Monday, April 28, 2008

Masa Brings Heat and Coolness All at Once

How does one classify a unique restaurant such as Masa? Let me give it a whirl: a slightly upscale Southwestern eatery (think Border CafĂ© casualness combined with more experimental, daring cuisine). Executive Chef Philip Aviles’s unconventional usage of ingredients and his eclectic menu have had customers returning in droves to this South End mainstay. How appropriate, then, for Masa to be situated on equally dynamic Tremont Street. Would Paul’s Palate find himself lassoed into this sizzling Southwestern scene?

Masa makes no apologies for its casual appearance and atmosphere. While we’re in for a superior dining experience, it’s as if the colors and walls instruct us to sit down, relax, sip a margarita, and enjoy ourselves. It’s obvious (and slightly embarrassing, I might add) that we’ve overdressed for the occasion. Clearly, dressing down is an acceptable custom here. And that’s OK by us.

To the left, the copper bar is a nice touch, and the main dining area is spacious enough. The high ceilings do not prevent us from conducting a coherent tableside conversation with our companions. The chandeliers are an oddity in the room (is someone aiming for the Southwestern Victorian era?), but that’s just knit-picking. For better or for worse, given its Southwestern ambience, brown colors dominate the scene (I oddly feel transported into a UPS commercial). I will, however, point out my dissatisfaction regarding the ‘lipped’ booths. I felt like I was doing the meringue just to get in and out of my seat. And that’s not even accounting for the expectant couple with whom we dined. What dance did she need to learn in order to maneuver into her seat? Also a glaring negative: the calamitous state of the bathrooms was, how do I put this politely, reminiscent of the O-K Corral? Casualness needs to have its boundaries.

I’ve heard that Masa’s cocktails are notorious for offsetting some of its zesty fare. I must therefore admit slight disappointment with these beverages. The caramelized apple martini sounds promising, but packs minimal apple flavor and no hint of caramel. The pear mojito comes with excess vodka, too little pear. My favorite of the bunch is the sangria margarita, which is modestly sweet, smooth and refreshing.

While Masa’s cocktails are a mild let down, its cuisine, in the words of the show Iron Chef America, reigns supreme. For starters, my wife orders negra modelo battered fish tacos, and yes, they’re as scrumptious as they sound. The silky smooth fish is served in a soft tortilla wrap, with dollops of a creamy avocado salsa verde and a chipotle taramind sauce that lends a wonderfully smoky flavor to the dish. I order the smoked mussel and tilapia ceviche cocktail, which consists of a dramatic combination of clamato (think spicy clam-tomato base – yum!) and cilantro. But that’s not all: our wonderfully affable, attentive, and knowledgeable server (he somehow reminds me of the charming American Idol contestant, David Archuleta) recommends pouring a potent tequila floater over the ceviche. Throw in homemade cornbread with a trio of distinctive spreads (peppery cream cheese, bean, and molasses butter – yum, again!), and Chef Aviles has successfully cast his spell upon us.

The aforementioned appetizers are glorified showstoppers. The entrees, equally creative and delicious in their own right, could easily have headlined this evening’s event had we not encountered some minor gaffes with the sides that accompanied them. My chipotle apricot glazed short ribs are cooked perfectly medium rare, and possess a wonderfully velvety texture. The apricot jam is not overpoweringly sweet, though the chipotle’s spiciness is missing. What the dish lacks in spice, however, it more than accounts for with its sides. The grilled pineapple salsa is a deceptively zesty compliment (I must admit that my wife mistook it for mashed potatoes, and after one bite, rushed to sip her glass of water). The crisp Southwestern cole slaw, however, is so fire-alarmingly hot that it is practically inedible. My wife’s crushed chile pepper grilled pork tenderloin with ‘Masa’ gnocci is good, but not great. The pork is yet again perfectly cooked, but the sides, once again, are perplexing. Had it not been for my wife’s dairy allergy, I believe she would have certainly enjoyed the dish more: in lieu of what sounds to be a luscious topping of Mexican chocolate cherry mole, the chef substitutes this with a mild chile-lime sauce that lacks punch. The fresh strawberry salsa is minimal and not as flavorful as it sounds. The gnocci, albeit tasty, total only four potatoe-y pellets in all.

Dessert is the unanimous winner of the evening. Imagine this ethereal combination: warmed banana bread pudding with chocolate-banana ice cream (did I say yum already?). In fact, as I let the bread pudding sit on my palate, I unexpectedly discover a mild spiciness begin to set in. The ice cream counters this sensation and serves as the perfect balance to the dish. When asked about the ingredient that has caused my senses to stir, our server politely (almost with a humorous wink, no doubt he has heard this line of questioning from other diners) tells us that he unfortunately cannot divulge the chef’s secret ingredient.

Masa in Spanish means 'dough.' And like many astute customers, I’m not only concerned about the variety that’s being kneaded in the kitchen. The dough to which I’m alluding is the amount of cash that leaves my wallet at the end of the evening. When drinks range from $8-10, appetizers between $7-12, and entrees around $20-25, I equate this to money well spent (just keep in mind that there’s a $16 valet charge on top of all this). Casual ambience, great service, and delectable, often inspiring fare: these traits all translate into a winning culinary combination in my book.