Review: Bar Mason, the buzziest little wine bar in a city of wine bars
For the last six months or so, all I’d been hearing from Wellington was the buzz about this bar in Newtown, just 10 minutes south of the capital city’s centre. When a new spot gets recommended to you over and over, and it’s an hour’s flight away, there is a part of you that secretly hopes it’s actually bad. But, unfortunately, Mason is actually really good.
Mason, opened by owner-chef Matt Hawkes (ex-Rita), is one of those small places where you just drop in because they’ll feed you and water you well, whatever they’ve got coming out of the kitchen. (I’d studied the menu on Mason’s website, ready to rattle off my order as soon as I got there. Pointless, though, because it had all already changed.) It’s non-alienatingly chill, delivering a very specific dining experience I call Raw Fish, Good Bread, Natural Wine. Without being too prescriptive about it, there’s a consistency to restaurants that vaguely fall under this umbrella. You know the service will be casual. You know you’ll have to share. You know you could get away with sitting up at the bar by yourself, watching the chefs assemble your crudo, scattering crispy quinoa over thick slices of shiny white kingfish.
Here, the food is broadly “mideastern and med” flavours (self-declared), so there’s pita instead of sourdough and falafel instead of arancini. All plates are on the small side, and, if you’re in a group, may require some double ordering. At the very least, you’ll want to order two portions of the salt-fish fritters, which come on top of a dollop of savoury-sweet muhammara and fried to a deep-brown with sprinkles of sea salt. Its salty intensity worked well with the side of herby yoghurt tartare, adding complexity to the overt fishiness. I also liked the falafel, made using broad beans instead of chickpeas, so they were crunchy on the outside, with bumps and craters like the moon, with a softer, moister middle.
The falafel came with labneh, which made me realise we’d been drip-fed each item plate by plate, instead of being able to mop up the sauces with the grilled pita that arrived, finally, with our hummus basar. That was a shame, because the pitas, puffed slightly, hot as hell, and chewy, were delicious, the perfect vessel to rip up and scoop into some silky hummus. The size of the hummus basar — half a fistful of lamb, some pickled chillies and pumpkin seed za’atar — at $24 made me flinch, mostly because I just wanted more of it. The lamb lacked by itself, but cradled in pita, the rich umami of meat and hummus cut through with za’atar and tangy, sharp chilli is just the sort of thing you want to eat at a bar: unfussy, flavoursome, and completely acceptable to pick up with your fingers.
Hawkes (who, on the night I visited, was also running front-ofhouse) calls Mason “a restaurant masquerading as a bar”. I take that to mean it’s both, because it is, although it’s a waste to stop by just for a drink — a short, sharp and revolving selection from wineries like Libiamo, Jumpin’ Juice, Unkel, cocktails, and local beers on tap — as the food’s what makes Mason, well, Mason. And, if it takes you an hour’s flight, then, well, make sure you order two of the salt-fish fritters.
3 Wilson St, Newtown
Hours: Wed-Fri 5pm-Late, Sat 4pm-Late
Bill: Plates $12-$26; Sides $5-$6; Sweets $16
This content was created in partnership with WellingtonNZ.