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Jan 22, 2012 11:39 AM

Recap - Celebratory Dinner at Masa's

Thought I'd share a few thoughts after last night's birthday dinner at Masa's.

Several years ago I stopped by briefly to take a look at the dining room, which was beautifully updated by Orlando Diaz Azcuy's firm. At the time I didn't realize that the room had floor-to-ceiling mirrors in the back, which visually doubled the restaurant. As I stepped down into the room last night I realized it was a rather intimate restaurant, much smaller than I expected. It reminded me a bit of New York's La Grenouille, where everyone is pretty much seated together in an a single open room, in full view. The room's color scheme is sophisticated and urbane: dark walls punctuated by white framed art work, upholstered toile print chairs, and four red silk pleated lanterns hanging from the ceiling, providing unexpected blasts of color. I'll confess to wishing the restaurant had strictly enforced its dress code of jackets for men and cocktail attire for women. The result was a room scattered with shirt sleeves, short sleeves, and sweaters. Maybe it's more of a dress recommendation than a code. For me it makes it a bit more fun when everyone puts a bit of effort into getting ready for dinner at one of the city's top restaurants.

There are two options for dinner, the four or seven course tasting menu. We chose the four course with the wine pairing. I'll try to recap from memory what I ate, to give a sense of flavor and style. My overall impression is of a series of dishes with distinct and sharply focused flavors. I'm certain some of my descriptions are not precise in terms of ingredients, but I hope it conveys a general sense of what I experienced.

For the first amuse bouche, my seafood aversion was accommodated with a parmesan gougere, a lovely little puff of cheesy flavor and warmth.

The next amuse was a complex combination that had a slender cylinder of celery root filled with what I believe was a cool and creamy puree of turnips, topped with thin slices of glossy brown summer truffles. The complexity of the preparation was impressive. It took just a few bites to finish off this little jewel of contrasting flavors and textures.

My partner and I then had the pâté de campagne, which was studded with slivered pistachios. Included were buttered baguette toasts and a small pile of chopped and flavorful something - for the life of me I can't recall what it was, but it added an intense counterpoint to the pâté. This was served with a pleasingly sweet 2010 Josef Rosch Kabinett Riesling, from Mosel, Germany. For this course I wish I'd more carefully alternated bites with sips, rather than eating the food first and drinking much of the wine afterwards.

Next was an artichoke salad, served deconstructed on a narrow rectangular plate. The elements were spread out in a row - artichokes, miniscule roasted carrots, some other tiny roasted vegetables, and a small pile of niçoise olive powder, the closest I think I've come to molecular gastronomy. I imagine a variety of techniques were used to prepare the dish: roasting, steaming, boiling. The wine for this was an earthy 2010 Loimer Gruner Veltliner from Austria. The wine paired wonderfully with the elements pulled from the soil.

The waitress mentioned that the pork loin would be served rare, which would be reddish. I requested mine be done so that there'd be just a trace of pink. As it turns out, both of ours incorrectly came out to the same degree of doneness, which probably met my needs but not my dining companion's. In retrospect, it was my mistake to second guess the chef because the pork was ever so slightly tough around the exterior edges. Nonetheless, the brined pork had a profoundly porky flavor. I'd forgotten how distinctive pork could taste. The accompanying sauce had an almost cherry like flavor, however there was no fruit in the sauce, just the sweetness from the meat's juice. The wine was a perfect choice, a 2008 Freeman Pinot Noir from Sonoma. The cherry flavor in the wine went brilliantly with the pork.

Dessert was a riff on carrot cake, with a thumb-sized cake, topped with a cream cheese frosting, sitting on what I believe was a dacquoise, accompanied by dots of lemon curd, an oval of crème fraîche ice cream, and tiny scoops of an apple-cinnamon sorbet. The plate provided yet another series of intensely focused flavors. The final wine was a 2009 Domaine de Durban Muscat de Beaumes de Venise, from France.

After dessert we had a second chance for sweets, selected from a cart containing an array of mignardises: chocolates, macarons, lollipops, and financiers, to name a few. I requested a gluttonous number of these little delights.

A couple of mis-steps along the way were surprising. For instance, we were about to be served the second course before we'd even seen the first course. We had to point this out to the server. At this level of dining I really do expect perfection in terms of service. Very surprising a slip up like this could occur. Aside from this, the service was cordial and efficient throughout the 2-hour dinner.

The other odd thing, trifling really, occurred when we arrived in the small entry area. We were first and then another couple came in after us. It's a bit baffling that they were offered a seat before we were. Fortunately we got a slightly better table. There really aren't any bad tables, well maybe those in the front of the room nearest the entrance, which I'd think would be a bit drafty.

All in all, it was a lovely dinner, one that reminded me how the sense of taste can be awakened and delighted by a talented chef and his staff.

Masa's Restaurant
648 Bush Street, San Francisco, CA 94108

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  1. The dress code is a recommendation: "Jackets are suggested for gentlemen and cocktail attire is appropriate for ladies." Most of the locals I know who regularly go to expensive restaurants don't own clothes like that ... we'd rather spend our money on restaurants.

    7 Replies
    1. re: Robert Lauriston

      Masa's two menus are $157 and $229 pp with wine pairing. If a person who can afford to spend that much on dinner on a regular basis doesn't have a jacket, it's probably for reasons that have nothing to do with money.

      1. re: nocharge

        It's definitely the case for me. I spend pretty much all my disposable income on restaurants. If my income goes down, I go out less, if it goes up, I go out more. If I'm really flush, I travel.

        1. re: Robert Lauriston

          A jacket at Macy's can be had for 100 bucks or less and may well last 5-10 years if you just use it for fine dining. How would that 100 bucks compare to the cost of dining regularly at expensive places like Masa's over a period of a decade? If the impact of a jacket on your restaurant budget is a few tenths of a percent or less, I would find it hard to believe that anyone would make a jacket decision based on money rather than other reasons.

          1. re: nocharge

            If you eat out a lot, a jacket may not fit the second time out.

        2. re: nocharge

          I agree.

          Restaurants that get 3-1/2 or 4 stars get those high rankings for reasons beyond the food--decor & ambience, china & stemware, service, etc.. I think the diner should respect that. We live in casual times, but it won't kill a man to put on a sport coat and dress shirt, and a woman to leave her rhinestone-encrusted flip-flips at home.

          Just an opinion...

          1. re: Rapini

            Michael Bauer actually justified giving Masa's 3.5 stars rather than 4 some years ago, during the Ron Siegel era, partly on the grounds that some of the other diners were "content to wear wrinkled Dockers."


            I might buy a suit to go to a wedding or funeral, but a restaurant? I'll wear what I own.

          2. re: nocharge

            At least a restaurant's management does have some recourse if a diner's dress is particularly egregious. That person can be exiled to the least desirable seat or room.

        3. Belated happy birthday to you or whoever.

          So, that second course ... was that something they had to throw away and start over? I assume they didn't keep it under heat lamps or re-heat in the toaster over.

          1 Reply
          1. re: rworange

            I figure they had to get rid of that second course and re-make it, rather than trying to hold it. Perhaps a staff member enjoyed it. By the way, thanks for the bday greeting.

          2. I haven't been to Masa's in many years. I'm glad to hear it's still good.
            Someone mentioned Ron Siegel -- where is he now?

            2 Replies
            1. re: Kim Cooper

              He is at the newly opened Parallel 37 at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel

              1. re: Kim Cooper

                Parallel 37 is a makeover of The Dining Room, where Siegel's been since he left Masa's.