite stand-bys on the menu, they also inspire Rahal to continue to push the envelope with new creations. To that end, Rahal often takes a month-long pilgrimage to Spain, where he travels the country, eating, drinking, and gathering ideas. “I’m going to keep going forward, trying new things, and learning,” he says.
The term “tapas” has become one of the most bastardized terms in all of restaurant-speak. “Tapas” now seems to refer to anything smaller than an entrée. On some menus, we have even seen hamburgers listed as “tapas” in the form the now ever-present sliders.
But, real tapas are small plates of Spanish food. And, Mas serves real tapas – as well as modern riffs on the classics.
In fact, Mas started serving tapas before it was cool. Food trends can often originate in larger urban areas before spreading to smaller towns like Charlottesville. Mas, however, pre-dates many of the East Coast’s best tapas bars. Mario Batali’s Casa Mono in Manhattan, Ken Oringer’s Toro in Boston, and Washington D.C.’s Estadio all opened after Mas did in 2003. (Jose Andres’ legendary Jaleo, though, pre-dates them all.)
The ever-changing menu at Mas offers approximately 40 dishes at a time, all available as half-portions (Tapas) or full-portions (Raciones). Tapas range from $4 to $15, while Raciones cost twice that. This makes it possible to come in for a quick and inexpensive meal, such as sandwich of jamon and manchego. Alternatively, diners can linger over long meals with a bottle or two of wine. The list is one of the best in town, with carefully selected wines from all over Spain – e.g. Rioja, Navarra, Priorat, Toro, Yecla, Ribera del Duero, etc. (The light, effervescent whites of Txakoli are best suited for the porron.)
Once you choose your dishes, there is no predictability to when they will arrive at the table. This might be a jolt to diners accustomed to ordering by saying: “I’ll start with the . . .”. But, it is all part of the experience at Mas, and is designed to encourage sharing. Rahal grew up in communal dining experiences, and Mas aims for something similar. Tapas, which are meant to be shared, are a natural fit.
Rahal is particularly heartened when he sees guests share with others not just in their own party but also in other parties as well. “Food has the ability to transcend all . . . social barriers,” says Rahal. “We’ll get people coming together here in a way that is miraculous.”
One of the best foods for sharing is of course bread. And, at Mas, the bread is outstanding. Mas’ extraordinary brick oven is similar to the one used at the renowned Acme Bread Company and Chez Panisse. Reaching temperatures exceeding 700 degrees, the oven yields several different types of bread every day, all excellent. Many menu items incorporate the bread, and it is also available with extra virgin olive oil for dipping.
Room for Improvement?
Although we wouldn’t change a thing at Mas, there are a few critiques that we have heard more than once. One is the wait. Mas’ popularity and no-reservations policy can conspire to create a wait for a table, often a long one. There is even sometimes a line outside Mas before it opens at 5:30 pm.
To be sure, diners in a hurry might want to avoid Mas in the heart of a weekend evening. But, Mas can hardly be blamed for being popular. And, Mas’ walk-in only policy is essential to what it is: a neighborhood restaurant where you can always drop in for a bite. Moreover, the “wait” at Mas can be part of the fun. With a sherry or cocktail in hand, the time standing at the bar always seems to pass quickly. Complaints about the wait remind us of what Yogi Berra once said about a popular restaurant in St. Louis: “Nobody goes there anymore. It’s too crowded.”
A second critique we have heard concerns the service, which some have described as slow or even disinterested. Again, this criticism is at odds with our own experience. In our many visits over the years, we have almost invariably enjoyed pleasant service from knowledgeable servers, who have treated us like guests at their party. The perception of poor service at Mas may be explained in part by Mas’ adherence to its own identity. Food comes out whenever it is ready. Sometimes quickly. Sometimes less so. And, this style of service is not for everyone.
Moreover, some customers expect servants, not service. To Rahal’s credit, customers will not find doting servants at Mas. Rahal intentionally staffs his restaurant leanly in order to maximize the earnings of his servers. This may at times leave servers short on time to dote over customers, chit-chat, or ask “How is everything?”. But, we’ll take knowledgeable and focused over doting and chatty any day of the week. Even if we have to wait.
What to Order
The menu changes so often at Mas that it it difficult to recommend specific dishes to order. Our favorite way to eat at Mas is to ask the kitchen to send whatever it wants. A degustacion, of sorts. This not only affirms the dinner party feel of eating at Mas. After all, we wouldn’t order food at a dinner party. It also puts our choices in the hands of the people with the most expertise about current menu standouts: Rahal and his kitchen staff. That being said, there are some regular dishes on the menu that we do find ourselves craving again and again.
- Datil con tocino, fat, juicy, pitted Medjool dates roasted inside of apple-wood smoked bacon ($4T/$8R)
- Habas fritas, baby fava beans w/ Amontillado, garlic, olive oil, sweet butter, aged Mahon ($6T/$12R)
- Gambas al’ parilla, jumbo shrimp grilled Catalan style-in the shell-w/garlic alioli and grey salt ($8T/$16R)
- Chuletas, baby lamb chops grilled rare only w/flatbread, mojo verde ($15T/$30R)
In addition to the dates and shrimp that we chose, Chef Rahal named from the current menu:
- Bikini, a pan fried sandwich of sauteed morels, shallots, Urgelia cheese, and white truffle butter on sunflower wheat, “best grilled cheese ever” ($8T/$16R)
- Plato de Iberico, “the greatest acorn-fed ham in history, especially from Jabugo or Guijuelo” ($15T/$30R)
Rahal also named:
- Tomato plate, “we wait all year for the pleasure”
- Duck confit with figs, “confit glazed with figs, sherry, and garlic”
- Cachetes de ternero, “veal cheeks braised w pearl onions, marsala, green peppercons”
- Porktopus, “octopus, pork belly, sauce of insanity”
- Clams in coconut green curry, “favorite thing [sous chef] Mike Ketola cooks”