2020 Dish of the Year: Shrimp Sandwich by MAS and Albemarle Baking Co.

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?

For one thing, now more than ever restaurants need the love. Just as coverage of restaurants’ plight can motivate action by illuminating pain and peril, so too can reminders of why we should care: what we would miss if restaurants were gone. The joy that restaurants bring. Their passion to serve. Their standout dishes

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. 

And then, the gifts from the Culture of Takeout went one step further: new creations made from great Charlottesville dishes. To make the most of excursions from the house, takeout customers learned to order more than they need, yielding leftovers for future meals. With refrigerators stocked, favorite dishes became fodder for idle imaginations – like a cooking game show where the ingredients are Charlottesville’s bounty. Zocalo Tuna Tartare on Lampo Marinara DOC Pizza. French Toast of Ace Biscuits. Thyme & Co. Manousheh with Whisper Hill Farm Tomatoes. Pearl Island Pate with local accoutrements

And yet, even among this stellar group, one stood out. 

“I Cook Shrimp Good”

Few Charlottesville dishes are as iconic as MAS’s gambas al parilla: grilled shrimp with alioli and grey sea salt. No dish has more appearances in Five Finds on Friday, where Dylan Allwood, Jennifer Keevil, Mark Thompson, Dave Kostelnik, Thomas Leroy, Jerome ThalwitzReggie Calhoun, and Corry Blanc have all named it one of their favorites in town. 

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. 

Shrimp Sandwich 

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. 

Thank you to Tom McGovern for the beautiful images.