Mas (La Grillade)
28 Seventh Ave South, New York, NY 10014 (between Leroy and Bedford; map); 212-255-1795 maslagrillade.com
Service: Generally attentive and casual, though occasionally strangely formal
Setting: Casually elegant, though a bit cramped.
Must-Haves: Grilled Romaine with Lamb Bacon, Grilled Squab, Tartines
Cost: Appetizers $9 to $18, a la carte mains $24 to $89, sides $4 to $8, most wines over $80
Chef Galen Zamarra has always been a strong proponent of using the very best seasonal ingredients he can find in his cooking. After winning plenty of critical acclaim for his menu at Mas (farmhouse), and a James Beard award during his stint at Bouley, Zamarra has recently decided to step up and really put his money where his mouth is to open Mas (la grillade) in the West Village. Not only are all of the ingredients supposedly top notch and seasonally inspired, he's also grilling, smoking, or spit-roasting them all on locally sourced hardwood in a kitchen decked out with nothing but wood-burning equipment.
Everything, from appetizers to main courses to desserts are cooked over wood. An all-grilled menu? That's a pretty serious statement.
Diners, however, wouldn't know it from walking into the 80-seat slightly cramped, but elegant space. There are no signs of fire anywhere on-premises—you almost wish you could see into the kitchen from the dining room or at least smell the coals you know are smoldering somewhere in the back.
Meals start with a complimentary bite, this time a delightfully tender-crisp grilled shrimp with a piece of toast, a bit of lemony mayonnaise, and a parsley-based sauce. No smoke to speak of so far, but tasty nonetheless.
Small plates meant for sharing make up the first third of the menu. A Grilled Tartine of Ricotta, Anchovies, Charred Tomatoes and Olives ($7) was excellent, the pickled white anchovies and tart tomatoes bursting with brightness while a modest smear of creamy ricotta added richness to the toast—grilled, with plenty of smokiness.
Both cocktails I tried—a tea-based sweet concoction and a variation on an Old Fashioned—went well with the intensely flavored early dishes and were plenty strong at $12 apiece. The wine list, on the other hand, is a bit pricey for a relatively casual spot with very few bottles under $70 and most well over $100. This wasn't the first case of sticker-shock I felt over the course of the night.
Wood-Fired Oysters with Lemon Thyme-Shallot Butter (3 for $9) were ultra simple: plump and briny Island Creek oysters from Duxbury with a bit of good compound butter that probably would have been better suited for a creamier West Coast or Gulf oyster. I found myself wishing that the briny Island Creeks had been left raw.
A much better choice was the Grilled Romaine Salad with House-Cured Lamb Bacon ($14). Nice and smoky with a tender-crisp core, it came with a good amount of homemade ranch-style dressing. I'd order this dish again for the lamb bacon alone, which was one of the single tastiest things I've eaten in recent memory.
A steaming plateful of Roasted Pumpkin Soup ($16) smelled appealingly smoky when it hit the table and a few sips revealed deep initial flavor, but the soup drank more like candy than appetizer—rich and smoky for sure, but unabashedly, cloyingly sweet.
If the appetizers were mostly fully realized composed dishes of food, the entrées show a completely different aesthetic. Spartan in the extreme, most were nothing more than a single piece of grilled meat along with a sauce. Grilled Sweetbreads with a Maple and Parsley Glaze ($24) were perfectly grilled—neither mushy nor chewy as sweetbreads are often prone to be. The crust was especially tasty, though you've got to really have a thing for offal to finish off a plate consisting of nothing but a single grilled gland. As with the pumpkin soup, the maple-based sauce was cloyingly sweet.
There's no doubt that Zamarra's cooks have mastered their craft; a Spit-Roasted Whole Hudson Valley Squab ($30) came cooked to a T, with crisp skin and crazy-juicy breast meat. If there's one thing it demonstrated, however, it was the shortcomings of an a la carte menu: The grilled rapini and the grilled maitake mushrooms we ordered on the side were reasonably tasty (if underseasoned) on their own, but proved completely unsuitable as sponges for all the delicious juice that lay languishing on the empty squab plate. A dish like this needs some sort of starchy accompaniment to work, and unfortunately, we didn't know that until it was too late.
A la carte menus are not cheap either. Though the Grilled Wild Striped Bass with Parsley-Walnut Gremolata ($31) boasted perfectly cooked meat and mildly smoky blistered skin, it was almost absurdly expensive at $31 for a few ounces of fish sitting lonely in the middle of a large plate. A restaurant meal has to have some sort of value proposition and at prices like that, either service or decor has to be several notches more upscale.
The whole grilled theme extends to desserts as well. A great little chocolate-pumpkin s'mores-esque tart featured charred peaks of Italian meringue while a Chocolate Financier with Cocoa Nib Ice Cream ($14) came with grilled figs. Though both the ice cream and cake were outstanding, the figs were a baffling choice for a supposedly seasonal restaurant in the middle of November. Utterly flavorless, they had plenty of char but had neither sweetness nor the sticky, jammy texture that make perfect figs so wonderful.
I finished the meal with the impression that nothing was particularly bad, nor was anything particularly memorable. With La Grillade, Chef Zamarra takes a bold gamble, risking everything on the quality of his ingredients. Simple foods can be stunningly tasty when prepared perfectly. At Mas (la grillade), the food is just good, which frankly, is not good enough.
About the author: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Managing Editor of Serious Eats where he likes to explore the science of home cooking in his weekly column The Food Lab. You can follow him at @thefoodlab on Twitter, or at The Food Lab on Facebook.