A friend took me to Masa's a few nights ago (I had my pick of S.F. restaurants) and I'll report on what we had (she also had the veggie menu) and how it was, but I can unequivocally say that for the price of the food, I would not go back. Very little was truly outstanding and some of the dishes were fairly standard and somewhat uninspired. We began with two successive amuse bouches -- an espresso cup of chilled asparagus soup and a micro-mini salad of shaved hearts of palm with minced apple and micro greens, with a few lone drops of 100 year-old balsamic. The soup had a nice, strong, clean flavor of asapragus, but was too similar to our first course of chilled pea soup -- also cold, green, and strong in flavor. The teeny salad was adorable and not particularly palate stimulating.
The pea soup with lemon creme fraishe was our favorite savory dish. We liked it for its clean, yet light pea flavor, for the yummy lemony-ness of the creme fraiche, and for the general inventiveness of the dish. My only complaint is that after two cold amuse bouches and the cold salad that followed, it might have been nice to have had a hot soup. Following the soup was cold asparagus, with shaved hard cheese, morel mushrooms and balsamic vinaigrette. The vinaigrette was lovely, the salad otherwise very ordinary, and the flavors thus far in the meal far too similar to one another.
Next was a small pile of pesto-ized looking linguine, topped with a scoop of ratatouille in a sauce. This was the least exciting dish -- very standard pasta with this dollop of the ratatouille you'd get in a cafeteria. Finally, the warmest (temperature-wise) dish -- a white corn risotto in a corn sauce, served warm, but not hot. Think of the loveliest risotto you've had in a nice little trattoria or neighborhood Italian restaurant. This was not that. It was fine. If I had this risotto at my neighborhood place, I would be pleased but not exuberant. There was a clear, sweet corn flavor and the well-cooked, slightly gooety risotto. The sauce was delicious though, with an even sweeter flavor of corn, and I lapped it up with the amazing sourdough rolls that the staff serve individually (that, actually was the hottest food there).
A roll is chosen from a basket of hot rolls and (two types of sourdough, an olive and a currant) and are presented with a bit of sweet butter. The basket comes by often (as if it were a dim sum cart)and, given that the bread may have been the most delicious thing we were eating, we both had to fight not fill up on it.
We had each asked for a wine-by-the-glass recommendation from our server -- hers white, mine red. We told him what we like in a wine, and received his recommendation (and I cannot remember the wine -- but the wines-by-the-glass range in price from $12 - $30 a glass -- seem to average around $15 or $20). My wine was a little bullish-- it seemed to lack subtlety, and it had a faint sour quality.
We were then served two similar sweets (also quite cold!). One was a little dollop of apricot sorbet in a wee bit of passion fruit sauce or "soup". The passion fruit soup was very nice, a sweet puree of passion fruit. The sorbet was bland and ordinary -- not the amazing sorbets that you sometimes find with a strong, urgent flavor of the fruit they're made of. After that was a plum filled with strawberry? ice cream. This was excellent, and our other favorite thing on the tasting menu. There was an origniality to it, which many of the other dishes lacked. The plum was infused with the sauce it was in, which transormed it into a sweeter fruit. And, stuffed as it was with ice cream, the plum itself was chilled. Taking a bite of it was like eating plum that has transformed itself into plum ice cream, without the cream. Delicate and interesting alchemy.
Even with the two dishes we enjoyed,we enjoyed them for their unusual qualities and not because they were outragously delicious. If someone said to me 'I will bring you any dishes you'd like from Masa's tonight, for free,' I might just ask them to pick me up some of that yummy bread and leave it at that. So I guess even for a much lower price (free!) the food just didn't do it for me. We also were underwhelmed by the decor. For such a long sitting, the tables are too close together, making quiet, intimate conversation impossible. The bathrooms are through a side door, into the adjoining hotel, up some stairs, down a hallway. And the valet is $15 ($20 with tip), which felt a bit excessive. I know Masa's is beloved, and even on this site with discriminating chowers who don't assume it's good if it's pricey, it's well liked. Nevertheless, I couldn't recommend it and would not choose it again.