Masa is a 10/10 restaurant. But at that price point, would you expect anything different?
I, for one, certainly did. I really wanted to dislike the restaurant based on past reviews, their no-photography policy, and the general audacity of charging $600 for omakase. Surely this food can't be worth $600, I thought to myself.
On one hand, that's correct. Now, to be clear: the food at Masa—both the appetizers and sushi—is top of the line, truly some of the best ingredients money can buy. The ohmi beef with white truffle was exactly as decadent as you could hope, and not a morsel more. The sea bass with ponzu was almost overwhelmingly umami and left me pining for more. And don't even get me started on their bluefin toro, serevd at three different points in the meal. I'm not sure I'll ever have a more sumptuous, scrumptious, buttery-smooth cut of fish. Their classic toro tartare, the only item on the menu that never changes, uses the fish, delicately prepared to resemble a sorbet, as a base for a heaping spoon of osetra caviar. It will make you believe in the sheer beauty of the world.
But it's hard to avoid the elephant in the room: you can have a comparable meal at other wonderful restaurants in the city for half the price. What sets Masa apart?
Done properly, dinner at Masa is nothing less than an intimate expression of art. It is a personal Schubertiade, an outpouring of talent, attention, and love just for you. Rus and I sat at the beautiful wooden sushi bar and were served by Chef George. We were his only guests during our seating, which meant that we had each other's full focus: ours so we could ask him questions about the food and his personal journey, his so he could orchestrate one of the best meals of my life.
I will be straightforward: the sushi portion of the meal was one of the most beautiful half-hours of my life. It's one thing to eat through a tasting menu where the order of every dish is carefully considered. It's another thing to have a chef make you and your best friend piece after piece of meticulously prepared sushi, serve it to you, carefully watch your emotional reaction, and mentally calculate the optimal time to serve your next piece of sushi. George had complete control of our senses, and he played them like a marionettist, knowing when to hold back and when to push, how to build to a stunning emotional peak using the medium of food. Put simply, the sheer vulnerability of the experience was like no other meal I'd ever had before.
The pieces themselves were incredible. In particular, we transitioned from striped jack to fluke to sea bream to golden-eye snapper to ika, each piece tasting even better than the last. Other restaurants serve these cuts, but omakase isn't just about the fish. It's about the transitions and connections. And that's what Masa brings to the table.
The other thing included in the price of admission is perfect service. Masa's staff simply does not make mistakes. There must have been six or seven service members standing behind our bar seats, watching us closely for half-full water glasses, drops of soy sauce (common when eating with your fingers), and finished plates. To give a specific example of their attentiveness, they noticed during the toro tartare dish that I was going to run out of toast before I'd finished all of the tuna and osetra. Before I could even ask for a third piece, one of them offered to bring me another, which happened in about sixty seconds.
Now, with all of this said, one needs to heed a couple of suggestions to really enjoy Masa properly. First, you need to sit at the sushi bar, no exceptions. The restaurant offers tables on the side, but you obviously lose the entire emotional component of the meal if you eat there. Restaurants like Nakazawa discount the sticker price if you sit at a table instead of the bar; Masa in particular should do that, too. Sitting at the bar is necessary. It's not sufficient, though. You also need to pay rapt attention to the meal. Notice the small details being done correctly. Feel how smooth the bar itself is (they sand the wood after every serving, so once or twice per day). Listen to the chef's explanations of the food, and ask questions about it. Let yourself get lost in the sheer beauty of the meal. If you don't do this, then Masa is just another high-quality omakase—great, but not one of the greats.
A restaurant cannot be everything to everybody. Chef's Table at Brooklyn Fare is still the best food I've ever eaten, with César Ramirez showing off his sheer technical ability across different cuisines, genres, and styles. Eleven Madison Park absolutely wins the award for hospitality and comfort. Alinea is a culinary magic show, and Aska pushes the boundary of what we consider to be food in the first place. Masa is none of these things. What it is, however, is otherworldly. It whisks you away to unexplored territory. No other restaurant I've been to has done a better job at capturing the intangible feeling of being served, of crafting a meal just for you, from start to finish, of being more than just a meal.
In short: thank you, Chef Masa, for redefining what food, service, and a dining experience can really be.