Had Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra written Don Quixote in the 21st century, the title character’s quest in life might not have been to revive the chivalric virtues and values of adventurous knights. His quests might well have instead taken him on tapas bar-hopping adventures throughout Madrid, Spain. In his edible escapades, he would have fought the commercialization of the Spanish tapas traditions. Instead of tangling with windmills, he would have squared off against golden arches. Quixote’s sidekick Sancho Panza would have certainly earned his surname.
Madrid, perhaps even more than Ernest Hemingway’s beloved Paris is a “moveable feast.” The practice of chasing after those diverse and delicious little dishes known as “tapas” is called a “tapeo” and no city does tapas bar-hopping as well as Madrid. In Madrid tapeos have achieved near cult status. They are a cultural event, a rite of passage and a sporting event rolled into one. A tapeo allows you to sample the culinary fare at several tapas bars without sitting down for an entire meal. Ostensibly, you “walk off” your tapas and wine as you hop from bar to bar.
Tapas have become one of Madrid’s most popular tourist attractions with “tapas tours” becoming increasingly well-known and popular. As recounted on this blog, tapas are the Spanish version of hors d’oeuvres or dim sum, little plates of food. In Spain they’re often served complimentary with a drink (usually wine). The word “tapas” is derived from the Spanish verb tapar, which means “to cover”. History and legend attribute the term to pieces of ham or cheese laid across glasses of wine to keep flies out (and stagecoach drivers sober).
Tapas can be traced back to the seven centuries of Moorish presence in the Iberian Peninsula. The Moors brought with them an influx of exotic spices and ingredients such as saffron, apricots, artichokes, carob, sugar, carrots, coriander and rice. They introduced pastries, desserts and cold soups which remain part and parcel of the Spanish culinary repertoire to this day. Fittingly, the Moors are widely credited for Spain’s best-known culinary innovation–the small and varied delicacies today known as tapas.
Perhaps New Mexico’s preeminent practitioner in the art of Spanish tapas is five-time James Beard Award nominee for “Best Chef – Southwest” James Campbell Caruso. Chef Caruso has plied his culinary craft at La Boca in Santa Fe since 2006, achieving so much critical acclaim and popularity that in 2012, he launched Taverna La Boca, a Spanish-style tavern which, as its elder sibling, specializes in, tapas. His two Santa Fe tapas restaurants are a favorite of Food Network luminary Giada DiLaurentis.
In 2013 when Albuquerque’s AAA Four Diamond hotel, Hotel Andaluz announced a make-over of its signature restaurant Lucia, it made sense that the restaurant’s new direction and concept would be Spanish tapas. After all, the presence of Moorish culture and cuisine is more prominent in Andalusia (the Spanish region for which the hotel is named) than anywhere else in Spain. It also made sense that Chef Caruso would be brought in from Santa Fe to head the new restaurant concept christened Mas, a Spanish word which translates to “more.”
The magnificent Hotel Andaluz is the perfect venue for Mas, providing a “tantalizing and sensuous tapestry of past and future,” celebrating yesteryear while embracing today. Tracing its lineage to Conrad Hilton, the ten-story hotel launched in 1939 as New Mexico’s first Hilton, is a stunning complex showcasing earth tone stucco and southwest woodwork, furnishings and artwork. Its imposing two-story lobby, stately arches, hand-carved beams and balconies overlooking the lobby make it one of the finest hotels in the Land of Enchantment.
In an interview with NBC Latino, Chef Caruso proclaimed the menu at Mas “cutting edge, a total juxtaposition of the hotel itself.” Mas is significantly larger than Caruso’s other restaurants with a large exhibition kitchen illuminated to showcase both the modernity of the equipment and the process of putting together some of the very best tapas in the Land of Enchantment. Those tapas will be available in all the hotel’s service areas as well as the main lobby and the rooftop Ibiza bar.
The Mas dinner menu features tapas, salads, soups, entrees and desserts with Chef Caruso’s wife Leslie serving as pastry chef. The lunch menu adds sandwiches and burgers, including a green chile cheeseburger. For lunch, a “menu del dia,” a special three-course lunch is offered daily. The restaurant’s Web sites describes Mas as “inspired by the bold flavors, rich history and exuberance of Spanish cooking,” offering “fresh reinventions of traditional Spanish cuisine with an emphasis on locally-sourced foods and high quality imported ingredients and spices.” It’s a winning formula!
It’s interesting that one of the platos on the lunch menu is called a “mezze” platter because mezze is more commonly associated with Turkish or Greek food and is essentially synonymous with tapas (small dishes). Name notwithstanding, the mezze is a must (maybe a better name) have. Three spreads—a spicy carrot garbanzo hummus, beet walnut spread and a spinach-caper spread—are served with lavash sesame crackers, a pile of greens and a small ramekin of grapes and olives.
The three spreads are vastly different, each uniquely imprinting themselves on your taste buds. The spicy carrot garbanzo hummus is a slight departure from many Middle Eastern hummus you may have had. The carrots lend a tinge of sweetness and color to the garbanzo, a traditional ingredient in hummus. This hummus isn’t as oily and lemony as some hummus tends to be with a pleasant spiciness that surprised us. The beet walnut spread is a coming together of two diverse ingredients. Their merger accentuates a savory flavor profile with little of the sweetness which characterizes some beets. The spinach caper salad is a melding of distinctive bitterness of spinach and the salty, sharp and sour notes of capers. All three spreads are unique adventures in flavor discernment with the sesame lavosh serving as a pleasant canvas.
At the opposite end of the flavor profile spectrum are Gambas Fritas, fried shrimp served with a smoked paprika agridulce dipping sauce. The shrimp are perfectly fried and sheathed in a light, golden batter. They snap when you bite into them, a mark of freshness, and have a pleasant sweetness. Though “agridulce” implies sweet and sour, the smoked paprika dipping sauce lends the dimensions of smokiness (obviously) and just a hint of piquancy.
If, like me, you celebrate Hannahmas on December 11th, do it in style with one of Hannah’s favorite indulgences: Manchego cheese with membrillo. Manchego cheese is the pride of the La Mancha region in Spain, a sheep’s milk with a buttery texture and distinctive creaminess and flavor. Nothing pairs better with Manchego cheese than membrillo, a Spanish paste made from quince (the fruit Eve is reputed to have given Adam). Membrillo is a deep, ruby red square that’s not overly sweet and has a texture not unlike jelly candy. Few things in this world go as well together as Manchego cheese with membrillo.
Also blending well is the triumvirate of hot gouda, chorizo and baked apple. This is an adult mac and cheese, the antithesis of that crappy Kraft dinner to which far too many Americans subject their children. Gouda, a Dutch cheese, is one of the world’s most popular cheeses, renowned for its rich flavor with a creamy tang and smooth texture. The Gouda is a perfect foil for the savory-piquant chorizo and the tangy-sweet apples. Then, as if anything else is needed to make this a perfect mac and cheese, it’s served with crostini with which you’ll scoop up the cheesy deliciousness. It’s a rich, rich, rich indulgence.
Perhaps the most enticing from among the lunchtime sandwich menu is the slow-braised pork shoulder sandwich with a fig-olive tapenade served on a hoagie roll. There’s a lot going on in this sandwich, highlighted by the perfectly braised, wonderfully tender pork shoulder. It’s porcine perfection! The fig-olive tapenade is a surprise considering how very sweet figs can be and how astringent olives can be. As prepared at Mas, these two strong flavor profiles are terrific, an excellent complement to the pork. Hmmm, maybe the Reese’s Peanut Butter folks might consider pairing these two flavors in a candy bar.
The dessert menu is limited in terms of quantity, but has some very interesting and inviting offerings. For me, dessert menus begin and end with bread pudding, one of those anachronistic desserts that never completely seem to go out of style. The Mas version of bread pudding is made with mission figs and is served warm though a scoop of Hagen Daz ice cream will quickly take care of that. Texturally, it’s about on par with a thick, borderless Challah bread French toast. Flavorwise, it’s got just a pinch of salt to offset the extreme sweetness of the figs. It’s a very good bread pudding.
It’s appropriate that this fine tapas restaurant in the heart of downtown Albuquerque is named “Mas” because after enjoying its rich indulgences, you’ll definitely want mas, mas, mas.
Mas Tapas Y Vino
125 Second Street, N.W.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 7 December 2013
# OF VISITS: 1
COST: $$$ – $$$$
BEST BET: Mezze Platter, Gambas Fritas, Manchego Cheese With Membrillo; Hot Gouda, chorizo, apple bake w/ crostini; Slow-braised pork shoulder sandwich; Mission Fig Bread Pudding