So for months now, we've been watching as a new restaurant has slowly been built on the ashes of the long-dead Bear Rock Cafe, across the parking lot from Whole Foods. Masa Restaurant has been open in Boston for some time now, but they decided to open a suburban outpost in Woburn, on the Winchester line. Tonight was their opening, and since we had no other plans for Date Night, we decided to check it out. It's good enough to be worth a detailed review.
Let's get the negative out of the way first. Service was slow, and not in the good "letting you linger over drinks" way. It took over ten minutes before our waitress even showed her face to take our cocktail order, and things continued to be rather lackadaisacal after that. Since it was everyone's first night, we cut them some slack and didn't ding her on the tip, but that definitely needs to improve. (The couple next to us had it worse: they had arrived half an hour earlier than us, and the husband had to leave before they got their entree, to go home and pay the babysitter or something like that.)
On the other hand, the food was consistently excellent, from start to finish, and that *is* worth lingering over. They bill themselves as "new Southwestern", which is a fair description: they are to Southwestern food what Nouvelle Cuisine is to French and Fusion is to Asian. A little weird, creative, consistently interesting and tasty. (And apparently frequently shifting: the menu we had tonight bore only a passing resemblance to the PDF one on their website.)
The cocktails were specialty margaritas; unlike many such, these were far more than the usual tequila with a splash of something different. She got the Sangria Margarita, which was good but IMO perhaps misnamed -- it had a sufficiently distinct element of cinnamon that it almost came across more as a Mulled Wine Margarita, sweet and warming. I got the Smoked Jalepeno Margarita, which was every bit as spicy as it sounds, while still being sweet and flavorful: a total winner, but the first time we've ever wanted chips to cool off from the drink.
Her appetizer was the Tuna Tartare -- almost a full burger's worth of raw tuna, covered with a like amount of pureed avacado. (Sadly, the flavor clashed horribly with the Sangria Margarita: two great tastes that don't taste great together.) I had the Muscovy Duck Quesadilla, which was small but rich enough to more than make up for it, with caramelized onions on top to balance the flavor.
For entree, she had a fine Steak Frites: an excellent cut of flank steak, juicy and rare but still tender enough to not need a steak knife, drenched in a lovely marinade that I couldn't even begin to deconstruct. I had the Seared Tilapia with Melted Leek Lardons: perfectly paired flavors of medium depth, flavorful without needing any sort of overwhelming sauce.
We split the Banana Flautas for dessert -- really a single banana in a crisp fried wrapper, cut in half and served with cinnamon creme fraiche and a chocolate drizzle.
In general, portions were medium-sized: not the sort of hearty portions typical of American restaurants, but not as precious and tiny as you often see in Nouvelle. The above was more food than we should have eaten, but not outrageous. (A more appropriate portion would have omitted the dessert, and possibly split an app.)
Prices are rather too high for routine Date Night, although not bad for a special occasion: it ran a tad over a hundred dollars before tax and tip.
The decor of the place is a bit more in-city-fancy than you usually see in the 'burbs, and much of the clientele dressed for it: I felt a bit underdressed in my everyday sweater, and some of the ladies there were in full Little Black Dress. Reservations recommended on busy nights, but there is walk-in space in the bar. And it wasn't horribly crowded, presumably due to the economy: it was full when we sat down at 8:30, but steadily emptied after that.
(Not tried, but also worth noting: they apparently have little $1 Tapas plates at the bar. And once they're settled in, they'll be starting weekend brunches and weekday lunches.)
Summary: a winner in every respect except service. Assuming they get their act together once they work out the kinks, it'll be an solid recommendation all around...