[FoRK] NYTimes.com Article: Mystery, Allure and Sushi

khare at alumni.caltech.edu khare at alumni.caltech.edu
Wed Jun 2 19:14:03 PDT 2004

The article below from NYTimes.com 
has been sent to you by khare at alumni.caltech.edu.

At least I could afford Ginza Sushiko, by comparison! :-)

(Thanks, Sal!)


khare at alumni.caltech.edu

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Mystery, Allure and Sushi

June 2, 2004


THE standards for greatness in European and American
restaurants are well established. The room must please the
eye and give you a sense of an arena where great things
will occur. The waiters must anticipate your every need and
know as much about the food as the chef does. And the food
must not only be executed flawlessly, but it must thrill
both the palate and the mind. 

Now, the infusion of serious Asian restaurants in New York
may finally challenge these standards. While the best
French restaurants rely on elaboration and invention, the
best Japanese restaurants rely on minimalism, freshness and
subtlety. Masa, a tiny Japanese restaurant on the fourth
floor of the Time Warner Center, has very high aims indeed.

It is owned by Masayoshi Takayama, whose first restaurant,
Ginza Sushiko in Los Angeles, was famed for its superior
sushi and its exclusivity. Then Mr. Takayama, the chef,
closed it and moved here. 

His new restaurant shares some similarities with his old
one: it is situated in a shopping center, it is small -
there are just 26 seats in New York - and it is
mind-bogglingly expensive. At $300 a person, not including
drinks, tax or tip, it has become New York's most expensive

While dining at great French restaurants like Daniel or Le
Bernardin is like going to a special event, dining at Masa
is like going to a secret clubhouse. Beyond a simple black
curtain is an enormous wooden door. Push it open and you
are delivered into a room that is quiet, self-contained and
entirely dim around the edges. And when the door swings
shut, New York is gone. 

All the light in the windowless restaurant emanates from
the sushi bar, a long blond slice of hinoki wood, its
surface like velvet to the touch. Behind the sushi bar is
Mr. Takayama. Balding but still athletic, wearing a blue
shirt and trousers with wooden clogs on his feet, he
welcomes you warmly. Behind him stands a life-size diorama
with a waterfall, a bamboo grove and an enormous spirea
bush in full bloom. 

There is a faint background murmur: the humming of a fan,
the distant clatter of dishes. Yet the room is so quiet you
can hear the crisp breaking of bones when Mr. Takayama
slices through hamo. 

While you settle in, Mr. Takayama sets his Aritsugu knives,
with water-buffalo-horn handles, on his chopping block and
begins assembling bowls and urns. His wife, Saemi Takayama,
who acts as maître d'hôtel, waiter and sommelier, pours
sparkling water into narrow-rimmed tumblers. There is no
menu, so the courses just begin appearing, starting with a
tiny salad of fiddlehead ferns bathed in white miso and
scented with kinome, an herb that tastes of lemon and mint
with a peppery kick. Next might come a tiny coupe glass,
filled with a dollop of toro, a heap of osetra caviar and a
squeeze of sudachi (a variety of lime, tiny as a kumquat).
You are given a red lacquer spoon to spread it onto crisp
toasts cut into perfect dominoes. 

A few courses later comes tempura. On one visit, it was
fried wild watercress, sent by Mr. Takayama's mother in
Japan, and shiroki, a tree bud encased in a feather-light
shell of batter. On the side was a dish of salt and sancho
pepper for sprinkling. 

This is just the warm-up. Mr. Takayama serves a lot of
food, often more than 12 courses. Even if you do not eat
for 10 days before you go, it is still too much, and at a
certain point it takes away from the magnificence of the

Next, a ceramic pot filled with simmering water is placed
before you, and lobster and foie gras are dropped in. Mrs.
Takayama guides you along, cooking the first slice of foie
gras and then dipping it in a tosazu sauce of smoky bonito
broth, soy sauce and vinegar. After this second swim, you
eat the warm buttery foie gras and feel extremely happy.
You may even begin believing that $300 is quite reasonable.

When you dine at Alain Ducasse, Mr. Ducasse might come by
and say hello, but he is not going to pull up a chair for a
chat. But at Masa, a large part of the experience is
watching Mr. Takayama work - marveling as he shreds the
surface of calamari with the tip of his knife and grates
wasabi root on a sharkskin board - and talking with him
about fresh yuzu versus frozen. Mr. Takayama understands
when his guests wish to keep to themselves and when they
want to talk with him. During a pause at one lunch, I asked
him why he moved to the United States. 

"Golf," he said. While visiting Palos Verdes, Calif., he
discovered that golf was cheaper in this country, and that
the Japanese restaurants in Palos Verdes were packed. 

Mr. Takayama is entertaining but he is not a showman, and
he never loses pace with your meal, even though he is
serving everyone in the room. After the parade of salads
and cooked foods, the sushi begins to arrive. Sometimes it
is a wisp of halibut, a fish distinguished by its crunch,
brushed with nikiri sauce. Or calamari, sprinkled with sea
salt, and yuzu. On various visits, I have had shiitake;
grilled scallop; sweet shrimp; mackerel; and ume, shredded
shiso and sesame seed rolled into a slender and crisp sheet
of toasted nori. All of it has been pristine, vibrant and
utterly delicious. 

At last a glass bowl piled with grapefruit granité arrives
to knock some sense back into your palate, and then the
bill completes the process of disintoxication. 

You don't go to Masa for the kind of luxury and creativity
you might find at Bouley. You go when you are in need of a
sanctuary and when you are prepared to hand over your
hunger to Mr. Takayama. The best time to do this is at
lunch, when there are usually few diners, sometimes just
two. Dinner is more crowded. 

At either time, you must request a seat at the sushi bar.
There are a few tables off to the side, near the bamboo
grove, but they offer none of Mr. Takayama's splendid
theater and lasting charm, which is so vital to the
experience. Indeed, the service at the tables can be
slipshod, which makes the space feel doubly like Siberia. 

After my first meal at Masa, the Takayamas walked me out.
As Mrs. Takayama pushed open the great wooden door,
sunlight gushed in. "The real world," Mr. Takayama said,
laughing, then he receded into the shadows. Thrust from the
rabbit hole, I stood for a minute looking out at the rude

No matter how exquisite its food, a three-star restaurant
does not have this power to transport you. What elevates a
restaurant to four stars is the intangible delight
occasioned by a chef's meticulously fashioned vision. At El
Bulli in Spain, one of the top restaurants in the world,
the room is casual, but the sense that you are on Ferran
Adrià's planet, eating Ferran Adrià's creations never
escapes you. The same sense pervades Mr. Takayama's sushi
bar, where diners are cast under his spell. But it is
missing from the tables. 

Masa is my last review as the interim restaurant critic.
After several visits, my impressions are firm: four stars
when dining at the sushi bar and three stars at the tables.
If forced, I could settle on one, but I would rather not.
Instead, I will look forward to reading, in the future,
what The Times's new permanent critic, Frank Bruni, thinks
of it. 


The Time Warner Center, Columbus Circle; (212) 823-9800.

PRICE RANGE $300 prix fixe. 



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