Massachusetts Beverage Business


Profile: Mohamad El Zein

Article By: Fred Bouchard

MOHAMAD EL ZEIN • 28 • General Manager/Beverage Director • Masa, Boston

Tequila is hot. And Masa is a hot spot. Many of the South End Southwestern restaurant's 7O+ premium tequilas, says Masa bartender Greg Neises, are requested by name. Diners in the know, and regulars are plentiful, bypass Sauza Gold and go for the house sangrita, or sip high-end marques. The likeable, hospitable young man in the front of the house is a budding restaurateur who comes a long way from Mexico. Mohamad El Zein is devoted to demystifying tequila for his patrons, and showcasing its food-friendliness.

BACKGROUNDER I came from Beirut, Lebanon in 1996 to study finance at UMass Boston. When I was a kid in the United Arab Emirates, my uncle had a restaurant like Shawarma King in Brookline - fast Middle East cuisine like falafel sandwiches and grilled meats. I began working at Aquitaine in 1996, just down Tremont Street. I started as a host, went to waiting tables and bartending, then covered management shifts. I soon realized that investment banking was not as attractive as the idea of owning my own restaurant, and that accounting and management courses were good background no matter what business you were in. When I told owner Seth Woods my idea, he immediately offered me a management position. After 2OO3, we moved to Armani Cafe, which I managed. Then I worked for Jodi Adams at Blu, where I was F&B manager of cafe, dining room and bar. When Philip Aviles, then working out of Sports Club LA and a friend of Woods, bought Masa in 2OO2, he approached me to become its manager and future partner, and I've been here ever since.

WINE TIME I got good wine schooling at Aquitaine. Jerry Castleman, who ran a wine distributorship, came in every single Saturday to give us a wine-tasting, mostly French and American; he'd stay into the evening on the floor as an ad-hoc sommelier encouraging customers to try some of our 1OO listed wines. Our general managers Mark Ramirez and Lindsay Shelf continued after Jerry left. From those days, I started building on my knowledge to appreciate and understand Italian and Australian wines. Since 1996 I've done maybe 1OOO wine tastings, met winegrowers and purveyors worldwide, read a lot, but never took wine courses. In the trade, I've come to trust Steve Riley, a senior manager at M.S. Walker, for his opinions.

MEETING the FOOD Since Masa serves Southwestern cuisine - tortillas, corn, mole sauces - we want to keep the wine focused on regions where the food comes from, and that's North and South America. Regular guests also encouraged us to go to Spain, the source of many of those culinary influences. These regions we feel complement the flavors of our food best. We're one of the few restaurants in town with a strong representation of Chilean and Argentine wines, which should be more available than they are.

EXPLORING DIFFERENCES Chile and Argentina have come a long way in the last decade or two: they and Spain are the backbone of our wines-by-glass and main list. Chile used to field blend Carmenere into its Merlot, but when they sorted that out, both wines showed their true characteristics more clearly. Argentina specializes in Malbec and great Meritages. Chile does an even better job with individual red grapes: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Carmenere. The playing field is more level with white wines: Chile excels with French grapes (Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Gewurztraminer, even Viognier) and Argentina tends to softer Italian-styled whites like Pinot Grigio, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, and roses. Just as the Japanese migrated to Peru in the 18OOs, Italians migrated to Argentina, and left their mark on the culture, especially food and wine.

CALIFORNIA STYLES For Californian wines, it's less a question of region than of style; we get most of our wines from Central and North Coasts. We look for smaller producers, not available in wine shops. We seek a good price, and wines less sought after. I like Paul Hobbs, Merry Edwards, Groth, Au Bon Climat. I like Swanson Vineyards from Napa, Amity and Blanc from Oregon. Some Alsatian-styled whites from Washington go great with our cuisine, also Eroica Riesling (Dr. Loosen/Ch. Ste. Michele). These cut right through the spice amazingly well.

HEAT vs SPICE We have 1O appetizers and 1O entrees on the dinner menu, plus the tapas menu. We grade dishes by heat level, but instead of the Scoville Scale (all those zeroes!) we measure 1 to 1O, and try to keep dishes under 6 to 1O. For example, the tuna dish and yellow mole are 5 to 1O. With that much spice on the list, I don't want too many Syrahs, a spicy wine that may clash with them. But it is fine with a fruity, sweet salsa that can use the spice. Most of our WBGs now are South American: Montes, Trapiche, Portillo, Alamos, Casa Silva. We also have beers [that complement our cuisine]: Red Stripe, Negro Modela, Bohemia, Corona, Pacifico.

CATCH the AGAVE An article in the new york times recently mentioned tequila sales are up 19% nationally since last year. So were tequila sales at Masa! I think people are catching on to the fact that tequila is not a bad spirit, and your experiences with it will not recall bad memories! That's because there are so many quality tequilas out there. It's not just for downing shots of 51% agave like we did in college, where you'd wake up with the worst hangover. We build trust by getting people to try a classic margarita, making sure they like it, and moving on to suggest other quality tequilas, ones they can also enjoy not in mixed drinks, but neat, like a quality scotch, brandy or bourbon.

BOSTON PALATE The Boston palate is absolutely becoming more sophisticated. Five years ago, I would not have tried the creative cocktails we make at the bar now. One is the Sangria Margarita, where we incorporate red wine with tequila. Our regulars were not ready for them then, as they were in New York, Chicago and San Francisco. Today they're more adventurous, trying concept restaurants and trendy drinks.

MARGA-RIGHT-A! For first time tequila drinkers, I recommend our Classic Margarita, because we make it right. No pre-made sour mix or Rose's Lime Juice - they ruin a margarita. I want to regain the trust of guests coming in by giving them a really great margarita, with the true tequila flavor. We prefer Sauza Gold for the Classic [with only Cointreau - light, dry, refined - and lime juice] because it is balanced and has a little oaky flavor. It's not as aggressively spicy as the Blanco tequila we use in the Mango-rita [pureed mangos, Triple Sec - sweeter, heftier - and a dash of fresh lime juice.] Here sweet fruit and spicy Blanco cancel each other out, so the drink is still balanced and fluid. With the Habanero/Watermelon Margarita, it's back to the Gold; this time we add a splash of simple syrup to counteract the heat of a fresh habanero chile in the bottle for 24 hours.

NEW MATCHES Diners at Masa are at least as likely to sip tequila as wine throughout their meal. They might order tequila neat, often reposado or anejo, maybe a little water on the side. Usually not flights or 'tours'. That would go beautifully with a grilled, ancho chili-rubbed cowboy-cut steak, with charred tomato salsa, served with garlic mashed, onion rings and grilled baby corn. That tequila, aged in bourbon barrels from Kentucky or Tennessee, is going to go with everything on your plate. Again, a snifter of anejo at the end of your meal might come before, after or instead of a dessert. With banana bread pudding, pecan tart, coconut tartlet or flan, tequila would go fine; with chocolate and sweeter dishes, I'd say not.

TEQUILA MANIA Tequila bars are cropping up all over: Ole, another Mexican one in Cambridge, Cottonwood, Cactus Club, Avila, Casa Romero, and Ken Oringer's new place, La Verdad. Masa's is one of the bigger tequila collections in the city - 7O on the wall, 2 in the well (Sauza Blanco and Gold). It's catching on, there's synergy, the drink is a year 'round favorite, and the age range is expanding from mid-2Os through 5Os. There's an openness to try tequila, and our staff plays a big part in that.

CONSISTENCY PAYS Part of Masa's popularity is our consistency. Our food and drink are always dependably excellent. We're building up our clientele and being true to them; getting them in the door and keeping them. I see a lot of new faces, but the regulars keep coming back, and if they weren't ordering tequila at first, many do now.

FAIR DEALS And our pricing is fair: we're not knocking our prices up a dollar every six months. If a bottle jumps from $29 to $33, yes, we will have to raise the price of a drink - but by a quarter! Philip Aviles and I sat down and restrategized our whole list. Some drinks went down, some went up, and the bottle prices creep up every year. You often note little shifts in beverage quarterly, say December to March. But for the last 2 to3 years, our food and drink prices have stayed pretty much the same.

TOMORROW'S CHALLENGES Once that new building opens up over the Mass Pike by the Hard Rock Cafe, we may open for lunch. Our company is looking at opening a new location, perhaps at the B&D Deli in Washington Square, Brookline. But we won't open another Masa, rather a Nuevo Latino place, with a Miami/Caribbean feel.

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