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Masa's report (long)

Jeff | Apr 10, 200512:40 AM

To borrow a phrase from the radio, long time lurker, first time reporter. Thanks to all who have come before me (and a special thanks to Alice, who suggested focusing on one aspect of each dish–it made the reporting job much easier than I anticipated.) About three weeks ago, my wife and I took my parents to Masa’s to celebrate my father’s birthday. I’d never been before, so I cannot offer any comparison’s to the Ron Siegel era, although I recently attended a private dinner party at the Ritz and, between those two experiences, I’d give a slight nod to the Ritz (based on the food only, as we didn’t eat in the main dining room at the Ritz). In the final analysis, I was just slightly underwhelmed by Masa’s, but that’s probably just proof of the old adage that expectations can only lead to disappointment. That said, I would still recommend a trip to Masa’s.

We arrived just before our 8:30 reservation and were seated within minutes down a few steps just inside the entry, to the left. Although near the entrance, it never bothered me, as the only time people congregated there was on their way out while waiting for their coats. The downside of our location, from my perspective, was that I had my back to the room. Also, the door to the hotel, where the bathrooms are, was right next to our table, although it was hardly a revolving door. On the upside, it was perhaps the most private table in the room, which was nice because it was a bit louder than I anticipated it would be. (There were a couple of large parties near us.) The room, with it’s high ceilings and fairly well-spaced tables, had a tranquil effect, with large red lampshades hanging from the ceiling; they sort of resembled mushroom caps. As I recall, there were mirrors on the back wall, helping to enhance the space. The seats were comfortable enough to accommodate my posterior for three and half hours sans complaint; the only improvement would have been the banquette shared by my wife and my mother.

After being seated, the sommelier took the bottle of Heitz Martha’s Vineyard that I’d brought (more about that later) and we were offered a choice of waters. Tiny, non-remarkable gougere followed a few minutes later along with the empty bottle of wine, which had been decanted. We began with a bottle of Schrammsberg Rose. The menu offers a choice of four-course, two six-course tasting (one vegetarian) and nine-course chef’s tasting. I opted for the six-course tasting, while the others chose the four-course route.

The first hiccup of the evening came when miso-glazed Nantucket Bay scallop amuse bouchees arrived. I had spoken with the maitre d’ earlier in the week and had advised him that my wife had a shellfish allergy. Her dish was replaced within a minute or two with a truffled potato salad. The scallop was sweet, but just slightly overcooked. The potato salad was reportedly very good.

My first course was a Sashimi of Yellow Fin Tuna and Hamachi, with edamame, shaved hearts of palm, daikon radish sprouts and wasabi vinaigrette. The fish was fresh and silky-smooth, but seemed lacking in flavor. This was my least favorite course. “To keep the others at the table busy,” the restaurant presented them each with a small mushroom custard while I had my sashimi. That dish was fabulous, with an almost-smokey essence of mushroom. I preferred this.

My next course was Chilled Maine crab, with English peas, red radish, pea shoots and mint oil. The peas were pureed and streaked across the plate–somewhat disconcertingly, it appeared that a finger was dragged through the streak (sort of like smoothing out caulk with your finger). The crab was moist and flaky; the puree was amazingly fresh-tasting. I managed to snare a bite of hot foie gras with an orange marmalade and, I believe, some fennel. This was a wonderful dish; in fact, it was the one choice that had almost made me choose the four-course selection.

Third course was Paine Farm Squab with spring onion fondue, citrus braised nettles, confit leg and sauce pamplemousse. This was my favorite dish, especially the fondue, which like the pea puree, was streaked across the plate. The essence of onion really shone through. The squab, a couple of small pieces of breast and a tiny leg with perfectly-browned skin, rested atop the nettles. The meat was moist and tender. The nettles, which I’ve never had before, were quite tasty, but hidden for good reason, given their blackish color.

Next up was Prime Beef Ribeye with roasted mushrooms, spring asparagus, green garlic and a Bordelaise sauce. The meat, a couple of slices about an inch and half by three inches, was perfectly cooked, medium rare–there was no variance in the color whatsoever. I imagine it was finished in the oven to achieve this. The asparagus was wonderfully fresh.

Intermezzo before dessert was a Moro Blood Orange sorbet with a ruby port gelee, which the others also received so I wasn’t alone. The sorbet was smooth and not overly sweet; all I remember about the gelee was thinking it tasted like good Jell-O.

Finally, dessert. And I do mean finally. This was the other hiccup of the night–there was an inordinately long wait for dessert after the sorbet. At least 15 to 20 minutes, which seemed odd because it was after 11:00 p.m. by then. It was as if there was a shift change and they forgot about us. Once it arrived, though, dessert delivered beyond my expectations, although I honestly didn’t know quite what to expect. Caramel and Popcorn Sherbets with a milk chocolate “cannoli” and salted peanut foam. Like the sorbet–and almost everything else I had–the sherbet was very smooth. The popcorn was amazing. Never in my wildest imagination would I think of making something like this. It was as though the pastry chef had captured the essence of popcorn. The cannoli, meanwhile, was a striped affair, filled with peanut foam. Again, the essence of peanuts. The flavors were so pure and so unexpected in a dessert.

With coffee, there was a selection of chocolates and candies from the cart. Three weeks later, nothing stands out, except the texture of one of the gels–yes, that’s right, smooth.

Smooth. That seemed to be the theme of the night. It was as if everything was pushed through a chinois before leaving the kitchen. Other than the bread, the skin on the squab and the cannoli, there was not a whole lot of contrast in textures. I’m not sure if this is good or bad, and maybe I noticed it more than I otherwise would have had I not been really paying attention to what I ate, in part in anticipation of writing this report. But something crunchy here and there would have been welcome. I kept finding myself dwelling on it. That and the mushrooms, which appeared frequently.

Other than the amuse bouchee hiccup (honestly, if they’d brought out a non-shellfish item for my wife the first time, I would have been impressed that they’d achieved that level of coordination; the fact that my earlier request was overlooked was not a big deal); the wait for dessert; and the appearance of another bottle of after we declined the offer of it, the service was very nice. Each course was described and questions were answered confidently and professionally. The maitre d’ stopped by a few times throughout the night and was very amiable. The staff never seemed overbearing or stuffy. When the bottle of wine I had brought turned out to be undrinkable, the sommelier discreetly removed it and replaced all of the glasses, reappearing a few minutes later with the decanted bottle of Cabernet my father had brought and new glasses. We were charged only one corkage fee. And, as requested, they saved my empty bottle for me at the host stand; it was from the year I was born and had been a birthday present some years back from my parents. To all those out there who are saving a bottle for a special occasion: always have a back-up plan.

So, what’s the final score? Having now had three weeks to reflect on the evening, I’d go back. The service issues I trust were isolated incidents. The room is nice, albeit not cutting-edge (but then neither was Jack’s and you still went back) and there was a good energy about the place. While I longed for some textures that would have made better use of my teeth, the quality of the food and the preparation was excellent–especially the ability to capture the essence and freshness of the ingredients--and everything worked very well together.

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