Monday, August 13, 2007

The Myth of Masa

10 Columbus Circle
Time Warner Center, 4th Floor
New York, NY 10019
(212) 823-9800
Chef Masayoshi Takayama
Lunch Tuesday to Friday
Dinner Monday to Saturday

Masa on Urbanspoon

Tried: August 2007

After reading innumerable articles about 1) the magnificence of the cuisine, 2) the elegance of the sushi bar, 3) the freshness of the fish, 4) the personal touch of Chef Masa Takayama himself, and 5) the exorbitant price of the experience-- all of which are reverent to the point that it seems one needs to read them in hushed tones-- I was really looking forward to finally experiencing Masa for myself (even more than I generally look forward to eating at Komi or Manresa). It was going to be my extravagant reward at the end of a particularly taxing business trip, following several heinous months at work. You would think that by now, I am old enough to realize that when something sounds too good to be true, I would adjust my expectations accordingly.

Well, I got 3 out of 5: the fish was certainly fresh (but not by an order of magnitude, as the pricing would suggest); the blonde Hinoki wood counter of the sushi bar was beautiful and so amazingly smooth that if I were blindfolded, I might think I was touching baby skin; and the price of the meal was definitely exorbitant. Actually the price was absurd. This is in the context of someone who has willingly paid absurd prices for the sake of gustatory experience.

Mashed toro topped with caviar, better executed than at the touristy Nobu but hardly novel and somewhat underseasoned despite the generous mound of caviar. Corn-truffle tempura, lovely albeit unsurprising flavor combination and also underseasoned. Uni risotto with summer truffles, much more ordinary in flavor than the name would suggest, with the uni getting completely lost in the mix. Baby kohada, toro, pike mackerel, unagi, copper snapper, and other assorted sushi-- no disputing the freshness, but none of the ingredients were beyond the realm of other good sushi restaurants I have enjoyed in terms of flavor, texture, or seasoning.

Sake is sold in "carafes," which are ceramic bowls shaped like gourds, presented in a dark wooden tub of ice, decorated with small bamboo stems with leaves. While very pretty to look at, these carafes hold maybe 300 ml at most, with prices ranging from around $50-$150 each. If you drink any quantity of sake with your meal, this adds up very quickly on top of the already ridiculous per-person price of the omakase meal.

Why do people insist that this place is worth the price? Cognitive dissonance? (Not even I can delude myself that much.) Have they never had good sushi that does not require taking out a second mortgage, or do only millionaires go out for sushi in Manhattan?

Last but not least, despite numerous reports that the restaurant closes when Chef Takayama is unavailable to be at the restaurant himself, he was nowhere to be seen. I was informed by a fellow diner that during August, he goes to the Hamptons on the weekends. I wish I had read an article that gave me that bit of information in advance. For the price of my meal at Masa, I could have flown to Tokyo and had sushi outside Tsukiji Market.

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