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Report: MASA (looooooong)

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First, a disclaimer: I had never been to a sushi bar before last Saturday night. Ever. Sure, I’ve had raw fish before many times. Crudo. Tartare. A rose by any other name...
Unlike the friend who I went with that night, I’ve never been to Japan. I have little to no knowledge of the culture, the food, the language, etc.
So, not surprisingly, I was a bit hesitant at first. I’d been to many high end restaurants in the city, Masa’s neighbor Per Se included. So call me cheap, but a $350 prix fixe is enough to give almost anyone a bit of sticker shock. And dropping that kind of money on an experience that would be completely foreign to me, a different genre of restaurant than I’d ever been to before? Like handing a baby the keys to a Ferrari.
But, of course, you only live once, and the opportunity for an experience like Masa is not one that knocks on your door every day. So I bit the bullet, and went. These are my impressions:
The 30,000 year-old wooden fossil separating Masa from the outside world is less a door, more like a portal into another world. This is not the fourth floor of a bustling “urban mall” in the middle of New York City. Rather, it is an almost austerely tranquil temple. We enter slowly, immediately greeted (if you could call it that...) by a dark-suited gentleman who shows us to our spots at the 10-seat sushi bar. A party of four Japanese-speaking people to our left are engaging Masa about what he has just placed before them. We are not lucky enough to be situated directly in front of the master himself, but there are no nosebleed seats at this show. We are but a few feet away from greatness.
The bar itself is breathtaking. A solid piece of beautiful blonde hinoki wood that must have been almost 30 feet in length. Free of any stain or lacquer, just a pristine piece of natural wood, free of any blemish or scratch. Like the rest of the restaurant, the bar’s aesthetic is clean. Pure.
The air, too, is seemingly purged of all sound. Anything above a soft whisper seems more like a loud yell in this environment. It is a bit awkward adapting to this at first. Are these people actually enjoying their meals in this atmosphere? A quick look around at the room... Eyes closed in pleasure and sighs of contentment are enough to convince me that undoubtedly, they are. This is not a place for sushi conversation, but rather almost contemplation.
Before us sits nothing but a pair of chop sticks resting on their stand like a sculpture. Warm hand towels are brought out, and the sake menu and wine/cocktail lists soon follow. My friend makes his selection, while I stick with water, as I typically do not drink. The sake is brought out in a beautiful stone bowl and placed on a bed of chipped ice to keep it chilled. It is served in hollow sections of bamboo.
Chef Masa, dressed in white, is flanked on the left and right by his assistants, who wear black. A third assistant in the back mans the open grill. Masa’s eyes seem to dart around the room often. His look is stern, business-like. His orders to the others are delivered in short, staccato punches. They are heeded without a second thought.
The young chef in front of us (named Nick, we later come to find out) asks if we have any restrictions. We have none. We did not come here to try and put such shackles on their expression. This is about relinquishing control. Putting ourselves in their hands. We sit back, and it begins...
The chestnuts and gingko nuts are a warm, fragrant, herbal beginning.
A luxurious mound of toro tartare arrives blanketed by caviar. The unctuous tuna and the oceanic roe dissolve together on the tongue in a moment of culinary bliss. The salted butter of the gods.
The aji (horse mackerel) is light, refreshing, almost sweet, and incredibly different from the assertive, overly fishy imposters that have been passed off as mackerel any previous time that I’ve had it. It rests on a beautiful stone serving piece, that we later learn was designed by Masa himself, along with most of the other beautiful pottery pieces we’d see throughout the evening.
The baby eels are served with olive paste and sesame oil, and seem to be swimming in the bubbling hot mixture when it is set before us. They are tasty and just the slightest bit toothsome, almost like pasta. The olive paste was a bit too assertive, but that is one flavor I usually am not particularly fond of as it is.
The uni risotto is a huge disappointment. I had distant memories of reading several reviews that has praised this dish. I also very much enjoy uni, so was looking forward to this. Yet it is incredibly bland, completely lacking any salinity whatsoever. Somebody please pass the fleur de sel. The summer truffle aroma is pleasant, but the dish was severely lacking.
The fish (was it Buri?) for the shabu shabu has been beautifully scored by Masa, so that its flesh fans out and puffs up like popcorn when it was placed in the hot broth. The yuzu dipping sauce both cools the fish after each piece emerges from the hot broth, and provides a nice acidic top note of flavor. The dish is one of contrasts, and had the potential to be quite good, but as ajgnet expressed above, in the end it is bland. A little seasoning in the form of salt or some kind of spice/heat would have been appreciated here.
The broth is removed from the hot pot, and placed in a bowl. This, too, was quite bland. A few floating slice of mushroom and thin shavings of cucumber are not enough to enhance it at all. Yet I assume that drinking this leftover cooking broth as a soup is likely a traditional part of the meal, so I finish mine more to be respectful than based on any actual enjoyment of it. As with the entire meal, this is a new thing for me, so I just go with it.
A second hot hand towel arrives. Small stone serving pieces with ginger and soy sauce are placed in front of us. A small blank slab of black stone now rests on a short wooden stand between us and the chef. And the real show begins.
We are instructed to eat most of the pieces with our hands, as some can be quite delicate. Wonderful. I’ve always felt there is something intrinsic about the tactile sensation of eating with my hands that adds something extra to the experience of eating anyway. And inside I smile a bit, laughing at my own lack of dexterity with the chop sticks.
The first bite of rich, fatty Otoro is wonderful, and for an instant, thought-provoking. My first bite of true Japanese sushi, I have nothing to which I can compare it. No matter, though. Delicious is primal. Delicious needs no predecessor.
The rice is perfect. Just slightly warm. Somehow the small beds of rice have just enough starch to hold together in my fingers, yet the moment they hit my tongue they dissolve into a seemingly infinite matrix of tiny little grains. Nothing about the temperature, texture, aroma, or flavor is the least bit distracting on the palate. Fittingly, the rice is nothing more, and nothing less, than the ultimate vehicle for the fish.
Many other pieces follow like clockwork. The chef grabs a piece of pristine fish from a tray resting on a massive block of ice. His cuts are quick, precise, beautiful. Like a surgeon, he knows every line, curve, and groove of the fish’s flesh. He deftly scores, slices, or makes shallow grooves in the different pieces, knowing full well how to deliver the texture most fitting for each piece. He grabs a small glob of rice, shaping and working it in his left palm. He adds a dab of freshly grated wasabi to the top with his right middle finger, and then places the piece of fish on its newly made bed. Nothing more than a quick brushstroke of their housemade soy sauce adds a thin glaze of deep, intense flavor to each piece. Sometimes in lieu of the soy sauce comes a soft sprinkling of fleur de sel, thin slivers of shiso, or a squeeze of fresh yuzu and a few shavings of its zest. Each careful addition adds just the right top note to make the flavors sing together.
The sushi progression is a study in contrasts. We enjoy a sweet, subtle piece, only to be followed by something more assertive. A cool piece of fish is followed by one that’s just been pulled from the hot grill. A few times, the chef retreats momentarily to the open grill in the back, grabs a long hot iron rod from on top of the hot coals, and lightly sears a piece of sushi right before our eyes, leaving the smoky aroma of caramelized flesh lingering in our nostrils. The effect is intoxicating, creating contrasting flavors and temperatures in the very same bite.
Probably about half-way through what must have been around twenty sushi pieces, I politely mention to our young chef that for me, the fresh wasabi is a bit too distracting on the palate when combined with some of the more subtly flavored fish. His response is simply that “the wasabi is fresh ground here; that is why it is over your head.” Needless to say, that sounds pretty condescending, so I was a bit offended. It’s not like I’ve been drowning my pieces in soy sauce or asking for a California Roll or something. While it’s perfectly fine with some of the fuller flavored fish, the fresh wasabi just overwhelms the different flavor nuances of some of the more mild fish. Give me a break here. Luckily, though, he soon partially made up for it making a very apt comparison. “Well, really, it’s just like fine wines. If you don’t like them, don’t drink them. Different people have different tastes. Same goes for wasabi. If you would prefer no wasabi, then that’s perfectly fine. I’ll leave it out of yours from now on.” Thank you very much. I’m glad I asked, as I end up enjoying the purity of the flavors more from here on out.
Rather than attempting the impossible task of telling you what I thought of each and every piece, I’ll just mention some of the (many) highs and the (few) lows.
The aoyagi (orange clam), baby scallop, and grilled unagi (freshwater eel) were all a bit underwhelming. All a bit bland, what they lack in flavor they unfortunately did not make up for in texture. The ball of rice rolled in summer truffles was very pleasantly aromatic, but quite bland and boring in flavor. I assume real winter truffles would have been different, but it is, of course, not the season. The shiitake mushroom sushi was such a thin slice that it had little flavor, but it is good for a change of pace, if nothing else.
The tai (sea bream) was sweet and delicious. The kinme (deep sea snapper) was nothing short of revelatory, and if you held a gun to my head and forced me to choose just one piece, it may very well have been my favorite of the entire evening. The hotate (scallop) was quite good, sliced paper thin and seared over the hot open fire for an instant before being placed on the bed of rice. The suji (grilled toro sinew) was outstanding. The uni (sea urchin) was incredibly creamy, and tasted purely of the sea in a way that few other foods can even emulate. The maguro (lean tuna) was stunning, and no less delicious than the fattier tuna that had precided it. And the negitoro maki, a massive roll of perfectly pliable nori stuffed to the gills with diced toro and scallions.... well, let’s just say at this point I am out of positive adjectives. I just sit back, smile, and revel in the fact that there is probably nobody in the world eating quite as well as I am at that particular moment.
A tiny ume shiso ball is passed to us, with a quiet comment that “this is a pleasant way to end your meal.” And it’s done.
Or so we thought. Several minutes later, the chef asks if we would like anything else at this point. Not quite ready to quit this ride just yet, we each choose a favorite (his: uni; mine: deep sea snapper) and ask politely for one more round of each. They come. We devour them. We smile.
Dessert comes. A single Japanese white peach, sliced. A delicious, simple ending to a simply delicious meal.
As we sit there and slowly sip the soba cha (buckwheat tea) after the meal, talking with Masa and his younger assistants for what seems like hours, I can’t help but think about what an enlightening experience this has been for me. I had come in a sushi novice. I would be leaving very much still a sushi novice. Somehow, though, I feel like my initial ignorance was actually a positive thing. It left me with a very open mind, and an empty stomach, ready to take in everything that was sent my way. There’s something very natural and easy to appreciate about the Japanese approach to food. There is no pretense, no barriers, no gilding, and little saucing. Rather, freshness, simplicity, purity and minimalism are the tenets that quietly take their place. And those are things that most anyone, sushi novice, or otherwise, should have absolutely no trouble appreciating.
Of course, I realize later, I’ll have to answer all the questions about whether or not it was “worth it.” I feel like far too much of the talk about Masa centers around the price. Yet in the end, when we focus on such transient, temporal, and essentially meaningless things, we miss the big picture. Not everything is about money. Sometimes that money is buying more than just a meal. In my case, it bought education, nay, enlightenment even. For someone who gets too easily caught up in the New American upscale monotony that can be fine dining in New York City, it is more than a change of pace. It’s a completely new experience culturally, gastronomically, and ultimately, personally. So was it “worth it” for me? Well, if you haven’t figured that out by now, you’ve been reading the wrong review...

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  1. Thanks for a beautifully written review. Although I'll probably never go to Masa myself (no one wants to go with me because of the price), at least for a few moments I can almost imagine being there.

    1. Thanks, great review, now you should check out Yasuda and see what you think. I love sushi and have been eating it for years, but my first experience of the perfect classic sushi there felt a bit like the revelation you describe.

      Not to sully the thought with the mention of money, but you can eat there 3 (maybe 4) times for the price of Masa!

      1. Thank you for posting this. It's written with a sense of reverence, awe, openness to wonder and revelation which is how I think all fine dining should be approached, but rarely is. Sushi is the one blind spot on my culinary map, but you've allowed some light to shine there.

        I've read that the bar is free of any stain because there is one employee whose sole job it is to sand the bar each night.

        I think what the sous-chef said to you was unacceptable. If a worker at Wendy's said something that rude, he'd be clearing out his locker within 60 seconds. My guess is that he said it because you were right; he did put on too much wasabi. But that's something for the Not About Food board.

        1 Reply
        1. re: Brian S

          agree: probably too much wasabi, in my experience, fresh wasabi is less strong and overpowering (and much more aromatic, complex and delicious) than the powdered stuff, so the right amount should not overwhelm the flavor of the fish.

        2. Thanks for your post. It made the prospect of eating at Masa's more real. From my one brief encounter with Mr. Takayama I have a lot of admiration for his ability to bring his culinary art into realization. Reminds me of a very practiced Zen master.

          1. I too am a big fan of kinme-dai and ask for it first thing when I eat sushi. I prefer it to nearly every other type of sushi fish...It sounds like you've experienced a sort of pinnacle of sushi dining that even many Japanese have never enjoyed- although by Ginza standards, the price you paid is actually quite reasonable!

            1. Thank you for your wonderful review.
              You write beautifully.

              Now, I have to go re-work my budget to see if I can go to Masa for my Birthday next month-