Is Master Masa’s Sushi
Worth the Clams? A meal at Masa, the new sushi restaurant in the Time Warner building, costs $300 per person, plus tax, tips and drinks. (And you thought Alain Ducasse was nuts five years ago when he introduced New Yorkers to an all-truffle menu for $250!)
I felt queasy when I booked my table, partly because if I canceled my reservation less than 48 hours in advance, I’d be charged $100-per person. Reservations at the 26-seat restaurant are only taken the first week of the month for the following month-and, by the way, the telephone number is unlisted.
I also felt queasy at the thought of spending the price of two round-trip tickets to England on just one dinner. O.K., so 90 percent of the fish is flown in from Japan (where, as everyone knows, a watermelon costs $50), but is it worth the expense? Masa Takayama is a celebrity chef who for years has had a devoted following at his tiny restaurant on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills, which he sold before he moved to New York. Unlike most celebrity chefs, Mr. Takayama stays on the premises. If you sit at the sushi bar, you can watch the master at work, which is something to behold.
To get to Masa, you take a series of escalators through a soulless shopping mall-replete with Muzak and endless A.T.M. machines-up to the fourth floor and past such chain stores as Aveda, Sephora and Borders. You walk through a door cut from the bark of a tree to find yourself in front of a desk. The hostess takes your name and tells you to turn off your cell phone.
The small, windowless, temple-like space is dominated by a wide sushi bar made of a rare, silky, bleached Japanese wood called hinoki . Behind it is a simple display of bamboo trees in water and golden sprays of forsythia. To the right are two small, desolate-looking dining areas separated by a bamboo curtain hanging halfway down from the ceiling.
The silently working sushi chefs, with shaved heads and loose-fitting black clothes, looked like Buddhist monks, and each one wielded a long, sharp steel sushi knife with a carved wooden handle. The fish was piled in a glass case in the middle of the work space. Mr. Takayama, center stage, was dressed in the traditional monk’s gray-blue. He has a round, cheerful face and was chatting with an enthusiastic couple in their 40’s, the man looking fresh off Wall Street in his striped shirt and tie. The rest of the audience consisted of two Pakistani businessmen and a perky young blonde with an older, balding date. She ordered a Coke.
At one of the two tables a man who looked like a member of Creedence Clearwater Revival, preserved in aspic for 20 years, presided over with two earnest young women and a professorial-looking young man. From the other table, which was concealed behind a bamboo curtain, came raucous shouts and hearty masculine laughter that were seriously at odds with the hushed reverence and Zen-like calm of the sushi bar. “Time Warner music executives, blowing their last paychecks,” said my friend.
There is no set menu; you get the chef’s omakase, his choice of whatever’s good in the market. Our waiter brought us two different kinds of sake-which was served in green glass bottles and ceramic jugs on crushed ice-and small white bowls nestling a tablespoon of something green. I asked what it was.
“Spring vegetable in special sauce.”
After the spring vegetable in special sauce (a Chinese broccoli in what tasted like a smoked wasabi), we were brought a sublime toro tartare, made of soft tuna belly topped with Iranian caviar. It was served in a glass and accompanied by small squares of toast, grilled in a brazier.
Meanwhile, our designated chef proceeded to mold a tantalizing array of sushi rolls that he set out on a long, curved, red-and-black-painted wood platter shaped like a barque. They included grilled mushrooms, eel, shiny mackerel, scallops criss-crossed with knife cuts, and an amazing tuna roll, made with layer upon fat layer of gleaming pink fish piled on top of rice, rolled in nori on a bamboo mat and sliced. But these weren’t for us. We watched as they were dispatched to the table behind the curtain. Torture.
Our next dish was half a soft-shell crab, perfectly cooked, crunchy and light, but small. Then came Mr. Takayama’s signature shabu-shabu, made with lobster and foie gras that you dipped into a hot broth. It wasn’t a great success. The clear broth was pleasant, but I didn’t like the raw scallions with the foie gras. And I was starting to get annoyed watching all the glorious stuff our chef was putting together depart to the mob behind the curtain. They were now making noises as though they were blowing into some reed pipes and began beating a tattoo with their feet on the floor.
“Too much sake!” said the sushi master with a grin.
My friend said he was feeling like P.G. Wodehouse nodding and smiling at his guards. But our chef took pity on us at last and began to hand us pieces of sushi: tuna like butter, Japanese mackerel tossed in shiso blossoms, squid with yuzu, mackerel from Spain, eel with cucumber ….
“You want more?” he asked finally.
We did. We were insatiable. I’m sure the chefs were thinking, “These customers obviously don’t understand the basic rules of sushi etiquette.” I began to feel like the fat man in the Monty Python movie who ate and ate until he blew up. But I didn’t want to stop.
At last Mr. Takayama placed pieces of wax paper resolutely over the top of the fish in the display, closing it for the night, and the waiter brought us a wonderful grapefruit granité signaling the end of our meal.
There was no uni, no kobe beef or truffles (and if there had been, our bill could have soared to $500 per person). It was certainly a wonderful meal, but too much money for one that included a great deal of mackerel. Next-door at Bar Masa, which doesn’t take reservations, you can get dinner for two for about $200. But as far as Masa is concerned, while I appreciate Mr. Takayama’s genius, it’s not a restaurant I’ll be going back to anytime soon, and certainly not if I can’t sit at the bar. If I want great sushi in a more romantic atmosphere, I’ll go to Jewel Bako or Megu.