REVIEW #2

Masa

There are very few restaurants in NYC, or indeed, the world, that can truly be said to be transporting in the sense of carrying you away from the fixed time and place in which you find yourself to somewhere else entirely:  La Tour d'Argent in Paris or Takazawa in Tokyo are prime examples.  Masa has that power.  "I have been to the mountain top.  I have seen…things.  Everything is different now."  These are the words of legendary chef Anthony Bourdain after his first visit to Masa.  A meal at Masa feels like having scales fall from your eyes, as you realize that every other sushi restaurant you have previously frequented in NYC was simply an illusion, a shadow and an echo of the real thing, that you had been content to sit pliantly and be entertained by the shadowy figures strutting by firelight on the wall of Plato's cave, not realizing that an entire world awaited you outside.

Let us address one obligatory preliminary point and then move on:  A meal at Masa will cost you approximately $1,500 for two, give or take.  Unless you are willing, and able, to spend this sum of money on three hours of food and entertainment, you should not visit Masa, as the experience will simply be tainted for you.  Success of any kind is a magnet for envy and criticism.  And much of the criticism of Masa derives not from any objective evaluation of the quality of its food, service or atmosphere, but simply from sheer aggravation at the exorbitance of the cost.

Masayoshi Takayama opened Masa in 2004, when Thomas Keller convinced him that the fourth floor of a high-end mall was as good a spot as any for the two finest restaurants in NYC.  But on the other side of the noren and the carved wooden door lies a miracle of interior design:  incredibly simple and minimalist, as one would expect, but supremely sophisticated and refined.  The wood, stone and bamboo were all imported from Japan and selected by architect Richard Bloch.  Unlike most high-end sushi restaurants in which customers sitting at the sushi counter face a wall several feet behind the counter, the wall at Masa is deeply recessed such that the bulk of the restaurant is actually situated behind the counter.  Behind the row of sushi chefs lies a beautiful, oversized tree set in a pond of luminous water on the right and a grilling station on the left.  This brilliant design decision enhances the pageantry of it all, while also allowing the restaurant to feel more spacious and serene.

The restaurant is gorgeously lit:  a phalanx of servers behind you are cloaked in darkness, with overhead recessed track lighting that spotlights the gorgeous hinoki-wood countertop (a single cypress slab that cost Masa $60,000 and that feels sanded within an inch of its life).  Strewn about the preparation counter are a number of pieces of Japanese ceramics (many designed by Masa himself), rock salt that is shaved on to some preparations, fresh wasabi and a grater, and a milder homemade soy sauce that the chef uses to baste the fish before serving.  An iced wooden display case showcases that day's catch, flown in directly from Japan.  After a breathtaking first few minutes in which you can do nothing but survey the room in wonder, you start to observe more closely and begin to realize that the restaurant has cultivated perfection down to the smallest detail:  in the majestic, yet pared down design, not a note out of tune; the unique beauty of the sushi chefs' instruments and utensils, each arranged symmetrically on their pristine workspace; the sushi chefs' economy of movement and supreme self-possession as they work; the artistry of the presentations and servingware.  This is an experience of the most rarefied kind, one that is frankly superior in atmosphere and design to any of the great sushi counters of Tokyo.

Masa states that "what you see, hear, touch, smell and taste [at the restaurant] all spring from…the ideas of shibui and umami."  Shibui is described as "simplicity devoid of unnecessary elements, and the honest presentation of materials" and umami as "the basic essence or flavor inherent in each ingredient."  Each piece of fish is sliced, smeared with a wisp of wasabi and a handful of slightly-warm rice depressed into it, and then presented one piece at a time directly before you, an act of communion with the sushi priest more intimate than at any other restaurant in the city.  You are instructed to pick it up with your hands and consume it immediately.

Not all of the food is so traditional and before the cavalcade of 20 or so sushi courses is a series of appetizers that always begins with a decadent mound of diced fatty bluefin tuna tartare and Osetra caviar with toast points.  Then there are items such as a sweet corn and summer truffle tempura, a steamed gobi fish (a type of bass) in fish sauce, a shabu-shabu course, an incredible earthy and rich roast potato soup and, best of all, an impossibly buttery, sublime Wagyu beef from Australia, tataki-style, lightly seared, and with shaved pepper and summer truffles on top (a $120 supplement to the prix fixe, but you are cheating yourself if you don't order it).

In the sushi dishes that follow, there is the traditional (toro, shima aji, mako kare) and the non-traditional ("truffle sushi" (a ball of rice wrapped in heaps of shaved black truffle), lightly grilled matsutake mushrooms on top of rice, divine tuna sinew grilled yakitori-style on top of rice).  Masa is a practitioner of the filigree approach to sushi, freely varying the traditional when it suits his ends. But when dishes succeed as they do at Masa, anything is permitted.

To be completely candid, we did not, at the outset, anticipate ranking Masa as highly as we have.  It was not until we experienced its ethereal pleasures and they lingered for days afterward that we gradually succumbed to the conclusion that we could not, in good conscience, do any less.  Its combination of visual splendor, irenic atmosphere and awe-inspiring quality will awaken first-time visitors to entirely new dimensions of culinary possibility.

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INFORMATION

Upper West Side
10 Columbus Cir.
New York (nr. Eighth Ave.)
212-823-9800
Mon, 6pm-9pm; Tues-Fri, noon-1pm, 6pm-9pm; Sat, 6pm-9pm
    Masayoshi Takayama, Chef
    Richard Bloch Architects, Designer

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    RECOMMENDED DISHES See All

    • Toro tartare with caviar
    • Sweet corn and summer truffle tempura
    • Steamed bass in fish sauce and chives
    • Roast potato soup
    • Wagyu beef from Australia, tataki-style, with shaved pepper and summer truffles
    • Sushi - Toro, Shima Aji, Kamitsu with shaved truffle; Squid with lime zest; Amaebi, Sweet clam, Aoyagi clam, Grilled Toro Suji (sinew), matsutake mushroom, Anago, Unagi, Uni wrapped in seaweed
    • Green tea mille-feuille
    • Soba tea