Let’s say you’re a New Yorker of a certain culinary sophistication, someone who follows cooking trends and dines out regularly in good restaurants. Perhaps, during a weak moment, you imagine opening a restaurant yourself. You’d want this perfect restaurant to be modest in size, of course. You’d want it to be located in a raffish though debonair neighborhood, one filled with other fine restaurants and lots of discerning food snobs like yourself. You’d want a catchy name, one evoking sophistication, rustic simplicity, and also worldly charm. You’d want your restaurant to glow from within in a certain ineffable way, its tables set with white linen and flickering candles and bone china of an excruciatingly tasteful design. Most important, you’d want a certain kind of person running the kitchen, someone who has apprenticed with great chefs but who is eager to be recognized as a great chef himself, someone obsessed (like yourself) with organic ingredients and seasonal menus and all the other painstaking, glorious (your word) minutiae that go into making great food.
If you’re one of these people, don’t despair. We have the perfect little restaurant for you, and you don’t even have to open it yourself. It’s called Mas (Provençal for farmhouse, as you probably know), and it’s materialized, as if by magic, on Downing Street, in the West Village, next door to that well-known epicurean hangout the Blue Ribbon Bakery. The owners are Hugh Crickmore, formerly the sommelier at Marseille, and Galen Zamarra, a hypertalented young chef who for several years ran the kitchen at Bouley Bakery. Together, they have produced a beautifully self-conscious jewel box of a restaurant, with slats of antique barn wood placed tastefully along the walls, and a bar made of piled sandstone, just like in old Provence. The dining room features Prouvé chairs and a long leather banquette, decorated, at intervals, with hand-stitched pillows. The tables are covered with white linen and luminous china etched with berries, and when you begin your meal, you get to enjoy the antique pleasure of removing your napkin from a mother-of-pearl napkin ring.
There are plenty of quaint little touches like this at Mas, and they tended to send my guests (particularly the female ones) into quiet paroxysms of delight. When you sit down, before you’re offered wine or cocktails or bread, one of the attentive wait staff asks whether you’d like a glass of champagne. The silverware is dispensed, as at a grand family dinner, from a drawer at a communal table in the middle of the room, and when you ask for tap water it’s poured from hand-painted blue-and-white china pitchers by Burleigh. Zamarra’s menu is a changeable, aggressively seasonal document, printed daily and tied together with bits of twine. It features organic poultry (Pennsylvania duck, pigeons cooked in clay), and numerous organically grown vegetables (shallots, carrots, artichokes). Delicate eaters can enjoy many kinds of fresh fish (big-eye tuna, Neversink River rainbow trout, red snapper), and on the evenings I visited, the overarching culinary theme was wild ramps, those precious, scallionlike roots that bloom for a few short weeks during spring and are beloved by foodies throughout the land.
“Zamarra’s aggressively seasonal menu is printed daily and tied together with bits of twine.”
The best ramp-themed appetizer I sampled was something called trout piscator, which consisted of silvery wheels of cool trout stuffed with ramps and mashed smoked trout and set on a salad of fennel and pearl onions. I could detect no ramps in the grilled sardines, but they were agreeably soft and crispy and garnished with sweet caramelized onions, tangy Parmesan and toasted pine nuts. Among other appetizers, however, my rampless plate of cod was drowned in too much saffron, and a grandiose-sounding dish called “salad of sweet Maine crab and portobello mushrooms marinated in aged balsamic vinegar and olive oil” (like his mentor, Zamarra has a penchant for overdramatization) tasted more or less like a standard mix of mushroom and crab. On the other hand, the big-eye tuna (flash-cooked and served with butter sauce and frizzled shallots) was predictably rich, even luxurious, as was the velouté, made with parsnips and a hint of mango, with three warm, lightly crispy Hama Hama oysters floating on top.
Combined with the restaurant’s studied décor, this kind of precious, ambitious cooking brings an air of high-pitched, almost feverish quaintness to the proceedings at Mas. By the time the entrées arrived, I found myself taking tiny bites and talking in hushed tones about the quality of the parsnips in my soup. Zamarra’s lobster (gently poached, with sea beans and ramp bulbs, among other esoteric items) elicited further murmurs of approval at our table, and so did the lamb loin, which was wrapped in ramp leaves and cut in tender, pink medallions. All of the seafood entrées I sampled were good, particularly the wild Alaskan king salmon (also tender and pink) and the monkfish, which is inventively rolled in a black-olive paste. I liked the duck breast (it’s flavored with pistachio nougat) better than the scrawny, overly precious clay pigeon (the pottery is ostentatiously piled on the plate), and my favorite of the aggressively seasonal entrées was the lasagne, which is arranged in a little tower and layered with oyster mushrooms, chanterelles, more ramps, and fresh ricotta.
It hasn’t taken long for the word to get out about Mas. Open a little over a month, the place is already overrun with West Village dignitaries (Sandra Bernhard, one evening, wearing tangerine-colored Pumas) and hordes of beady-eyed food aristocrats. I imagine a few of them thought Zamarra’s cooking was good, but not mind-blowingly good, and at this early stage, they may be right. But it’s difficult to deny the happy buzz circulating around the room, that elevated sense, which you get in the best restaurants, of being in the right place at the right time. The desserts, which include many suitably arcane, American-produced artisanal cheeses, don’t always add to this ambience, but they don’t detract from it either. The best of them is a bar of soft Guanaja chocolate, served with a scoop of Guinness-stout ice cream. The most emblematic is a bowl of grape-flavored granité with fresh-cut strawberries, poured nearly to the top with champagne. It’s a fizzy, refreshing, pleasurable dish, and like many things at Mas, it even leaves you a little high.
Mas, 39 Downing Street (212-255-1790). Dinner, 6 to 11:30 p.m., Monday through Saturday. Late dinner (oysters, cheeses, small plates), 11:30 p.m. to 4 a.m., Monday through Saturday. Appetizers: $10 to $14. Entrées: $26 to $31. All major credit cards.