Theme Park New York City Entry #62
Often restauranteurs are convinced that good food does not suffice. One needs a theme to snare diners. One designs a fantasy to find a market niche. Most notably this is true of such restaurants as Hard Rock Café, Trader Vic's, Ninja, or, most dramatically, the memorable Forum of the Twelve Caesars. Walking into many restaurants, feels like landing in Las Vegas. All is hyper-reality, each table a simulacrum.
Mas (farmhouse) is a restaurant that doesn't need tricks, its kitchen is a treat. Yet, Mas fitfully pretends that it is a farmhouse in a village in Provence, not a hip space in the Village in Manhattan. Menus and business cards are emblazoned "Mas (farmhouse)." For many diners Mas echoes Hispanic culture, and indeed Mas is a favored Nuevo Latino destination in Chicago. New York's Mas leans French - it also leans late. Mas is one of the few places in New York to dine rather than to feed at three a.m.
Problem is that, aside from their parenthesis (farmhouse), the proprietors of Mas do not seem committed to their fantasia. Granted there are some design touches, notably rustic wooded walls and the restaurant does rely on a few other Provencal design features, but its heart owes more to Bouley, where chef Galen Zamarra apprenticed. Once seated, the pseudo-rustic charm that the name conjures shades into a comely and refined rendition of a provincial bistro. One never feels for a moment that one is being served by farm wenches.
The servers, though not wenches, have their charms, and service was congenial and helpful throughout. The staff tried so hard to be helpful that one might have imagined that Mas was part of Danny Meyer's chain. Certainly one of the changes that I have noticed, despite several ill-starred evenings, is how much more friendly and service-oriented are servers at a wide range of New York restaurants than I had recalled. The pleasure I used to take in slamming staff has been stolen from me. One sometimes steps into the Carnegie Deli just to gain a whiff of the old days when the waiter was king. Today a waiter is a cross of counselor, tout, and jester. Only the bread is crusty.
We were started with an amuse bouche. The presentation seemed modest, but contained a wallop. Smoked finnan haddie in a potato puff with sunchoke relish and saffron aioli is one powerful bite. As we were to admire again and again throughout the evening, these are dishes with big flavors. The finnan haddie was passionately smoky - Tallulah Bankhead on a plate. Add the sunchoke relish and the saffron aioli, and this opener shook one's palate.
Of our appetizers, the outstanding issue was Roasted Beets, baked with Goat Cheese, Baby Greens, Almonds, and Cucumbers. This is probably the finest vegetarian dish I have had this year. It was deeply pungent with a set of textures that continued to crackle and surprise. Even without the goat cheese, the beets, almonds and cucumber could have pleased. Each ingredient was perfect, as was the color medley on the plate.
Also highly proficient and elegant was Trout Piscator, a Neversink River Rainbow Trout (from the Catskills), stuffed with Watercress and Smoked Trout, Apple Salad and Horseradish Dressing. This was a beautiful and lush dish, a dish that owes much to the Bouley style, revealing a chef not afraid of flavor and unafraid of treating the plate as a frame. Chef Zamarra has bigger plates ahead of him.
My appetizer, Yellowtail Tartar with Paddlefish Caviar with Apples, Pickled Onion and Tarragon was the least compelling of the trio. I found the tartar pleasant - competent but not a gifted presentation - but I admired the flavors of the apple, onion, and tarragon. If it didn't succeed like the Piscator, it was a dish in the same register.
As entree I selected the Pork Loin with Polenta and Stew of Escargot. Of our dishes this was the least successful. The hunks of pork were notably overcooked and a dense cut. I enjoyed the polenta, and found the mix of escargot an amusing concoction, but at its heart stood a not-quite-tender loin.
Fortunately the Roast Duck with Bahri Date Puree, Sauteed Brussel Sprouts and Chestnuts was one of the better duck treatments I have tasted and surely the best thing to happen to Brussels sprouts since Lambic beer and eel pie. Duck with fruit and nuts is mince pie on the plate, a profound combination of flavors.
Dessert brought Warm Almond and Quince Tart with Spiced Red Wine Reduction and Yogurt Sorbet, a pleasant ending. The sorbet was somewhat less creamy and rich than I expected - more an ice than a cream - but the wine reduction brought out the flavor of the quince to its advantage.
Mas (farmhouse) is a restaurant with charm. Its space is snug and romantic, blend of French rustic and New York slick, with service that demonstrates that neither winters or New Yorkers are cold. Mas need not strain to be a concept restaurant; Chef Zamarra has the panache to cook in a white box or around a campfire.
39 Downing Street (at Bedford Street)
Manhattan (West Village)
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