Upon leaving the tranquil haven of Masa, an abrupt awakening ensues. If the peace induced by resting one's forearms against smooth and fragrant hinoki amidst subdued hues and hushed tones were not broken by the aggressively lit interior of the Time Warner Center, then the saké must have been quite good. In all truth, this sharp juxtaposition aptly recreates the incongruity of exiting Michelin-starred sushi-ya in Tokyo, where calm contemplation may be instantaneously shattered by buzzing elevators, urban crowds and a barrage of garish lights. An upscale shopping mall is perhaps not an inappropriate metaphor for glitzy Ginza.
Indeed, experiencing Masa is analogous to dining at Tokyo's sushi temples, especially in the respects that concern us: ingredient quality, preparation and technical execution. In my experience, Masayoshi Takayama, and his two assistant itamae, serves what is easily the highest quality sushi in the United States. In addition, Takayama-san also distinguishes himself from his counterparts in Japan by offering an omakase menu loosely inspired by seasonal kaiseki meals which open with appetizers both cold and warm; continue with a sashimi course; follow with a dashi; and conclude with seasoned rice, miso and pickles and a light fruit-based dessert. In place of the rice course, however, Masa serves upwards of twenty nigiri, a Montecito uni hand roll, the world's most decadent negitoro roll, and finally, an ume-shiso nigiri to cleanse the palate before dessert and warm soba-cha.
Masa's distinctive omakase menu thus combines two of the most ambitious repertoires in Japanese cuisine: quality sushi and kaiseki ryori. (Farmed fugu, or blowfish, and tempura also make their occasional appearance.) But whereas a kaiseki chef in Japan would normally not dream of extending his reach beyond his homeland for produce, Masa's gaze travels far and wide, contemplating and incorporating ingredients and dishes from other regions of the globe, so long as they embody the same principles of taste that inspire Japanese cuisine. What better examples of umami exist than a foie gras shabu-shabu or an uni risotto of Japanese rice feathered with shaved truffles? Europe could not be conceived without salt and butter. Why not offer, in its place, caviar atop toro tartare?
Yes, like his business partner Thomas Keller, Masa insists that luxury ingredients such as truffles, caviar and wagyu beef make a daily appearance on the menu. However, while Keller maintains a store of truffles frozen yearlong to use at next door Per Se, Masa has never served them to me when they were not fresh, even if that has meant settling for the less aromatic summer ones. In this decision he should be lauded, as summer truffles are still more aromatic than the frozen Australian winter ones incorporated with Per Se's poached egg the same weekend I dined at both restaurants.
Masa's original conception is thus an haute breed of hybrid cuisine combining kaiseki and sushi, incorporating Eastern and select Western ingredients, with the guiding principle the orchestration of "discrete moments of pure elation", as Frank Bruni once wrote. In this pursuit, Masa succeeds admirably. I may have experienced more educational sushi meals in Tokyo (or even at Sushi Yasuda or Kuruma Zushi in Manhattan) in that I learned more about fish or tradition from more talkative itamae, but I cannot claim to have grinned more often or more shamelessly than during the four revelatory meals I've enjoyed at Masa. The restaurant contentedly plays in a league all its own.
This is not to say that Masa provides a bombastic experience. On the contrary, he delicately calibrates most of his dishes and the meal's progression, gently guiding one from a refreshing salad of Hokkaido hairy crab and mizuna brightened by a gossamer vinaigrette of white soy, yuzu zest and chrysanthemum flower onward to the butter and salt contrast of his sublime toro tartare, scraped from the flesh with a clamshell, seasoned with caviar and micro chives. Even when farmed Petrossian American Sterling caviar is used, the tartare is notable for the decadence of the equal proportion of roe to fish, and the spare seasoning of chives exists but to accentuate the quality ingredients, unlike at some American sushi-ya which drown their tartare in ponzu.
Unfortunately, Masa commits a related sin with his kawahagi sashimi which -- similar in its toothsome texture to fugu -- is spiked with a ponzu miscalibrated toward the sharply acidic, just as kinmedai of excellent quality was emasculated by acid at Masa's Shaboo in Las Vegas. On the other hand, Masa succeeds triumphantly with his shirauo, or baby eels in sizzling garlic oil, a personal favorite which pays homage to the traditional Basque recipe for angulas one may taste in Donostia-San Sebastián. Tasting this dish, one understands what a kiss of garlic truly means.
On a different day Masa will serve the most refined vegetable tempura to be found in the States. Whether he's concocted a ball of sweet corn and truffles, fried as to leave no more than a hoarfrost of coating on the mound and accompanying bitter plants, or a shiso leaf so lightly and uniformly dusted with batter one can still marvel at the symmetry of its veins, Masa excels at vegetable tempura. Indeed, the shiso's crisp texture would compare favorably with the premium vegetable offerings of Chef Shigeya Sakakibara at 7chome Kyoboshi in Ginza, perhaps the finest tempura restaurant in the world.
One may choose to order an Ohmi beef tataki, flamed quickly over the grill with seaweed salt and blanketed generously with shaved truffles. It is quite simple, yes, but this beef remains simply the finest Japanese wagyu dish I've tasted outside of Japan. On a fortunate summer visit, a shabu-shabu pot of heady broth will be placed under one's nose before instructions are given to swish slices of hamo, or conger eel, for eight to ten seconds until they assume the inky white of a magnolia and achieve the textural firmness that, when dipped in a cucumber ponzu, proves enlightening. No Japanese chef in the U.S. can rival the quality and impact of Masa's hamo shabu shabu. To complete the dish, ponzu is added to the broth and imbibed as a soothing prelude to the sushi course.
At this point one's itamae will begin grating fresh wasabi root, and the sushi course gets underway. On my last visit, standouts were the o-toro, always served twice; akamutusu, or fatty deep sea snapper, with a dot of summer truffle compote made from scratch; saba; unagi barbecued and wrapped in an immaculately thin sheaf of cucumber with the fruit's shavings anchoring the fish in place; and a toro sinew flamed on the grill and topped with scallions, the neta so unctuous and smoky that it is redolent of beef.
On a previous visit, Masa served me the most ethereal uni hand roll I've tasted, with lightly-toasted nori serving as a textural and temperature foil to the cool Montecito sea urchin roe. This uni inundates one's tongue with a bracing sweetness that recedes with a final, ephemeral kiss of the briny tide, a fleeting and sensual flirtation with the ocean. A nigiri-proportioned ball of rice is rolled in truffle shavings, whose aromas radiate outward from the warm core, and the sphere is touched with truffle compote to endow moisture on the palate.
On this visit the taste of Masa's aji was miles deeper than even Uezu-san's at the famed Kuruma Zushi, which serves some of the best fish in Manhattan. Aji normally possesses a less profoundly fishy flavor than, say, iwashi, a Japanese sardine, but Masa often makes one recognize the unforeseen potential in the familiar. These revelations are not simply a reflection of seafood quality but also of the time-intensive, unique preparation that each fish undergoes to coax its inherent savor to the fore.
If Masa is unrivaled in the U.S. for his combination of fish quality and variety, his rice is superlatively delicate, barely holding together, the grains smaller than Yasuda-san's and just warm enough to provide a temperature contrast to the cooled fish and to effectively massage out their oils during mastication. The rice fares favorably with the best sushi-ya in Japan. The three itamae at Masa are masters of precision. On my last trip, only the tai, ika and ume-shiso nigiri failed to astound with their calibration of rice, fish and seasoning; they were merely on par with other sushi-ya which occupy the highest echelon.
To accompany the opening dishes, Masa offers a well-conceived, if highly marked-up, saké list with some craft offerings. My personal preference on this list would be the Suehiro Ken, a dry Daiginjo which finishes sharply and possesses a seductively fruity bouquet that, when held up amidst the aromas of grated sudachi rind and yuzu juice wafting above the sanded cypress, is sure to send one swooning. I have occasionally brought along vintage Champagne of a certain age, from André Beaufort for example, which pairs especially well with the sushi, as the integrated acid produces slightly off-dry notes which complement rice and fish superbly. I suspect an aged blanc de blancs would pair equally well.
Desserts are refreshingly light and fittingly uplifting after a feast of protein. Standouts include the Japanese pear and a grapefruit granité which is lightly bitter with cleansing brandy notes. I have always left Masa just sated, a testimony to the balance and pacing of the meal. Sipping soba-cha, one will be able to contemplate the pleasures of the preceding two hours comfortably.
Possessing incredible supply sources for fish, time-honed techniques spanning a range of Japanese repertoires, and access to a storehouse of luxury ingredients, Masa oversees more than simply the best Japanese restaurant in the country; his would make a clear run for best dining experience overall, along with the once visionary institution Chez Panisse, which likewise manifests an uncanny talent for calibrating impeccable ingredients to make them astonish, even if its philosophy runs directly counter to sourcing raw materials from across the globe as Masa may for his hedonist, Manhattan clientele. Masa's extravagance in sourcing probably exceeds that of Joël Robuchon in Las Vegas, which actually embraces domestic ingredients, and Takayama-san's kaiseki-inspired dishes find comparable stateside rivals only at Urasawa and Manresa, where chef David Kinch continues to evolve with extraordinary Japanese-inflected dishes. If Takayama-san, who arguably serves the best food in the country, were to abandon the rote delivery that his current restaurant's notoriety would appear to demand, there's simply no telling the creative potential he could realize.
Admittedly then, Takayama-san's latest restaurant appears to be a mixed blessing. Having been awarded 3 Michelin stars and marshaling extravagant raw materials from his privileged perch on the 4th floor of the Time Warner Center, Masa inclines toward producing exceptional dishes -- mostly perfect in execution, no doubt -- bereft of the personalization made possible by a less rigid setting, which, in its favor, does produce a uniquely meditational environment. Observing itamae Mizutani in Ginza or Urasawa on Rodeo Drive reveals the desireability of catering to enthusiast customers and demonstrates the respect that these chefs show for their clientele's idiosyncrasies. In contrast, at Takayama-san's current address, diners are served mechanically, if always gracefully, with little time allotted for asking questions or for engaging in conversation with a chef who can reveal himself to be quite charismatic. It does not seem inconceivable that Masa's razor-sharp precision and tranquil atmosphere could remain unthreatened by a spark of spontaneity.
That said, I have noted on one occasion a customer seated at the bar speaking Japanese with Masa and enjoying crab à la carte, perhaps brought over from Bar Masa next door. Certainly there exist individuals who have established deeper ties with Takayama-san, and, indeed, he goes out of his way to accommodate his faithful customers, securing reservations elsewhere and recommending restaurants for their visits to Japan, as he offered to do for me. Similarly, itamae Nick and Fuji-san reveal a warm friendliness if one approaches them in like manner. Nick has gone so far as to correspond with me, recommending his favorite restaurants in K-Town, Los Angeles.
If Masa is now the best Japanese restaurant in the States, it makes one dizzy contemplating the heights Takayama-san must have attained at Ginza Sushi-ko in Beverly Hills not so long ago.