Masa’s is at least as well known for its prices as its food. There is no a la carte menu. As so often in Japan, the kitchen offers a tasting menu of their own devising (of course when you book you can warn them of any allergies/dislikes). This menu, lunch or dinner, costs USD 450 per person, plus 20% service i.e. USD 540 before you have had a drink. This price is up there with Arpege, Ambroisie and Pic as the costliest in the world. To add insult to injury, part way through the meal the waitress popped and said that the chef would be happy to add a meat dish or two to the menu, but this would be at a modest extra cost of $140 – I politely declined this bargain.
Masa is in an up-market shopping mall, the Time Warner building (fourth floor, next to Per Se). It has the traditional discreet entrance favoured in Japan. The room itself consists of a central bar area, plus two recesses where there are a few tables. On the lunch time that we went we were initially the only diners (two others later showed up) so we actually sat at the bar so as to see what was going on. The bar, as is traditional in Japan, was made from blond wood, and the chefs work on the sushi behind this and serve you across the counter. There is a wooden floor and a small ornamental tree visible behind the bar. There is a two page wine list, which started at the $80 level (Donnhoff Riesling 2006 which cost about $25 In the shops). Newton Unfiltered Chardonnay 2006 is listed at $130 for a wine that costs about $30 retail. However, as this is a Japanese restaurant, I had beer.
For reasons best known to themselves, the restaurant do not wish diners to take any pictures of the food, so I can’t share any with you. I have no idea of the logic of this, since you would think they would be delighted for people to share their experiences. It was not as if this was going to “disturb” any other diners, since we were the only ones for most of the meal, (and anyway why would a camera with no flash disturb anyone?).
The meal began with a few warm ginko nuts to nibble. The first proper course was hairy crab (kegani) with mozuku, an edible seaweed, mixed in as a salad. The crab was very fresh, and the light dressing on the seaweed resulted in a very refreshing dish (8/10). Next was a tartare (“caviar”) of toro tuna, served with two little pieces of brioche. Very simple, but carefully seasoned, and very tasty (8/10).
Next was fugu (blowfish or pufferfish), which is the famous dish that, if wrongly prepared, can be a killer dish in a different way than intended due to its poisonous liver. I have eaten at specialist fugu restaurants in Japan (I didn’t fancy eating fugu off an unlicensed place in a back street) and I have to say that all the fuss about it must be related to the danger element, since the fish itself tastes like a dully, slightly chewy, bland white fish. Here it was served in two ways, first as a spicy salad, which was a good idea since the spiciness of the dressing makes up for the inherent dullness of the fish, and then deep fried, which again is a neat way of taking attention away from the taste of the fish itself (6/10). Shimeji mushroom was next in two forms, initially as a risotto with white truffles, then as a soup. The clear soup was pleasant though not that interesting, while the risotto worked well, as it is hard not to like white truffles (7/10).
There was then a sequence of sushi offered. First shima aji (striped jack), then sea bream, then snapper, then squid (without a hint of chewiness) then sweet shrimp, then tile fish. All very fresh and carefully cut. We continued with mackerel and horse mackerel, and some cooked toro as well as sea urchin. All very capable, and up there with good, though not the very best, sushi I have eaten in Japan (7/10). Eel was cooked and wrapped in delicate cucumber, then sea urchin wrapped in rice and paper with a hint of wasabi. It finished with a wrapped roll of toro tuna with scallion (spring onion). The rice was a little warmer than I was used to in Japan (where body temperature is normal), but to be honest I am not sure I didn’t prefer it a little. All solid 7/10 level. The meal ended with delicate Japanese pears and soba tea. The chefs showed impressive knife skills in preparing the sushi, and paced the meal well. Overall, for me this was between a 7/10 and an 8/10. I felt that the sushi itself was excellent, if a sliver less good that at Sushi Mizutani, which is the best sushi that I had eaten at the time of writing.
The bill came to USD 634 with a few beers (no sake or wine). Here is the problem that I have. In Tokyo (not a cheap place) I had a similar meal for around one fifth of the price being charged here. Their produce from the Tokyo fish market was as good as it gets, and so I simply cannot justify the prices charged at Masa. Perhaps the restaurant was designed to separate investment bankers and lawyers from their expense accounts, but although an objectively excellent meal, the price is crazy as far as I am concerned. I am not sure whether the two other diners eating here at lunch felt the same way or not, but I guess they don’t need many people to turn up to ensure a profitable business. It will be interesting to see how it fares in a recession.