Tomas Rahal, executive chef and part owner of Mas, is fond of saying, “You’re only as good as your last meal.” Well, readers, your last Mas meal must have been a really good one, because you’ve chosen the little Belmont neighborhood hangout (runner-up to Zocalo the past three years) as your favorite restaurant in our Best Of Charlottesville poll this year. Five years after it won Best New Restaurant, and five years after Rahal built the place around rustic Spanish flavors and a killer Spanish wine list (first with a few partners and then with backing from the king conquistador himself, Coran Capshaw)—Mas still thrills, and with its focus on fresh whole foods, the place seems more relevant than ever.
We’re No. 1: For Mas and Tomas Rahal, executive chef and part owner of the Belmont restaurant, it’s no longer an honor just to be runner-up.
Restaurantarama sat for a meal with Rahal at Mas’ famous concrete bar—something you too can do if you’re lucky enough for Rahal to pluck you out of the often interminable table-waiting line for an impromptu tasting, which he occasionally does for a tapas bar-version of the “chef’s table” experience. As we sipped Los Arcos Amontillado—a light and dry Spanish sherry—and sucked on olives, Rahal reflected on Mas’ humble start, which began with 10 or so plates and 100 or so bar room seats to 40-plus plates, a 250-capacity patio and an additional downstairs dining area.
Mas is a trendsetter, and not only because it introduced the town to tapas and stood like a beacon in the slow-to-gentrify Belmont ‘hood back in 2003, but because of its foundation in fresh and simply prepared ingredients (there’s no walk-in cooler in this kitchen). Mas is about sampling strong flavors, not stuffing yourself to the gills—although, you could easily do that with a few too many “Ts” on your menu selection sheet. “I used to yell at my staff for letting people order too much. We don’t want you to try everything the first time you come in,” says Rahal. No, he’d rather that you keep coming back to try new things, to create whole new dining experiences.
It can take quite a long time to conquer Mas’ menu, and on top of that, the plates change seasonally, as well as in response to Rahal’s access to the small producers of his many artisinal ingredients. For example, a fava bean dish is one of Mas’ most popular, but it’s not available at the moment. First, Rahal had trouble getting the beans from his original Spanish source and then the local guy he convinced to grow them found even more markets for his crop. Between competition and a short growing season, the favas are an infrequent offering. Instead, there’s a bean dish called Judion Blanco. (Restaurantarama can attest that after one taste of the buttery, nutty white beans served with moist, slightly sweet ham and pork meatballs, you’ll forget all about the favas for now.)
Yes, before there was any kind of scene in Belmont and any other tapas, there was Mas. And five years after the fact, we’re proud of you for still noticing.