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Molto Hip

by B.A. Nilsson on July 3, 2013

Mission Bar + Tapas, 438 North St., Pittsfield, Mass., no phone, missionbarandtapas.com. Open daily noon-midnight, Sunday brunch at unspecified hours. Accepts credit cards.

Cuisine: American tapas

Entrée price range: $7 (chicken croquettes) to $15 (cider-glazed pork ribs)

Ambiance: gussied-up warehouse

The delightful, maddening Mission Bar has grown to anchor its part of downtown Pittsfield over the five years of its existence by virtue of being open late and offering music and other entertainment. Owner Jim Benson’s “WordXWord” festival has presented and encouraged poetry and other spoken-word performance over the past four years, and the Mission menu features small, accessibly priced plates of eclectic fare.

But you might not get in. The place can fill up in the evening, and no reservations are taken. And they probably wouldn’t be taken even if the place had a telephone.

My daughter and I arrived early enough on a recent weeknight to snag a table not far from the front window, but the combination of tapas menu, tin ceilings, superfluously added hand-hewn beams, chalkboard wine menu and plaintive singer-songwriter balladry had me worried that we were in for what Jerry Seinfeld has termed “hipster service.”

And so it might have been, except that the hipster vibe from our server, the extremely pleasant Leia, was such that we instantly felt included. And that can be tricky when your party consists of a 16-year-old who views hipness with a premature cynic’s suspicion, and a 57-year-old clinging to the sadly misguided delusion that he’s still a molto-hip ’70s guy (a delusion proven by his willingness to inform you that “molto hip” was coined by Cole Porter).

A word about Pittsfield. I have no steady sense of the town, but a quick impression of North Street, the main commerce boulevard, is of a stretch whose decline into tattoo and nail-care parlors is offset by respectable-looking stores like Paul Rich & Sons and old-enough-to-be-ironic places like its across-the-street neighbor, Jim’s House of Shoes. Amid which are sprinkled a number of varied and interesting restaurants and the theaters of Barrington Stage.


Photo by B.A. Nilsson.

Which means that Mission’s mission isn’t being pursued alone, but it seems the most singular because of its mixture of purpose. We didn’t stay long enough to witness the music that evening, but a regularly scheduled roster of performers keeps the place hopping (and the kitchen keeps serving) until midnight.

I can offer no background about the menu’s origin, or who’s cooking it, or why the plates are styled as they are, because Benson and his restaurant practice a peculiar form of noncommunication. My e-mails and phone calls (I dug up a number) went unreturned. That’s why I can’t even tell you which credit cards they take, although my MasterCard was accepted. Maybe it’s a too-cool-to-be-bothered hipsterfication. The menu packs an admirable variety of items onto a single, well-designed page. Standard tapas starter fare like almonds ($5) and olives ($4) top the list, but chicken liver pâté ($9) and hand-cut chips or fries ($5 each) are alternatives. From there it moves into soup, including onion au gratin for $8, bruschetta with goat cheese and fire cider chutney ($8), roasted patatas bravas with chili sauce ($5) or arugula and homemade chorizo ($8) and bacon-wrapped, blue cheese-stuffed dates ($8). And those are merely highlights from column one.

Dining paradigms are hard for me to shake. I love the idea of a succession of small plates (I make a beeline to a favorite dim sum palace when I’m near Canal Street), but Mission’s comfortable dining room lulled me into thinking in terms of a meal. Precisely, as it turned out, what my daughter was thinking, so we started with a salad apiece. Arugula greens with pumpkin seeds and potatoes ($8) was mine, amusing the hell out of the child because I’ve often complained about the cold potatoes ruining a salad. That wasn’t the case here, so I fear I’ll see more of it at home. A very light vinaigrette was all that was needed to bring the flavors together.

Lily’s spinach salad ($8) was inspired by the classic preparation, including hard-boiled egg slices, but it wisely substituted olives and capers for the bacon of yore.

Of the many entrée-like choices, we were tempted by tenderloin with shallot marmalade ($12), veered close to the mussels in coconut curry sauce ($9), almost went for the brisket sliders ($9) or mission burger ($12)—but settled on meatballs and scallops. Not in the same dish, I assure you.

Here’s where tapas nakedness becomes a problem. The promise of house meatballs with peppercorn cream sauce ($8) was realized with a row of four golf-ball-sized items sauced as described and with nothing else. A sprig of arugula, a slice of red onion—old-fashioned I may be, but none of the chefs I ever worked for would have sent out something looking so drab.

The meatballs had a very good flavor, but it surprised me how much even my flavor perception was affected by the greyness of the presentation. Likewise the seared scallops with orange-cumin glaze ($12). Four plump bivalves decorated the plate, crying out for a better aesthetic (and less cooking time—they’d gotten chewy).

Paella for two is another intriguing direction, with versions featuring red peppers, onions and artichokes ($18), chicken, chorizo and shrimp ($21) or mussels, shrimp and scallops ($23)—and I’m curious to see how they’re served. There’s a recited menu of homemade sweets, but we finished with a cheese plate ($15), featuring three selections, including a terrific blue, and few bread slices.

We learned that coffee is available in a French press, but don’t ask for decaf. They choose not to offer. “We just don’t,” Leia said with a shrug, noting that the Mission also chooses not to offer ketchup or diet soda. We left with a very odd sense of having been sneakily lectured at. I popped a defiant Diet Pepsi on the drive home.

Mission Bar + Tapas, 438 North St., Pittsfield, Mass., no phone, missionbarandtapas.com. Small plates ranging from olives and fries to soups, salads, sliders, wings, burgers and even paella for two. Open daily noon-midnight, Sunday brunch at unspecified hours. Accepts credit cards.