As 2011 approaches, many people are remembering the past year or counting down to the new year. This past year has not been one that I really want to remember, so I will not be doing an end of year food wrap up like I did last year. Instead I'm going to be counting down to the new year with Michelin starred restaurants that I've gone to in the last three months. Today, we start with the 3 Michelin stars of Masa.
Masa is without a doubt the most expensive restaurant in NYC, and perhaps all of the US. There is only one option of a set omakase, which was priced at $450 when we visited. The prices change according to season, and supplemental dishes are offered, but I believe $450 is the minimum. Pictures are not allowed, so I can only describe the dishes that I bothered to keep notes on.
Upon entering the restaurant, you are transported away from the big busy Time Warner Center mall to a serene and zen-like environment. The spotlight is on the big sushi counter where chef Masa himself stands with his two itamae at his side. Masa himself looks like a caricature or something out of a manga. An older, thin, bald Japanese man with simple features and a stern look on his face, wearing a white undershirt. He didn't exactly scowl, but I don't recall much of a smile throughout service, although he wasn't serving us directly.
The counter table was made of very high quality blonde wood, and it fit in well with the simple color scheme of the rest of the restaurant. Off to the side were about eight tables in a more dimly lit space. On that night there were only two other customers at one of the tables. The meal usually starts with 6 or 7 small courses followed by sushi and a light dessert.
HOKKAIDO HAIRY CRAB WITH SEAWEED AND CUCUMBER
Our first course was exactly what a starter/amuse should be. Sweet and tart, very refreshing, and definitely whets the appetite.
TORO TARTARE WITH CAVIAR AND TOAST
Not very original, but the California caviar was extremely tasty for American caviar. The tartare, however, I found bland. I'm sure the chopped up toro was of a high quality, but it was almost as if nothing was done to it. I wouldn't have called it tartare, although my guess is it merely served to provide fattiness and texture to carry the caviar.
FUGU-SASHIMI, INTESTINES, SKIN, AND LIVER WITH SLAW, WATER PEPPER, AND GOLD LEAF
Although I'm personally not a big fan of raw fugu flesh, this was a well composed dish with good textures. The liver had a good taste to it. The blowfish is of the non-poisonous variety, which is becoming increasingly popular, although it does take away from what makes fugu exotic.
I much prefer fried fugu flesh and enjoyed this very much.
SEA URCHIN RISOTTO WITH WHITE TRUFFLES
One of his signature dishes, this smelled amazing as it was brought to the table. That being said, I wasn't a big fan of the risotto and I thought the uni flavor was muted. My friend who does not eat sea urchin got a mushroom risotto instead made with three types of mushrooms, and I think I would have enjoyed that much more.
AUSTRALIAN WAGYU WITH WHITE TRUFFLES
This was a supplemented dish, at $120 per person. Of course this tasted and smelled wonderful, but it's not like the chef really did anything to the ingredients.
SHABU SHABU WITH WILD YELLOWTAIL
A wonderful fragrant broth in which we quickly dipped our three slices of wild yellowtail. The fish was delicious and tasted great warmed up in the broth. After we were done with the fish, they removed the heat and we drank the broth, which now had added sweetness from the fish.
The seafood was definitely of a very high quality, and most of it was flown in from Japan. The pieces were small, and while the rice tasted fine, I thought the grain size was too big for how small the sushi pieces were. While it all tasted good, I didn't find many of the pieces to be significantly superior to sushi at the other top places in NYC. The only one that was truly special was when they shaved white truffle onto the cutting board and rolled the sushi rice in it to create an amazing rice ball.
Overall it was a fantastic meal from start to finish. The flavors definitely fit the fall profile, brightened up on occasion by some lemon, lime, or yuzu. The thing that in my opinion truly separated the chef from other top sushi meals I've had was the progression. I thought the progression of tastes, textures, temperatures, and smells from one course or piece to the next was very well thought out.
There's no denying the quality of the meal, but I'm sure the big question on everyone's mind is whether it was worth the exorbitant cost. For the three of us, with two bottles of Riesling and all of us getting the wagyu supplement, came out to just over $2400 all said and done. I wasn't sure about the exact number because my very generous friend DC took care of the bill. If spending that kind of money on a meal doesn't faze you, then I would say to do it by all means. In fact, there was a couple next to us who seemed to be there on a date. That, however, I would not recommend. While they were trying to talk and get to know each other, chef Masa was practically yelling at them to eat their food while it was fresh on the plate.
For those of us who care about getting value for money, I wouldn't recommend going to Masa over two or more meals at other top sushi places in NYC such as 15 East or Yasuda. Sure, the cooked shrimp especially flown in from Japan was delicious, but was it significantly better than the cooked shrimp Yasuda gets from Mexico? I didn't think it was. Or if you're in the mood for wagyu, I'm sure places like Megu have comparable quality beef as well. There is a genius in his combination of flavor profiles and progression throughout the meal, but I don't think for most of us it's worth more than one visit.