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.


Anonymous said...

The fish from my meal 2.5 years ago rivaled the best sushi places; but I haven't returned because of the price. Kuruma Zushi's fish is better; unfortunately, his prices are also creeping up.

If one wants the Masa experience "on the cheap" (very relative), Urasawa in LA is a more personal but just as well executed meal. It was Masa's former spot that's now manned by his pupil. It will only run you $250/person as opposed to Masa's $500/person and up.

- ChuckEats

TasteTV : Life Never Tasted So good said...

This is exactly why we need sites like Yelp and blogs like this

Anonymous said...

Yeah, I guess it sucks to go there in August, to expect Masa there, and get his apprentices, but really, those sushi chefs beside him are just as good... and Mr. Takayama isn't much of a conversationalist anyway, but there is a subtle communication that goes on when he serves you.

IMO, if you're the kind of person who expects a mind-blowing experience at a restaurant because you are spending over $500 per person, you probably should save your money. I have never had a meal that gives me an orgasm. Having said that, for me, Masa is worth the price.

I don't know why people keep talking about the "freshness" of sushi. Except for certain sushi dishes, you don't necessarily want the fish to be in "still-quivering" condition. For many varieties of fish, dead for a couple of days, but stored/refrigerated optimally, will give you a better tasting sushi than if you eat it fresh out of the net on the boat. What makes Masa's fish great is that he buys the highest quality fish and has it flown in from Japan. By the way, he gets his Uni (sea urchin) from Santa Barbara, California. Again, it isn't the "freshness" but the quality that he (or more accurately, his buyers) sources.

I understand that some people go to a $500 per person restaurant and expect fireworks, but Masa is just much more subtle than that. "Under-seasoned" toro tartar with caviar? Who would want to add any seasoning to two items? When served together, as Masa does, on Japanese sweet bread, it is absolutely wonderful, IMO.

Is it worth it? Sure, as long as you're not the kind or person who sits there for 2 hours thinking about how expensive the meal is. No one should take a home equity line of credit to eat out. Manhattan is one of the few cities on the planet with a critical mass of people who can spend $500 per person on a meal without impacting their household budget... that's what makes Masa possible... people who buy $100k Warhol prints as foyer decorations for their condos... people who don't blink at FedEx charges to overnight fish in organ transplant boxes from Japan.

Anonymous said...

Actually toro without any seasoning is bland-- that's what soy sauce is for, unless the sushi chef has seasoned it for you. When the quantity and/or saltiness of the caviar is insufficient to blend and balance the two ingredients skillfully, the result is an under-seasoned dish.

My disappointment of Takayama-san not being there had little to do with whether I wanted to converse with him (especially since I do not speak Japanese) but rather that the establishment was always billed in the media as one where he is always personally at the helm. I also can't help but wonder whether my experience might have been better with him personally overseeing the production (although I understand and appreciate that the head chef's presence is not always necessary, based on my experiences at other restaurants).

As for freshness, that is the only thing that matters in sushi/sashimi-- the ingredient. To illustrate, fresh kin-me-tai is only served in sushi places right outside Tzukiji because it does not travel, regardless of refridgeration conditions.

Lastly, if a restaurant is open and charging me $500/person (actually it was more like $700/person), you're damn right I expect it to be orgasmic, especially since I've had better for substantially less, even in August. The fact that my credit card can take the hit does not mean I do not feel the pain.

Anonymous said...

Sir, maybe you should spare your tongue of coth criticisms of Masa then take the time to clean your mouth out of the taste of cigarettes and cheap beer.

Anonymous said...

I wish I had the fortune to have experienced the Masa that you know such that you feel so personally defensive.

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