Restaurant Review: Masa

BY MARTHA JEONG

Good service is not as evident when you go to a restaurant as a party of two, arriving on time to your reservation, ordering standard fare, and not asking for substitutes due to your gluten-free, peanut-intolerant, onion-despising diet. Things get much more complicated when you deviate from this “How to Be an Easy Dining Patron” protocol. Kudos to the wait and host staff at Masa, who graciously accommodated my group of twelve friends as we finally seated ourselves to eat, an hour later than and two people more than our planned reservation. They didn’t even attempt to pull the “We can’t seat you until everyone in your party is here” line, which is the host equivalent of spitting in your food; a ploy used even at our loveable Cambridge Commons. Instead we were promptly seated and happily sipping on life-sized margaritas while we waited for the rest of our crew to show up.

Masa’s twist on the traditional margarita collected many awards around the Bostonian restaurant scene, including Best of Boston in 2001. Renamed the “Masarita,” the specialty libation consists of blanco tequila, triple sec, apple juice, fresh squeezed orange juice and lime mix. This drink will set you back $8.00 a glass, or else you can opt to share the party size; grab a friend or two and get ready for Masa’s take on the scorpion bowl. For the purists who prefer their tequila undiluted with fruit juices, Masa will not disappoint. The extensive tequila menu may be reason alone to check out the vibrant South End restaurant specializing in haute Southwestern cuisine. What I thought was a thick wine menu placed in the middle of the table was actually the tequila list. The last time I counted there were 64 varieties to suit your fancy. Various sampling combinations from $14-18 are offered so you can try your hand at a few while you wait for dinner to cook. (P.S. For the oenophiles, no need to panic, Masa has a fine wine list as well, but personally who’s thinking about grapes when you’re offered a dizzying array of tequila to conquer?)

If you’re seated at the bar and need some munchies to accompany your tequila flights, the $1 dollar tapas menu offers nine different small plates and always one special tapas of the night including salmon tartar with avocado and jalapeno corn fritters; shredded chicken taquitos with ancho chile aioli (aioli is a rich sauce of crushed garlic, egg yolks, lemon juice and olive oil, which basically makes it a delicious garlic flavored mayonnaise); and grilled chorizo served with cranberry chutney salsa.

Executive chef/owner Philip Aviles offers a mouthwatering dinner menu, which is clearly not Mexican or authentically Southwestern, but since that’s not really the point here, the creative dishes do well. First courses and entrees are made from an inventive twist on traditional Southwestern cuisine, substituting and adding trendier ingredients like wasabi guacamole, spiced goat cheese, organic figs and lobster emulsion. But don’t think this will be one of those ultra fancy places, where you’ll leave a little hungry and a bit confused by your dining experience. For steak lovers, I would recommend the southwestern style steak frites ($22) which is accompanied by chili lime watercress salad and guajillo bourbon sauce, guajillo being a thin skin, medium heat chili with fruity, citrusy flavors. The blackened rare ahi tuna steak ($23) was an outstanding, hearty portion of fish served with yellow mole sauce, wild mushrooms and Yukon gold potatoes. Another favorite choice recommended to us by our waitress was the tender grilled pork shoulder with negra modelo, cotija and ancho grits ($22) accompanied by port and fig jam as well as salsa borracha, which means “drunk salsa.” Just in case you didn’t get enough alcohol in your blood with the tequila, Masa slips some beer in through the salsa.

We acknowledge that restaurants known for having a good view usually don’t serve an equally impressive meal. So similarly, I was thinking that Masa, a trendy restaurant with amazing service, a beautiful ambience and a great tequila list would most likely fail to make an impression with its food, caught up in trying to be creative and inventive. But the food, which is after all what matters most, was not to be upstaged by the rest of Masa’s high points and it delivered deliciously well.

Rating: ***

Masa 439 Tremont Street (617-338-8884)Brunch is served on Saturday and Sunday from 10:00am-3:00pm. Dinner: Sunday – Thursday: 5:00 pm -10:00pm, Friday – Saturday: 5:00 – 11:00pm

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