Ramping It Up With
Wild Farmhouse Cuisine
“What’s this?” asked one of my guests, holding up his fork. There was something white speared on the end of it. “It’s a little bland.”
I had a taste. It was a shard of clay.
Well, it could’ve been buckshot.
The dish my friend was eating was called “clay pigeons,” and it’s on the menu at Mas, a French restaurant that recently opened in the West Village. Mas means “farmhouse” in Provence, a region where no self-respecting farm is without its own pigeonnier. The soft shards of clay on my friend’s plate weren’t supposed to be eaten, of course; they were heaped upon the side-rather comically-for decoration. The pigeon was served in red, meaty slices alongside a small tart filled with pieces of duck cooked in a bordelaise sauce. It’s the sort of dish you find in a seriously ambitious, Michelin-starred vaut le voyage restaurant in the South of France.
The food at Mas is seriously ambitious. Galen Zamarra was formerly chef de cuisine at Bouley Bakery, and he co-owns this small restaurant with Hugh Crickmore, a former sommelier at Marseille, and Thomas Wilson, the former bar manager at Nice Matin. Mr. Zamarra is committed to supporting local farmers and “day-boat” fishing operations along the Northeastern coastline; he also prefers using produce gathered in the wild. And he makes no bones about it.
As we sit down, a genial waiter comes by. He’s sporting a hairstyle that resembles the framed quaffs hanging up at the Astor Place barbershop. He has a point to make. “Organic sourdough roll?” he says, holding one up with a pair of tongs.
If Mas is a farmhouse, it’s a distinctly urban one, complete with a large bar lined with rough-hewn Provençal stone, a lounge area with tree-trunk stools and, in the dining room, a high communal table that was, on one night, filled with a surprisingly raucous party of young Japanese (incidentally the second largest group, after Americans, to make gastronomic tours of the great restaurants in France).
The dining room has low farmhouse beams, slatted wooden walls and a wood floor. Dark-blue suede banquettes are scattered with embroidered pillows, and sheer floor-to-ceiling curtains hang over the windows.
The theme running through the current menu is wild ramps, one of the few truly seasonal crops left. Ramps are wild spring leeks and taste rather like scallions. Chefs love them. Stop by the Greenmarket at Union Square early in the day and you’ll see chefs on the rampage, snapping them up by the bushel load. In the kitchen, chefs invent new ways to serve them. When Jonathan Waxman opened Washington Park a couple of years ago, his springtime cocktail was a pickled-ramp martini.
At Mas, ramps seem to have made it into just about everything except the martinis. They’re mixed with smoked trout and then stuffed into wheels of filleted rainbow trout, both sourced from the “Neversink River” in the Catskills. They’re a great combination in this creamy sauce on a bed of pearl onions and fennel. Ramps are also puréed and served with black bass that’s seared crisp and set on a carrot stew encircled by a rousing anise-flavored tomato sauce. Ramps arrive wrapped around a rare lamb loin and garnished with artichokes à la barigoule, simmered in white wine with carrots and onions. Ramp bulbs appear with lobster, served out of the shell on a bowl of carrot consommé laced with oyster mushrooms, fiddlehead ferns and sea beans of clay.
Mr. Zamarra (who was born in Switzerland but grew up in California) has a light touch and comes up with unusual but compelling combinations. Flaked Atlantic cod in a delicate saffron vinaigrette is sprinkled with bronzed Jerusalem artichoke crisps. Plump grilled Portuguese sardines come with a toasted pine nut dressing and are accompanied not by ramps but by caramelized spring onions and a crumbly parmesan sablet. Big-eye tuna is served like sashimi, in thin slices, with a hot beurre noisette that sears the fish, topped with crispy shallots for texture.
Desserts are first-rate. They include a hot rhubarb tart with orange frangipane served under a melting scoop of black-olive ice cream, and a sparkling granité of muscat grapes with strawberries and pink champagne. A fruit soup made of the freshest of berries is scented with hibiscus flowers. Provence meets Dublin in a dessert consisting of bars of guanaja chocolate scented with lavender and served with Guinness Stout ice cream. There’s also a choice of 20 carefully ripened domestic cheeses.
The wine list is mostly French, with a focus on Rhônes and Burgundies, and also has hard-to-find bottles and vintage California wines. It’s fairly priced, too.
Mas, which is next to the Blue Ribbon Bakery, is off to a good start. The kitchen is still hitting its stride-there are some losers on the menu, like the crab and Portobello salad drowned in balsamic vinegar. Dishes, like the salmon with cucumbers and dill, can be oddly tasteless, too, while others, like the lamb and the trout, are wonderful.
Soon ramps will be gone for another year. “What next?” I asked Mr. Zamarra over the phone.
“Wild asparagus,” he answered, “local fiddleheads, white asparagus, squash blossoms, fresh chamomile ….” Then he paused. “But definitely I could say asparagus is the next big thing.”