Saturday, March 11, 2006

Modern Classics at Masa's

648 Bush Street
San Francisco, CA 94108
Chef Gregory Short (formerly sous chef French Laundry)
Dinner Tuesday through Saturday

Last tried: December 2006

Absolute cosseted luxury is the only way I could describe my recent visit to Masa's. In his tasting menu, Chef Gregory Short showcases classics such as caviar, lobster, foie gras, and chocolate, interspersed with Asian ingredients like trout roe, miso, hamachi, and Wagyu beef, all of which are played up magnificently by the thoughtful wine pairings of Sommelier Alan Murray. With playful elements like dessert tacos and popcorn ice cream punctuating the refined elegance of the menu, the result is a deeply satisfying dining experience.

The dinner began with a couple of different amuses. The first was an espresso cupful of sweet, rich, creamy sunchoke soup, topped with licorice foam and accompanied by a hot gruyere puff the size of a large gumball. The second was a scored and grilled sea scallop, which had been marinated in soy and sake, topped with a few grains of salty trout roe and accompanied by a crunchy seaweed salad in a light sesame dressing. These very different introductory tastes foreshadowed the tone and variation of the dishes to be presented in the tasting menu.

The first course was a caviar presentation, one with leeks braised in cream and the other on top of a disk of gravalax with two golden-brown blinis the size of nickels, garnished with daikon sprouts. These opening dishes were so delicate and well done that I forgot I generally prefer caviar as is with nothing more than an occasional bite of toast point to moderate the saltiness. The Wakatake Junmai Daiginjo sake that Sommelier Alan Murray paired with the caviar, with a mild melon scent, matched beautifully.

After caviar, the menu turned to vegetables. The first vegetable dish was a salad of sweet roasted heirloom beets with bull's blood beet greens, which looked like miniature watercress dyed red, in a dressing of red beet glaze and hazelnut oil, topped with roasted hazelnuts. The second dish was a ringmold of Yukon gold potatoes mixed with celery greens and topped with a thin slice of strong, earthy black Himalayan truffle. The richness of the nuts and truffles combined with the fresh, sweet, and mildly bitter flavors of the beets, potatoes, and greens were impeccably calculated. These dishes were followed by shellfish variations: (1) a salad of chilled crab with water chestnuts, fava beans, and hearts of palm surrounded by dots of sweet medjool date vinaigrette, and (2) a tender portion of lobster tail, with black trumpet mushrooms, fava beans and a swirl of artichoke cream. To pair with the vegetable and shellfish courses, Murray brought over a glass of Austrian Riesling, an Oregon pinot gris, and a Chablis and Meursault from Burgundy.

The next course was hot and cold variations of foie gras-- one seared on top of a micro arugula and miniature shiitake mushroom cap salad, and the other a pink chilled triangle terrine, accompanied by pickled strands of cherry red rhubarb and crispy buttered brioche sticks. Both were paired with a Jurancon. The terrine had all of the buttery richness of foie gras but none of the livery gaminess sometimes present in this form, and the pickled rhubarb provided a delightfully tart and sweet accent. While the seared foie gras was as delicious as expected, I would have liked a little sweetness and acidity added to that dish as well to highlight the flavor of the foie gras.

The menu next took an interesting detour from the richness of foie gras to the richness of black cod and hamachi. Miso-glazed black cod seems to be on every menu these days but few places do it really well. Short's version, on top of a thin layer of purple sticky rice, retained the sweet flavor and moist texture of the fish, while optimizing the fermented saltiness of the miso. The accompanying watermelon radish and watercress coulis were refreshing touches. The tamari-glazed grilled hamachi with trumpet mushrooms and braised bitter greens was worthy of being served in a top notch Japanese restaurant. To pair with the divergent flavors in these dishes, Murray went with a young red Burgundy by Jadot. A cross-cultural marriage made in food heaven.

The last series of savory courses were variations on beef: perfectly medium rare medallions of Snake River Farms beef ribeye with al dente steamed asparagus and pureed Belgian salsify with Bordelaise sauce, and a Wagyu beef stirfry seasoned with soy and sesame. The tannins and bold flavors of the young, small production Bordeaux that Murray paired with these dishes intensified the lavishness of both types of beef, and interestingly did not fight with the Asian flavors of the stirfry.

This stunning meal concluded with a molten chocolate cake, accompanied by a quenelle of banana ice cream and popcorn ice cream, paired with a port. The second dessert were miniature corn-maple tacos, paired with a sparkling Gamay.

As though an extension of Short's virtually faultless cuisine, the service at Masa's, by the entire staff, was among the best I have seen. Service was so smooth and unblemished that it practically seemed choreographed and rehearsed in advance. Without ever being intrusive or hovering, the servers quietly materialized the instant anyone at our table had a question or a request, armed with answers, water, wine list, and/or some other desired item. Each course was ideally paced, with plates and silverware expertly cleared and replaced as though they were emitting silent homing signals to the kitchen to indicate when it was time. To the delight of my OCD tendencies, used napkins were whisked away and replaced with fresh ones, rather than being refolded, when diners left the table to use the restroom. The only minor criticism I have is that one of the champagnes by the glass offered at the beginning of the meal (Laurent-Perrier) was an unexpected $36 a glass. That was a bit of a surprise for a starting beverage, even for pricey, four-star dining. While I do not mind paying for quality, I would have appreciated being alerted to this fact (and that there were other Champagnes by the glass available for less than half that price).

Chef Short, your French Laundry is showing.


Anonymous said...

I completely agree. My first visit to Masa was with another foodie and her decidedly non-foodie mother. Mom, while a lovely woman, was not at all used to fancy dining, and was decidedly uncomfortable at the beginning of the meal because she felt out of place and self-conscious. The waitstaff could not have been nicer or more welcoming. They went out of their way to answer every question she had, without belittling and while encouraging her curiosity. More impressive, they created two different versions of each course, the "safe" one of which went to Mom, while the more edgy one went to the two foodies at the table. Masa's deserves much more recognition than it typically gets -- in my opinion it's a large cut above Danko and Mina.

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Anonymous said...

Sounds like our recent experiences at Masa's were similar. I have to disagree on Gary Danko though, as it remains one of my favorites (particularly his lobster risotto, which I have never had better anywhere else, with the perfect creaminess, tender fresh lobster, and fluffy yet still chewy rice grains), but I think I know what you mean about Michael Mina. Although he is undoubtedly quite talented, the prices at his namesake restaurant at the Westin St. Francis are so stratospheric that I feel like I'm paying for the months that it was forced to stay closed during the hotel strikes in San Francisco. I also feel like Mina is suffering from a bit of Emeril syndrome-- he is incredibly hard working but stretched so thin that not much original is coming out of him these days.

Anonymous said...

I know I'm in the minority in my dislike for Danko, but the one meal I had there was really subpar. It could be that it was the evening before Thanksgiving and perhaps they were shortstaffed in the kitchen or something, but to my mind if the place is open it should be providing a high level of service regardless of the date. We had a reservation, party of 2, and were seated at the front of the restaurant, closest to the street. The problem was that the tables to the left and right of us were literally so close to us that it was a challenge to leave my seat to use the restroom without knocking something off of my neighbor's table. We could hear everything they said and vice-versa, which led to some very awkward pauses in everyones' individual conversations. Not what I expect from a very pricey four star restaurant. Bizarrely, when I ordered a glass of wine, it never actually showed up until I flagged down a waiter, one course later. And I'm not a needy diner -- I don't like to make a scene, and go out of my way to be polite to the waitstaff. The food was fine, but in the end forgettable. The whole thing left me not wanting to return anytime soon.

I've been to several incarnations of Mina -- Aqua SFO, Aqua Bellagio, Michael Mina, and Arcadia. Aqua SFO is all about being seen and not so much about the food (though the food is good), Arcadia has nothing whatsoever to do with being seen and less good (though pretty playful and certainly not bad), Aqua Bellagio was one of the best meals I've ever had (remarkable because I had the vegetarian tasting menu) with amazing wine pairings, and Michael Mina was hit or miss. The lobster pot pie in the little copper pan was a big hit at the table (lobster, cream, puff pastry, who's going to argue?), and I could easily have eaten 9 courses of the blue cheese souffle with port sauce, but the rest of the meal is long forgotten. Plus, the room made me feel like a little kid who wasn't supposed to be in with the grownups -- the ceilings are just way too high!

Mantra is open in Palo Alto in the old Stoa space next to Gordon Biersch, FYI.

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