Mason Pacific has only been open a week, but that doesn't stop people from asking me, "should I go," "what should I get," or "how soft is the toilet paper" when they hear I've tried the new bistro/wine bar that took over the Lalola spot on the corner of, you guessed it, Mason and Pacific in the Russo-ChiNob microhood. Here's how I would eat at Mason Pacific on my first visit.
On my visits, I tried to get through as many of the starters as possible -- the beets ($6), potato skins ($5), crispy feta ($6), brandade ($12), and the fried chicken ($14). The beets, served with horseradish yogurt, lemon confit, and grapefruit, was a winner, and even though they feel like a staple on menus all over town these days, these are worth ordering, particularly if you're looking for something light for dinner. The thin ribbons of fried potato skins seemed like a great choice when they were dropped at the table, golden brown and covered in a web of barely melted Parmesan, and while they tasted great and had the potential to be a signature starter, like the Rich Table sardine chips, the varying consistency between crisp and limp pieces was off-putting. The brandade, a pasty mix made of smoked cod, Russet Norkota potatoes, and house yogurt felt lost, with the potatoes overpowering the smoky, saltiness of the cod. What did work was the crispy feta. Like a fancy and refined cousin of fried mozzarella, minus the rubberiness, the fried feta served with spring peas and fava beans was light and bright, yet the creamy and salty feta provided the dish with substance.
If you only have enough room for one starter, then stick with the fried chicken ($14); it's two pieces of a simple buttermilk fried chicken, closer to the lightly battered fried chicken you would find at Wayfare Tavern, minus all the herbs tucked under the skin. Each bite was moist, and the pleasant and mild saltiness I picked up from the bits of meat stuck to the bone was a telltale sign of the 24-hour brining. Served with a bottle of green Tabasco sauce and remoulade, your best option is to arm yourself with the Tabasco sauce as it added a terrific tingle of heat and complimented the chicken's salinity with some vinegar tartness. In fact, I might be using green Tabasco with any fried chicken I eat after this.
For the mains, definitely treat yo'self to the wild salmon ($26). Even though my salmon was a touch overcooked, it was still a beautiful piece of fish, treated simply with a little citrus and sitting on a bed of grated cauliflower and Pepperoncini sofrito, which provided needed texture for the dish, albeit needing some seasoning. On the other end of the seasoning spectrum was the New York Steak ($28), which should really bill itself as New York Steak au poivre from its heavy coating of pepper. Luckily, the pickled mushrooms, Lacinato kale, lemon ponzu, and potato puree all help to tame the peppery beef. With that said, I would probably look to the burger if I really want beef.
A blend of three different cuts, one dry-aged in house, the Mason Pacific burger ($14) is served on a doughy, salty, and downright delicious pretzel bun with smoked tomato, pickled red onion, and white cheddar. And this is exactly the way it should be ordered. The kitchen offers the option to add a fried egg, applewood-smoked bacon, and mushroom confit at $3 each, as well as an "all of the above plus spinach" choice called "Joe's Special," but I advise you not to do that the first time. I ordered the Joe's Special, and was a disappointed to find the fried egg was thoroughly cooked to the point the runny yolk I was hoping for had turned dry and powdery. Additionally, both the bacon and the mushroom confit end up destroying any chance of tasting the smoked tomato and white cheddar, so stick with the standard, simple burger; it's good enough to stand on its own. Also, ask for a side of the remoulade that comes with the fried chicken for dipping the fries that come with the burger.
As for the sides, the two to go after are the potato puree ($6), creamy and buttery as one would hope from a mousseline, and the green beans ($6) with dehydrated kimchi and cracked pepper.
Still think you'll be hungry after going in for all those suggestions? This is why we're gigantic, America! You can keep it light with scoops of crème fraiche or Vietnamese coffee ice cream from Humphry Slocombe ($6), but you really should get the chocolate pot de crème ($6). Served with a fluffy peanut butter mousse that disappears on your tongue, you can't deny the natural pairing of these two flavors. Some candied Marcona almonds bolster the dessert adding nuttiness and crunch while cutting the richness.
Of course, in two weeks, all of these suggestions and impressions could change, as I experienced when I saw potato gratin and fries added to the menu as sides on a second visit. By next week, they could get the potato skin frying down to a science, create a green Tabasco remoulade, start serving long pig, switch to an Asian street food concept, or everything could be exactly the same.
In any case, Mason Pacific is a welcome addition to the area, and is a must-try dinner spot for neighborhood residents, despite them no longer hosting flamenco shows in the cavernous basement. Oh, for those that asked, the toilet paper is soft and supple, not at all rough, but also not as smooth as Sea Island Cotton.
Mason Pacific, 1358 Mason, 374-7185.