review: diva in white mourning…
Of masa, the once-most expensive restaurant in the U.S., the few I know who have eaten there have said: save your money and go to Japan instead.
Having (finally) eaten at masa, I can’t say I would disagree with that advice.
This tiny temple of Japanese gastronomy was the talk of many towns when it first opened in 2005. Chef Masa Takayama had closed his acclaimed restaurant, Ginza Sushiko, in Los Angeles (now, the acclaimed Urasawa, run by his former assistant, Hiro Urusawa) and moved across the country and uptown to the hallowed fourth floor of the Time Warner Center.
The emphasis here is on the food. Photographs here are not allowed, a policy which I have been aware of for a number of years.
This restaurant seats 10 at the sushi bar and 26 in the “dining room.”
Why anyone would want to sit at a table instead of at the bar in this particular restaurant, I know not. Notwithstanding my strong preference for sitting at the “sushi bar,” the dimly lit dining room here, set off to one side, seemed like an afterthought next to the brightly lit expanse of the bar. Yet, during the length of my meal, the bar was four seats shy of capacity whilst the dining room was, at one point, full.*
I can understand that parties of three or more may feel more comfortable at a table than at the bar. But for this meal, Mr. RBI, Smiley, and I were much more interested in the food than meaningful conversation.
There’s seriousness about masa. I don’t know if it’s because diners approach the restaurant and the experience with reverence, or because the staff and space engenders a sense of gravity. I think it’s a combination of the two.
The interior is austere. Much more room is devoted to expanses of blond wood than to people. It’s not cozy. A row of brilliant, halogen lights draws your attention to the master, who glows like a deity in a simple white smock (his assistants in black) behind the bar. Behind him, a dazzling orb of white blossoms – which, being a good native of Missouri, I recognized immediately as my state flower: the dogwood – surrounded him in a halo. With all the cultural significances of white, it seemed almost too appropriate.
It did feel like holy ground, where whispering seemed the only prudent way to communicate.
But I reminded myself: I’m paying for this.
Whilst many diners are stiffened by masa, my compatriots and I were out for a relaxing adventure, and we took full advantage of the bar for such an occasion.
Here is our entire menu as it was presented to us at the end of the dinner. (The parentheticals are my additions.)
Torigai with Nuta
Toro Tartare with Caviar (domestic California paddlefish)
Shirauo in sizzling garlic oil
Sima aji (striped jack)
Tai (sea bream)
Amaebi (sweet shrimp)
Suji (grilled toro sinew)
Aji (horse mackerel)
Akamutsu (fatty deep sea snapper)
Kuruma ebi (cooked shrimp)
Unagi (fresh water eel)
Aoyagi (surf clam – actually, “orange clam”)
Uni (sea urchin)
“Ume Shiso Lotus Wrap”
Ripe musk melon
There’s very little ceremony to this omakase. It starts shortly after the sushi chef notes any dietary restrictions. (Despite having requested to be seated at Chef Takayama’s station, we were seated with one of the other sushi chefs. He has been with masa since it opened in 2005.)
Hot towels were presented. Drink orders were taken (Mr. RBI and Smiley let me have a run at the sake menu and I selected Dewazakura “Izumi Judan” (Ginjo) ($33), which was aptly described on the menu as “Dry and clear with a hint of juniper.”). The sake was divided among the three of us (the carafe poured enough for each of us to have a healthy cup and a half each). And the first course arrived.
“Torigai with Nuta” was a delicate, but flavorful salad of mini spring greens tossed with cucumbers, various seaweed, fiddlehead ferns, and clams. This salad was dressed with a piquant Japanese mustard sauce that carried a vegetal – even leathery – flavor. Color, flavor, texture, smell: all the senses were touched.
This was quickly followed by a cake of “Toro Tartare” crowned with what must have been at least an ounce of caviar (domestic California paddlefish) roughly, but deftly, formed into an sphere. Impressive to look at, its extravagance was the most memorable trait. The ingredients were fresh, but overall, it wasn’t terribly moving.
And neither was the “Ainame Sashimi” – slices of raw rockfish interleafed with tomatoes and fresh shiso leaves with tangles of fresh herbs running to and fro. Served in a glass cup, this layered salad was beautifully displayed. While the spicy mustard dressing was especially enjoyable, the quality of the tomatoes was not commensurate with the rest of the ingredients. Served chilled, they were a bit icy, watery and slightly loamy (has anyone ever had a decent raw tomato in an Asian restaurant?). With truly great tomatoes, this dish might have been much better.
A brief interruption – in fact, the only time we were spoken to during our meal – to inquire whether we would like to upgrade our meal with a Kobe beef supplement was made. Summer black truffles and around 2 ounces (I know this because the gentleman next to me ordered it) of high-quality, pedigree, and imported meat for $120? We waved them off.
The “Appetizers” finished off on a very strong note. The last three were the best.
“Shirauo in sizzling garlic oil” was exactly that: soft, tender shirauo (baby ice fish the size of matchsticks), blanched in hot water to remove the thin skin, served in an extremely hot bowl sizzling with pungent garlic-infused sesame oil. The oil was so clean that it almost shimmered, releasing a beautiful aroma. It had utterly no sesame flavor whatsoever. I sensed the garlic more than I tasted it; it had no lingering power, just an ephemeral stamp on the nose.
The “Uni Risotto” was stunning. Like the shirauo, this was served very hot. The risotto, which was blanketed with confetti of flecked truffle shavings, was creamy and saturated with sea urchin flavor. The depth and richness of flavor reminded me of Steven Harris’s brown crab risotto at The Sportsman; umami at volume 84. This was turning out to be one uni-tacular day. At lunch, I had an immensely enjoyable sea urchin pasta dish, which I will get around to posting about soonish.
Lastly, the traditional end to an Asian progression: soup (“Sakura Nabe”). But first, you help make the soup. Three lovely slices of raw ocean cherry trout were presented, along with a hot, steaming bowl of dashi for shabu-shabu-style cooking.
At one second, the fish was something akin to warm sashimi. At two seconds, it was nearly perfect, having taken on some cooking color on the outside, yet retaining its silkiness on the inside. At three seconds, it was, perhaps, just a smidge over done for my tastes. So I settled on a two and a half second “shabu-shabi,” which yielded a nice contrast between warm and cool, soft and crisp, cooked and raw.
And, not to let any of the great broth go to waste, the dashi, now fortified with the oils off of the fish as it was flash-cooked, was re-plated in a bowl for us to enjoy. Soothing and immensely layered in flavor, it was a magnificent way of ending what would be the most flavor-packed portion of our meal.
Our settings having been cleared and rearranged, the arrival of hot towels and a small dish of shoyu transitioned us to the sushi portion of the meal.
The list of nigiri we were served is too long to scrutinize, and the danger for repetition too great, so I’ll spare you multiple iterations of “smooth, fresh silky, delicate, clean, blah, blah, blah…” and simply highlight some of the more pressing thoughts I have about this part of our meal:
1. Good sushi rice, as I have discovered by eating in a few good sushi-yas, is indispensable. There really is no replacement. And there really is no questioning it – you’ll recognize good sushi rice when you encounter it. It’s the right temperature, texture, and has just the right amount of seasoning – a mild, milky sweetness chased by a rounded tang. It’s moist without being soggy. It’s soft, but not too soft – there must be some life left in it. The grains cling to each other without too much or too little effort. It’s comforting.
The sushi rice at masa is decent. But the rice is certainly not the best thing about the sushi program here. The fish, however, is. It’s masa’s primary calling card: daily shipments of some of the finest from Japan.
2. So finely marbled with fat that it owned a pale pink shade, the tuna toro nigiri – two pieces served consecutively – was quite an impressive start to the sushi portion of our meal. It underscored the chef’s confidence in his products. While most establishments would save the prized belly meat for last, at masa, they flaunt it as an opening number to whet the appetite. What’s incredible is that masa sustains this level of this quality throughout. In fact, compared with some of the other excellent cuts of fish, the toro was one of the least memorable nigiri.
3. As with many high-caliber omakase meals I’ve experienced, two (or three) types or preparations of the same fish are presented, one nigiri after the other, for a comparison. Accordingly, we had the opportunity to compare two types of mackerel: aji and saba; two types of snapper: akamatsu and kinme; two types of eel: unagi and anago, and two version of sweet shrimp: ebi (raw) and kuruma ebi (cooked). In many other sushi restaurants, one might easily be passed off for another (well, maybe not cooked and raw ebi). Here, the differences were subtle, but unmistakable; for example, shimaji was meatier than akamatsu.
4. Suji was the highlight. This wonderfully smoky piece of tuna sinew had been rendered meltingly soft on a robata grill. It was succulent and had a meaty flavor.
5. Ika (squid) was like agar agar gelatin. It had a subtle, milky sweetness. Easily, the most memorable piece of ika I’ve had.
6. Beefy and meaty in semblance, shiitake mushroom made a surprising appearance. Allergic to mushrooms, Smiley got another piece of the tuna toro instead.
7. Needle fish was fishy-tasting. It also had a pin bone left in it.
8. Although shoyu is provided (along with a small dish of gari), the chef seasons everything for you. Only once were we instructed to make use of our shoyu. That was with the uni (which was from Santa Barbara and rather unremarkable).
9. For the most part, our sushi chef seasoned the nigiri with only freshly grated wasabi and a light touch of shoyu. Occasionally, like with the tai, which he garnished with shiso buds, other ingredients are added. Scallion, lime, and salt were also used (salt and lime were a particularly surprising combination with the anago).
10. Interaction with our chef was a bit painful. The air vents (why there are air vents, I have no clue, since nothing was being cooked and the robata was a good 20 meters behind the chefs and in the corner farthest away from our end of the bar) created a natural noise barrier. While shouting wasn’t required, I did feel limited in my interaction with the chef because of the extra strain and effort needed to communicate. A few questions went unheard. And, not that I expect to get chummy with the chef, or for him to be a ham, our chef was stiffer than some of the clients. He seemed upset and nervous the entire time. Answers were monosyllabic. Explanations were simplified, almost to the point of being demeaning (when asked by one of the guests what the tart, pickled sauce on a nigiri was, ume paste was referred to as “ketchup”). Takayama, on the other hand, was surprisingly jovial and interactive with his guests.
Our meal came to a close as abruptly and as unceremoniously as it had started. Our chef wrapped a ball of sushi rice with minced ume in a fresh shiso leaf and rolled the whole with a tissue-thin shaving of lotus root. It was a simple, refreshing, and perky exclamation point at the end of what was a pretty flawless progression of sushi.
Green tea was exchanged for toasted buckwheat tea, which I particularly adore for its nuttiness.
The concept of “dessert” in Asia doesn’t run on the same platform as “dessert” does in Western culture. While masa clearly stocks some more Western-style confections in their larder (I spied evidence of this), we were served something quite predictable: fruit.
But this was not just regular fruit. This was spectacular fruit: a generous, jade-green wedge of exceedingly ripe and sweet musk melon. It dripped with nectar. I was skeptical whether the blunt, wooden spoon they served it with would be sufficient to strip the flesh off the rind without causing a mess. The fruit was so soft that it parted easily with the slightest bit of pressure.
Is masa traditional? Not entirely. But this doesn’t bother me nearly as much as the fact that it palpably plays to (and preys upon) the Western ego. It’s not as gimmicky and slicked up as some nouveau fusion sushi places are (Jewel Bako comes to mind). While foie gras did not manage to work its way into our meal (there is a famous “foie gras shabu-shabu” dish offered), truffles did. For those who want it, you can have it in modest portions at extraordinary prices.
On the subject of price (perhaps the first thing people mention – as did I – about the restaurant): masa recently dropped the price of their omakase from $450 to $400 per person. This does not include tax. It does not include gratuity. And, it does not include a mandatory 20% “Service Charge,” which, as the restaurant’s receipt states:
“… is not a gratuity, and is not distributed to the staff but is used to cover operating and administrative expenses.”
While it is true that I would have probably left the equivalent amount in “tip,” and even though I was aware of the practice before I ate at the restaurant, I felt ambushed.
When making the reservation, no such “Service Charge” was mentioned (or, at least not presented as a non-gratuitous charge). And, there was no mention, reminder, or explanation of the service charge during the confirmation call two days before our dinner.
Some treat the “Service Charge” as a tip and leave no additional “gratuity.” Some, like the gentleman seated next to me, add (in a purposefully audible note to the server) hundreds of dollars more. He and his date got an extra round of desserts (green tea ice cream for him and something I couldn’t quite make out from our vantage for her).
Feeling obligated to tip on top of a “Service Charge” after laying down $500 left an awkward taste in my mouth. With a 20% tip on top of the 20% “Service Charge,” nearly half of the total outlay pays for service that’s barely audible or present, the staff salaries, a flowering dogwood, lights, and a tony rent check to the lucky folks who own the Time Warner Center.
Is masa worth it? I suppose on an ounce-for-ounce level, yes. Top cuts of fresh fish are flown in daily from around the globe. The level of thought and execution is solid and unwavering. The real estate is generous: both elbows are allowed a wide berth. It’s intimate: you and two or three others at the most have the exclusive attention of one chef for about three hours. And the care and quality of the fish really cannot be doubted.
Is it a culinary experience and destination to be cooed over? Many, including the triple-continentals sitting next to me (he an Aussie and she a Norwegian, both living in Thailand) clearly think so.
I’m not prone to cooing.
For me, it was a worthy experience that I need not repeat any time soon. If I were Daddy Warbucks with a hill of cash to blow, I could justify dropping into masa a couple of times a year. Otherwise, I’ll leave this one to the expense account-carrying egos that need a nice massage. I’ll head to Japan instead.
One more shameless check off the list.
10 Columbus Circle
Time warner center 4/F
New York, New York 10019
* I note that, while I cannot be 100% certain, it seemed that none of the sushi served to diners at the tables was prepared by the sushi chefs at the bar. Rather, their food seemed to be produced solely in the kitchen, save the items from the robata, which was set off to one corner behind the bar.