Move Over, Mas.


It’s no secret that the small plates craze is taking over nearly every major city’s restaurant scene. Some revere the trend for its allowance of sampling; others for its built-in portion control. And still some others [myself included] buy in because we’re non-committal and tapas don’t require us to choose one entree and stick with it.

It’s also no secret that Mas Tapas holds monopoly power over the small plates market in Charlottesville, leaving places that many would argue are holistically better restaurants [think: Bang or Bizou – small plates with character] in the dust in favor of Mas’ stuffy, snobby [oh wait, they call it “hip” and “trendy”] atmosphere. Anyone who has ever engaged me in a conversation about food in Charlottesville is well aware of my beef with Mas. Does it deserve to consistently top C’Ville Weekly’s “Best of C’Ville” list? No. Did its staff earn the right to treat its customers with the utmost disrespect because of this nomination? No. Is the food that great? Not comparatively. It’s always shocking to me to see, night after night in my own neighborhood, people literally line up for tapas with a side of attitude. Mas would never survive in a city larger than Charlottesville, where a multitude of restaurants exist to give diners perspective and the ability to take a step back and say, “Hey, we can eat the same style of food at this place without being treated like dogs!”

Believe it or not, these perspective-lending restaurants do exist in Charlottesville. They’re just buried deep down and take some searching to discover. After doing just that for the last 2+ years, last night I finally found the city’s hidden small-plates gem. Move over, Mas: Al-Hamraa takes C’Ville’s small-plates cake.

Al-Hamraa is buried deep in that creepy IX Building on Second Street, and its only flaw is just that: it’s hard to find. It serves Moroccan tapas, a cuisine inspired by the country’s many influences over the years: the Middle East, the Mediterranean, Judaism, the French, and Moorish culture. You can taste the amalgamation in the dishes: the cumin from Israel and the Middle East, the harissa spices from France, the seafood flavors from the Mediterranean.

Rather than chairs, Al-Hamraa is filled with couches and small, low tables. Instead of a wine list, there’s a table full of wine bottles. Walk over, choose one, and take it to your spot. No matter the vintage, all of the bottles are only $20. Once you’re settled, you’ll be greeted with a cloth and a metal wash-basin full of scented water. Because Moroccans eat with their hands, washing them immediately prior to eating is a tradition required of every guest.

Ordering at Al-Hamraa works the same way as it does at Bang and Mas – just mark an “X” by the tapas you want. The tapas are separated into $2.90, $4.90, $5.90, $6, $8.90 and $15.90 sections, with a “Chef Fusion” section on the back of the menu. We left spending $26 total on food, and we left stuffed.

Start with the Khobz, a loaf of traditional Moroccan bread that’s often used to replace utensils [$2.90]. Its dense like a savory cake with substantial crust, and perfect for sopping up all of the delicious sauces you’ll encounter throughout your night [and the olive oil they’ll pour you when they serve it]. Move on to something spicy: the tuna with harissa and kalamata olives on Khobz [$4.90] or the sardine meatballs in a mouth-burning tomato sauce [$5.90]. The tuna is stupidly simple but there’s nothing better than house-made harissa, and you’ll need an extra glass of water for the tomato sauce for the sardines, but get as much of it onto the bread as you can. Then, try something creamier: their mussels are cooked in turmeric, cilantro and tomato broth [$5.90]. Pro-tip: take them all out of the shell first and let them soak in the broth, rather than shelling them one-by-one. Believe me, you’ll want to savor as much of the broth as possible. I like to think thats why they give you a spoon.

Rather than go the traditional dessert route, we opted for a “Chef Fusion” dish: toast with date paste, blue cheese, toasted sesame seeds, and a ring of thinly-sliced green apples [$7]. Pair it with an anisette and you will not be disappointed. Al-Hamraa serves Absinthe the traditional [and showy] way: poured over a sugar cube which is then lit on fire, mixed into the glass, and topped with water. I felt like I was back in Prague or Budapest.

The servers were attentive, friendly, and entertained all of our questions about the cuisine, responding with the knowledge of a staff that knows and respects the traditions of and ingredients in the food. Our entire meal, although just a few small plates, lasted over two hours, because the dishes were timed such that we could enjoy each one. There was a real sense that the staff wanted you to partake in Moroccan traditions, and take your time doing so.

Al-Hamraa’s food and staff have everything that Mas is lacking: patience, thoughtfulness, kindness, respect, humility, and a true desire to share a fabulous cuisine. Al-Hamraa is a place I wouldn’t be embarrassed taking guests to, and that makes all the difference. Rather than heading all the way to Belmont for Mas, stop halfway at IX and enjoy yourself. It’s cold outside now, and no one wants to wait two hours on a freezing patio for a sub-par experience.

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Categories: C-Ville, Food

Author:ryesandshine

Courtney grew up in Reading, PA, and has lived in New York City (where she earned a bachelor's degree at NYU), Prague, Philadelphia, and Charlottesville (where she received a J.D. from UVa Law). Courtney and her new husband will settle in Philadelphia following a six-week Euro-trip extravaganza in September of 2012. Courtney's interests include music, writing, criticism, fitness, travel, cooking, and sports. Please enjoy the blog. LinkedIn: http://www.linkedin.com/pub/courtney-marello/1a/375/b30 Tumblr: http://abarrelofoddsandends.tumblr.com/

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13 Comments on “Move Over, Mas.”

  1. CvilleFooodeats
    November 20, 2011 at 6:15 pm #

    Yah, I can’t freaking believe Mas is still in business based on how bad their service is… i’ve been treated better in a North Vietnamese prison camp… they had better food too believe it or not.

    • November 20, 2011 at 6:17 pm #

      It’s so sad, too, because I want to like Mas. I also just wish I could tell people waiting for tables there that there are better places!! Their food is fun, but it’s just consistent, disappointing staff. We actually had a conversation with about 15 people once, and only one person could say they had a “nice waitress at Mas,” and everyone else was shocked.

  2. Foodbert Einstein
    November 20, 2011 at 6:32 pm #

    Mas may have an attitude, but they’ve earned it with their all-around excellence. Their cuisine is divine in comparison to the pedestrian fair at Al-Hamraa. Al-Hamraa doesn’t come close to capturing the cuisine I tasted during my travels in Casablanca.

    • CvilleFooodeats
      November 20, 2011 at 6:34 pm #

      8===============>

    • November 20, 2011 at 6:36 pm #

      For me, Al-Hamraa’s allure is actually in its pedestrian-ism, similar to the street-food you can find in other places [like Zahav]. Mas may be frilly, but much like your experiences in Casablanca, it’s nothing like the tapas I had in Spain, which more closely resembled street-y, simple, “pedestrian” fare. That said, I’m not arguing that Mas’s food is bad [I’ll admit I do enjoy it], I’m more arguing that it matters little to me how good the food is. I don’t believe a restaurant can “earn” the right to treat those that are the reason for their livelihood poorly.

      • Foodbert Einstein
        November 20, 2011 at 7:16 pm #

        Pedestrian as a compliment? Interesting. I respectfully disagree. Excuse the hyperbole, but I’d rather be treated like a dog and served people food at Mas then be treated like a person but served dog food at Al-Hamraa. But then, I consider myself a bit of a foodie, so I’m biased.

      • November 20, 2011 at 7:47 pm #

        Pedestrian in the sense that it’s traditional rather than wildly imaginative or filled with fluff. Sometimes simplicity is better than inspiration in cuisine. Sometimes foodies, however, must agree to disagree.

  3. CvilleFooodeats
    November 20, 2011 at 6:46 pm #

    Ok, so I think I know why everyone at mas is so douchey. This was an email sent by the owner to some customer who posted a bad review about them on yelp… she obviously re-posted it…

    Hi yuna,

    greg d. has sent you a message on Yelp:

    mas tapas bar

    “dear yuna, i was sorry to see you had such a bad experience at MAS. Your descriptions and evocative phrases such as ‘whatever” and ‘sucked” really compelled me to respond to such a wordsmith. The idea of a dish that is served ‘rare-only’ being served rare is inexcusable. that it arrived out of order is not unusual since there is no order. when we serve larger parties they tend to prefer their food to come sooner rather than later. sorry for the delay. the fact that you were seated nearby where you had been asked to wait, also ridiculously cruel. the time you waited, 30 minutes, for a much-wanted outdoor table for 8 at peak dinner service is the standard outside of Fullerton. but out of your three ‘worst parts’, the autogratuity for parties of six or more, is again, standard outside of Fullerton. I want to thank you for taking some of your precious time to belittle my staff and insult my restaurant then, and now. we clearly failed you and your party. outside of the cultural hotspots of the Fullerton, Lorba Linda and Placentia Triangle, we still have a lot to learn. watching the effects of alcohol on human beings has given us all so many cherished moments.”

    • November 20, 2011 at 7:45 pm #

      Wow, that was written by the owner? That’s disappointing.

      • CvilleFooodeats
        November 20, 2011 at 8:01 pm #

        Yah. Guess he likes to surround himself with his own kind

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