You ascend to Masa, the first of the breathlessly hyped, breathlessly awaited superstar-chef restaurants to open in the new Time Warner Center, on a series of escalators, past signs for J.Crew and Borders and Aveda. It’s as though you’re rising through Dante-esque rings of consumerist purgatory toward some kind of ethereal foodie heaven. At Masa, you will pay $300 each for the chef’s omakase lunch or dinner, provided you’ve made a reservation for one of the 26 seats weeks in advance. You must announce yourself to the security guard or the hostess or both before being led into the restaurant itself, a dimly lit, severely edited Shinto-like space, replete with burbling water, brushed clay walls, even a retinue of sushi acolytes, their heads shaved like monks, working silently behind the bar.
Masa Takayama, to his credit, works behind the bar, too, and if you’re wise, you’ll sit as close to him as possible. That’s because dining at Masa is a curiously refracted experience, one that changes in subtle ways depending on where you dine, what time you dine, and even who you’re dining with. On my first visit, I sat at the bar with a sushi-mad friend, someone familiar with chef Takayama from his glory days in L.A. The bar at Masa, made from a soft, bleached Japanese wood called hinoki, is lit from above so that it glows luminously, like a stage. Behind this stage stands Masa himself, a pleasant-looking, round-faced man dressed in a loose-fitting aqua-colored cotton shirt and traditional wooden Japanese clogs. We ordered sake, which came in a clear green bottle set in a bowl on a bed of crushed ice. After that, the chef presented us with little tastes of snow crab touched with vinegar, and then generous mounds of Nobu-style tuna-belly tartare piled with Osetra caviar and a faint sprinkling of chives, and served with squares of toast carefully grilled by one of the sushi monks on a little brazier.
There are no menus at Masa; the chef adjusts his meals according to the availability of ingredients (white-truffle tempura is a specialty in the fall) and his diners’ whims. These meals are intricate, lavish cultural entertainments, part nourishment, part entertainment, and part ancient performance art. They’re designed to be enjoyed in a state of blissful suspended animation, and sitting at the bar at Masa, with a world-class chef preparing food for you, that’s more or less what happens. After the tuna tartare, I was presented with aji mackerel sashimi tossed in shiso blossoms. This palate-cleansing course set up a whole salvo of rich, uniformly delicious dishes that began with uni risotto (rice plus sea urchin plus copious amounts of truffles and truffle butter), continued with a meltingly sweet version of Kobe-beef sukiyaki, and culminated in an extravagant shabu-shabu composed of fresh lobster and lobes of foie gras.
Of course, a normal Japanese person wouldn’t dream of cooking foie gras in his shabu-shabu. But then Takayama isn’t overly concerned with normal people, and what he is selling is more than just a meal: It’s a personalized aesthetic experience of the most rarefied kind (though New York is not, and is never likely to become, a cultishly devoted sushi town like Tokyo or L.A.). Masa’s sushi is flown in daily, some of it in plastic organ-donor containers, from faraway places like Alaska, Spain, and the Sea of Japan. Like Alain Ducasse before him, Takayama has a very specific clientele in mind, patrons willing to pay huge prices to enjoy the work of the latest culinary diva or auteur. He devises the menu, prepares the food, and, unlike M. Ducasse or Nobu Matsuhisa, who are busy jetting among their numerous establishments, he sometimes even serves it to you.
“Masa scatters black truffles around his menu the way a car salesman places luxury sedans around his showroom.”
Shabu-shabu is a hot-pot dish cooked in boiling water, and at Masa the cooking contraption is presented to each diner in a lacquered porcelain pot of the chef’s own design. There is a smooth tosazu sauce (made with a blend of soy sauce and vinegar) for dipping, and after you finish blanching your lobster and dissolvingly rich foie gras, the sauce is poured back in the water to make a tangy soup, which cleanses the palate again in preparation for Takayama’s sushi.
The sushi is uniformly exceptional, which isn’t surprising since each bite costs roughly as much as a first-class cut of steak in many restaurants. The pieces are presented singly, like small works of art, framed on a round palette of black slate. There are milky slices of o-toro, silky ika (squid) touched with drops of yuzu, silvery little kohada (a type of herring), and glistening, pearly shrimp (ama ebi) with their tails stuck in the air. When Takayama makes a toro maki roll, he jams it with fistfuls of tuna belly. (As he did this, I asked him which restaurants he’d enjoyed since arriving in New York. “Peetah Lugah Steakhouse,” he said, smiling a big showman’s smile.)
It was a memorable meal, as different in style, dimension, and scope (and, of course, cost) as a TV rerun is from a first-class Broadway show. But when I returned a few weeks later, my experience changed in a number of significant and not-so-significant ways. Perhaps it was because I’d already sampled the meal (Takayama’s menu tends to change seasonally, as opposed to weekly or even monthly), or perhaps it was because I was dining with my discerning wife. A refugee from the land of midwestern malls and cineplexes, she was mildly horrified at having to walk through a glorified shopping center (“Is that Muzak?” she whispered) for the most expensive meal of her life, and as a dutiful, empathetic husband, I became mildly horrified, too.
Then, instead of taking a place at the bar (and, in fairness, that’s where the staff at Masa suggests you sit), we asked for a table away from the charismatic chef and his hardworking band and were seated in a dim, windowless corner of one of the restaurant’s two mini dining rooms. There, in the contemplative, templelike gloom, a dysfunctional air duct hummed noisily in the ceiling over our heads, and a group of gray-suited corporate revelers were talking perhaps too loudly at the next table.
The tuna tartare and caviar tasted as fine as I remembered, and so did the uni risotto. But the portions seemed a little meager compared with the ones I’d had at the bar. The Kobe-beef sukiyaki had disappeared from the menu entirely, and nothing was substituted in its place. When the foie gras shabu-shabu appeared, my wife perked up a little, but when I told her the rest of the meal would consist of sushi only, she looked at me with her mouth agape. “You realize,” she said in a flat, matter-of-fact voice, “I could have bought a ticket down to Florida, chartered a boat, and caught my own tuna for the price of this meal?” She’s more or less correct: We spent $834.31, including tip, sake, and two $10 bottles of mineral water. (The bill for my first meal, at the bar—with the Kobe-beef sukiyaki—was exactly the same.)
If you think that spending this kind of cash on a single meal is an absurd extravagance, then you can travel next door to Bar Masa, a smaller, more animated, comparatively economical version of the mother ship. The narrow, softly colored room comprises a long bar and a single, similarly long, Ultrasuede banquette, separated by linen curtains and a row of coffee tables. There’s a menu at Bar Masa, and several items from the fancy omakase menu next door—including a selection of sushi and generously fat maki rolls—appear on it. You can also indulge in a selection of primped-up Japanese street foods like good chicken yakitori ($8), grilled baby squid ($5), and a not entirely successful version of yaki-soba (fried noodles) mixed with shreds of dried Kobe beef.
Takayama is perhaps too addicted to elaborate, upmarket ingredients. He scatters Kobe beef and black truffles around his menu the way a car salesman places luxury sedans around his showroom. It’s a way of making the customers feel part of something exclusive as they pay through the nose. Snooty truffle hounds should find all sorts of satisfaction at Bar Masa (black truffles baked in a trio of fresh oysters was my favorite), and there’s also a poor man’s version of the tuna-tartare-and-caviar dish available in a selection of what the menu calls “sushi canapés.”
Among the other big-ticket items, however, the tempura batter on the sea-eel tempura ($16) was clunky and oily, and the elaborate-sounding lobster-and-black-truffle risotto ($34) tasted good enough but contained too many errant bits of lobster shell. The baby-shrimp fried rice (with more black truffles) is a slightly better bet. It cost $32, but it’s as good a plate of shrimp fried rice as you’ll find in any multitiered, chrome-and-glass, faux-suburban supermall.