An Opening Night Report from Bar Masa at Aria CityCenter
Despite having just visited Las Vegas for the debut of Twist by Pierre Gagnaire, I was subsequently lured back by the promise of Masa. For the uninitiated, I'm talking about Masayoshi Takayama, chef/owner of his eponymous eatery in New York, widely regarded as the most expensive restaurant in the United States. Bar Masa at Aria CityCenter is the chef's first expansion outside of Manhattan. For his Chef de Cuisine, Masa tapped New England Culinary Institute alumnus Drew Terp; Terp previously filled a similar role in New York, and has also toque'd at Alain Ducasse, Auberge du Soleil, and was head chef at Port O' Call Restaurant in Bermuda. The lead sushi chef is Takahiro Sakaeda.
The space, not surprisingly, is far larger than what Masa had in New York (by a factor of about three). It's the setting for an ambitious undertaking--of bringing Masa's intimate style to a significantly larger stage. However, if it's intimacy that you seek, you can have that here, too. In addition to Bar Masa, there will also be a smaller dining room within called Shaboo. As the name implies, Shaboo will offer an omakase-only menu (the $500 price tag will surely frighten away the hoi polloi) featuring Masa's famous interpretations of shabu-shabu "hot pot" cookery, among other dishes. We'd originally planned to do Bar Masa and Shaboo back-to-back, but scrapped the plan upon finding out that Shaboo would only be opening toward December's end--perhaps we'll save it for next time.
The menu features Masa's interpretations of Japanese comfort food, as well as some of his more fusion-focused creations. A selection of à la carte sushi and sashimi rounds out the menu. Omakase is not currently, and may never be, an option unfortunately.
Tai Sea-Bream with White Truffle [$48.00]
Our first course comprised five slices of sea bream sashimi, dressed in a tangy sauce, garnished with bitter greens, and topped with white truffle. It was fantastic, with the fish itself crisp, snappy, fresh, wonderfully balanced by its accoutrements. After I inhaled the heady aroma of truffle, the essence of the fungus made itself known in a big way on my palate. This then gave way to the mild, delicate sea bream, while the finish was delightfully tangy. A perfect amalgam of disparate tastes and textures.
Ohmi Beef Tataki with white Truffle [$120.00]
Ohmi is a type of wagyu beef, and expectedly, it was rich, fatty, tender, and unconscionably unctuous. Taken alone, it was quite flavorful, with a nice peppery tang on the midpalate. Eating the Ohmi with the truffle, I first noticed the immense gravity of the meat, which was then followed up by the distinct earthiness of the truffle in a long, lingering close. Very good.
Sushi Canapé [$48.00]
We then moved on to some sushi "canapés," basically a cut cucumber maki roll topped with various accompaniments:
• Kanpachi and Truffle - A strong truffle essence on the attack led to the crisp, fresh, essence of kanpachi. Very nice.
• Scallop and Shrimp - The shrimp and scallop combined to form a creamy, soft, subtly sweet admixture, while the finish possessed a great vegetal tang and crunch. My favorite.
• Salmon and White Onion - Here was a creamy tartare of salmon, with a soft smoky flair, effectively balanced by the pungency of onion.
• Tuna Tartare and Caviar - We finished with a luscious purée of tuna, mild in flavor and deftly accented by the briny tang of caviar. The roe was really the key here.
Seasonal Sushi Tasting [$98.00]
We, of course, had to sample some nigirizushi, and felt that the Seasonal Tasting was the most effective way to do so. Everything was served with two types of hosomaki: a light kappamaki (cucumber roll) and a richer tekkamaki (tuna roll). From back to front, left to right:
• Toro - Fatty Bluefin Tuna from Boston, Massachusetts. For some reason, the tasting comes with two pieces of toro, though I wasn't complaining too much. As expected, it was suitably fatty, oily, breaking apart easily upon mastication. Tasty, though not all that distinctive.
• Kanpachi - Amberjack from Shikoku Island, Japan. Firm, snappy flesh with a mild beginning but a much stronger close. My dining companion described this as "buri-esque."
• Tai - Sea Bream from Kyushu, Japan. We have that characteristic delicate natural of the tai, with a surprisingly robust finish. Nice.
• Kinme Dai - Snapper from Chiba, Japan. Supple and mild, with a wonderful, subtle sweetness.
• Hamachi - Young Yellowtail from Kyushu, Japan. Prototypical moderate hamachi character, with a nice spicy finish. Very good for hamachi (which I'm generally not a huge fan of).
• Hirame - Fluke from Wakayama, Japan. Creamy and mild. A strong example of hirame; note that it's not advertised as "halibut" like usual.
• Saba - Mackerel from Miyagi, Japan. The essential fishiness of mackerel was beautifully countered by the tang of shiso and heat of wasabi.
• Kohada - Herring from Chiba, Japan. Very fishy, with that distinctive, firm kohada consistency.
• Amaebi - Sweet Shrimp from Ishikawa, Japan. Mild and creamy, with a marked wasabi finish. I would've liked a bit more snappiness though.
• Shimaaji - Island Jackfish from Wakayama, Japan. A beautiful cut of fish with its silvery skin, this was quite good, with just enough brininess and a pleasing texture.
Overall, the sushi was of high quality, but unfortunately we didn't get to try it under optimal conditions, as the fish sat for ten minutes and subsequently dried out somewhat. The reason for this wait, depressingly, was that the various fishes served on the platter could not be identified. We asked our server, who was able to recount most, but not all, of the nigiri. He then called in the "experts," basically three older Asian women who were also servers at the restaurant. Unfortunately, they weren't much help, and the four staff members couldn't agree, bickering amongst themselves: "Is this hamachi or kanpachi? Are you sure that's not mackerel? Do we have aoyagi in there?" It was embarrassing, and sad. In the end, we made our own judgments as to what was what.
Calamari with Jalapeño Salt [$18.00]
It's pretty hard to mess up fried calamari, and certainly this tasted as it should, with a crispy outside leading into a nicely chewy interior. The slight heat from the pepper, meanwhile, was a great foil to the mild sweetness of the squid. Tasty and good for snacking.
Uni Risotto with Black Trumpet Mushroom [$48.00]
I had high hopes for this dish, but was let down. The sweet, briny essence of sea urchin was unfortunately muddled and lost here. And while I appreciated the earthiness and weight imparted by the mushrooms, they weren't enough to save the dish. I also felt that the rice was overly soft, and wanted a more "al dente" consistency.
Popcorn Shrimp with Romesco Sauce [$24.00]
You can't really go wrong with popcorn shrimp, and this was no exception. I liked how the shrimp were crisp on the outside, but still had soft, creamy interiors, preserving the essence of the crustaceans. The sweet tanginess provided by the romesco (a pepper-, garlic-, and tomato-based sauce) was nice, but the key was the bitterness imparted by the greens.
Naked Oyster in Citrus Sauce [$26.00]
Next up were some of the largest oysters I've seen in a while--plump with a nice meaty consistency. They were mildly flavored, delicately briny, with their subtle sweetness accented by the tart citrus dressing on the attack, which led to a nicely tangy, slightly bitter finish.
Fatty Deep-Sea Snapper from Chiba, Japan. Here we have our first à la carte sushi selection, a soft, mildly-flavored, but surprisingly oily fish. My dining companion even compared it to a hybrid of tai and hamachi.
Yari Ika with Salt and Yuzu Zest [$14.00]
Spear Squid from Kyushu, Japan. Gorgeously soft, chewy texture, with a light flavor accented by the tang of sea salt and the zest of yuzu, finished by the heat of wasabi. Very good.
Tako with White Truffle Sauce [$11.00]
Octopus from Chiba, Japan. I quite liked the octopus here--sweet, supple, a canvas on which the earthy truffle could really sing. Lovely.
Grapefruit Granité [$7.00]
Obviously, we still had room for dessert, but unfortunately, only one was on offer. It was basically a grapefruit granita with grapefruit juice, Cointreau, and Grand Marnier: jarringly cold, but immensely fruity and refreshing, imbued with the pure quintessence of grapefruit. Taste-wise, it reminded me of Urasawa's excellent grapefruit gelée. I didn't get much of the alcohol, though.
Food-wise, everything was mostly on point, save for the uni risotto. Despite getting somewhat desiccated amidst the confusion, the sushi was clearly of high quality, and generally quite good. A few items--I'm thinking the sea bream with truffle--were superb. My concern isn't the food though; it's the concept. The original Masa works--it's special--because the restaurant is a reflection of the chef himself. It's intimate, personal; it's supposed to let Masa's personality, his passion, his raison d'être shine through. This simply can't translate to Las Vegas--there's none of that here. Bar Masa in New York manages to straddle a middle ground because of its smaller scale, but what we have here feels like an upscale Nobu.
Full review with photos: http://www.kevineats.com/2009/12/bar-...