Today’s Five Finds on Friday come from Elizabeth Pelly, Co-owner and Creative Director of Merrie Mill Farm & Vineyard, which opens today in Keswick. Though the industry’s historic 2020 frost wiped out the vineyard’s initial vintage, that hasn’t stopped it from opening, serving the excellent wines of nearby True Heritage until its own wines are ready. And, the frost did no harm to the beautiful view and setting. Pelly’s picks:
1) Everything Baguette from MarieBette Café & Bakery. “This baguette is literally everything to me. Crunchy and flavorful on the outside, soft and light in the inside. I rarely make it out to the car without having a bite or home without eating half of it. It is even great the day after, if there is any left, toasted with a thin layer of cream cheese and avocado.”
2) Carciofo at Tavola (fried artichokes with whipped goat cheese and garlic aioli). “The ‘last supper’ my husband and I had before my second daughter was born was at Tavola. It was the only time I have eaten in the restaurant. We had a lovely dinner and then during COVID – while we have not been out much – we ordered take-away for our seventh wedding anniversary dinner. It can be risky ordering anything ‘fritti’ to take away but the artichoke was absolutely perfect and the goat cheese dipping sauce is divine.”
3) House Dressing from Take It Away. “Does a condiment count in this exercise? Doesn’t matter because I don’t care. First discovered in my university years, it is too good not to mention. A delightful mix of tangy and creamy, this is the perfect companion to a deli sandwich, and I have been known to dip plain bread in the house dressing as a snack.”
4) Princess Cake from Albemarle Baking Company. “I have only had two birthdays in our new home in Keswick, but the princess cake has featured at both. This cake is heaven. Who wouldn’t love marzipan with light fluffy white cake and decadent whipped cream filling? It is perfect for any special occasion, or actually I might have to order one now.”
5) Fried Chicken from Michie Tavern. “For the soft launch of our tasting room at Merrie Mill, we had tons of friends and neighbors come visit. A pretty big contingency stayed for dinner up at our house. I ordered fried chicken from Michie Tavern and everyone, including me, was blown away. If I had a dime for every time someone told me ‘this is the best fried chicken I have ever had,’ I would be buying a lot more fried chicken.”
When the pandemic cancelled the epic party Mas Tapas throws for its birthday each year, the restaurant sought another way to commemorate the occasion that would be no less special. They seem to have found it. From January 26-30, celebrate at home while helping those in need with Chef Ketola’s M18 Anniversary Package: Celebrating 18 Years of Tapas, Wine, & Community.
The exclusive package is full of goodies, including the first time Mas has ever offered the 2020 Dish of the Year: a shrimp salad sandwich made from Mas’s gambas al parilla and alioli on Albemarle Baking Company bread. Emblematic of the Culture of Takeout, the 2020 Dish of the Year brings together for the first time two of Charlottesville’s most iconic foods — gambas from Mas and bread from Albemarle Baking Company — neither of which the pandemic could stop.
“Mas anniversaries have always been a celebration of our community,” said chef Michael Ketola. “As I thought about how we could celebrate this year, my mind drifted to the Christmas video we participated in, and that inspired me to reach out to The Charlottesville 29 and Albemarle Baking Company to set up a package that could be celebratory for our customers, inclusive of our colleagues, and give back to the community we hold so dear.”
The one-time-only package includes a limited edition “M18” anniversary t-shirt, with the words “Somos Mas Fuertos Juntos.” Thanks to the generosity of Mas, Albemarle Baking Company, and Blue Ridge Graphics, $29 from each package will go the Blue Ridge Area Food Bank. While COVID-19 has inconvenienced everyone, the hardships have been particularly acute for the less fortunate, as the number of people needing food assistance has spiked during the pandemic.
“We are all together in our hearts and stronger together as a force for positivity in our community, even if we can’t celebrate physically together right now,” said Ketola. “That’s why the shirts say ‘we are stronger together.’ It reaffirms our commitment to loving and caring for each other.”
How to Order
Packages are available January 26-30. A limited number will be available each day, so early same day ordering is encouraged. Order packages, as well as extra t-shirts for pick-up, at: mastapas.hrpos.heartland.us/menu
Chef Ketola’s M18 Anniversary Package: Celebrating 18 Years of Tapas, Wine, & Community $100
Gambas Bocato (first time ever offered) (Two of The Charlottesville 29’s “2020 Dish of the Year” in collaboration with Albemarle Baking Company. This sandwich incorporates the eponymous garlic alioli, with gambas al parilla, served chilled on artisan Albemarle Baking Co. brioche.)
Olivos Mezclado (beautiful blend of Spanish Castelvetrano, Lucque, Alfonso, and Empeltre Olives with garlic, thyme, and lemon)
Albondigas (spherical tidbits of beef, lamb & pork suspended in a sassy, smoky Romesco sauce with queso Manchego)
Datil con Tocino (organic Medjool dates wrapped in Applewood-smoked bacon, oven-roasted crispy)
Boquerones (vinegar-cured Cantabrian white anchovies with organic garlic, lemon, herbs, Arbequina olive oil)
Hummus (tapas of classic, lightly spicy spread of chickpeas, tahini, lemon and garlic with bread)
Mas Anniversary T-shirt (Mas will call for a size and confirm a pick-up time)
When the James Beard Foundation cancelled its annual awards this year, it explained:
The choice comes as restaurants continue to suffer the grave negative effects of COVID-19, and as substantial and sustained upheaval in the community has created an environment in which the Foundation believes the assignment of Awards will do little to further the industry in its current uphill battle. The Awards’ usual positive impact on restaurants and chefs’ businesses will likely not be fully realized due to the current state of the industry, with many restaurants closed permanently or temporarily or operating at minimal capacity.
So, why does this site continue to celebrate restaurants, even as they struggle to survive?
More to the point, restaurants’ heroic efforts in 2020 warrant celebration. Even while on the brink of survival, restaurants brought moments of light into dark lives of seclusion. When a pandemic blocked the usual outlets for restaurateurs’ passion to spread happiness, they just built other outlets. As they did so, gifts from the Culture of Takeout came in phases.
First, there was the comfort of familiarity. When a pandemic uprooted our lives, continued access to old favorites assured us that not everything had changed. For all the havoc COVID-19 wrought, it would not take away our go-to Bodo’s order.
Next came the excitement of new things, like the chance to enjoy meals at home from restaurants that never offered takeout before, and even new dishes created just for the Culture of Takeout. The dreams of Ivy Inn regulars came true when the Greek-American family behind it finally began selling Greek food unlike any Charlottesville has seen.
The man behind it is Michael Ketola. Even before Ketola transitioned from MAS’s sous chef to head chef three years ago, the dish bore his stamp. Ketola is so tied to it that his bio once read simply: “I cook shrimp good.” Over his fourteen years at MAS, Ketola has cooked upwards of 300,000 shrimp.
Like many great dishes, the gambas are a marvel of simplicity. Ketola credits MAS founder Tomas Rahal with its origin, and says it captures well the Spanish approach to food on which Rahal built the restaurant: source great products, and treat them with care.
Every detail matters, beginning with the best shrimp they can find: wild-caught Gulf shrimp from the same source as long as Ketola can remember. From there, there is no brine. No marinade. Not even any seasoning. All Ketola does is split the back of the shrimp to remove the entrails, and they are ready to cook.
The shrimp sear on MAS’s 375 degree Fahrenheit parilla for about a minute per side, in nothing more than a drizzle of garlic infused olive oil. That’s it.
How can such a simple preparation stir such strong reactions? Ketola cites two keys. One is cooking the shrimp in their shells, a Catalan technique which helps them develop and retain flavor. The other is the shrimps’ unusual size. Typically, the largest shrimp at a grocery or seafood market can be about 16-20 shrimp per pound. At MAS, they are 10-15 shrimp per pound. That size, Ketola says, helps them stay plump as they cook, without drying out.
“No Short Cuts”
If the shrimp are a model of MAS’s simplicity, the alioli with which they are served manifests another MAS guiding principle. Patience. “One of the foundations of everything we prepare at MAS is taking the time to do it the right way,” said Ketola. “No short cuts.” For the alioli, MAS has long followed the same slow, laborious process, combining in a stand-mixer olive oil, egg yolks, garlic, lime juice, sea salt, and black pepper. The use of a stand-mixer rather than a blender may be what most distinguishes MAS’s alioli from other house-made versions. While the high speeds of blenders and food processors can make alioli more quickly, they also create friction and heat, which can begin to cook the egg yolks and alter the alioli’s texture. Whereas a blender can make alioli in seconds, MAS’s alioli requires a full twenty minutes in the hand mixer, or more.
The process begins with egg yolks from Forrest Green Farm’s organic free-range chickens. “Egg yolks are key to a nice alioli,” said Ketola, who lights up when describing Forrest Green Farm’s. “They are the brightest orange and yellow yolks I have ever seen.”
In the bowl of a hand mixer, the egg yolks stir slowly with lime juice and pressed garlic. Next, Ketola gradually adds olive oil, just a little at a time. MAS uses a rich, full bodied blend of picual and arbequina varieties from Los Aljibes Estate, in Albacete. The intensity and bitterness of the picual balance with the freshness and sweetness of the arbequina.
About half-way through the stirring, after the initial emulsification has taken hold, Ketola adds salt and pepper. Finally, he adds small splashes of water as needed for a smooth and creamy result.
One Saturday in May, the refrigerator bore the surplus of the prior night’s takeout MAS feast. As was common in 2020, lunch became an exercise in assembling products of the Culture of Takeout. Shrimp? Alioli? Shrimp salad of course.
To serve, it needed nothing more than Gerry Newman’s butter rolls from Albemarle Baking Company, one of Charlottesville’s best vehicles for delivering deliciousness. Like Newman himself, the rolls have no desire for the spotlight, with a pillowy texture and delicate flavor that allow a sandwich’s filling to shine uninterrupted.
2020 tested Charlottesville restaurants like nothing ever has. In response to a harrowing pandemic, the passion and resilience of our restaurants yielded not just bright spots in dark lives but also new experiences that never existed before. None was more delicious than that shrimp sandwich in May.