Review – Masa New York

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Introduction

My brother in law has an obsession/goal of eating at all of the Michelin 3 starred restaurants in New York.  On my last trip here a few years ago, we went to Jean George, Brooklyn Fare, and Eleven Madison Park.  For this week, we have Masa, Per Se, and Le Bernadin lined up.  He had booked us an RSVP at Masa about a month ago.  I actually didn’t even know it was a sushi meal until a week beforehand.  I also didn’t realize THIS until on the Uber ride there.  Whatever.  YOLO right?

 

Experience

Unfortunately the only picture I have is the one above because phones and cameras are not permitted in the restaurant (well until the end where Masa lets you take a picture with him, just like Jiro does.)  When you book a table here, they ask if you want to sit at the chef’s counter or a table.  PICK THE CHEF’S COUNTER!  If you don’t, you may as well not go.  That’s the whole experience of an omakase dinner – to watch the chefs make your meal.

The chef’s counter has about 9 chairs.  We were seated on the far left 3.  A couple who just got engaged sat next to us.  The key here is that there are about 3 “stations” and Chef Masa is at the middle station.  If you’re seated in the 3-4 chairs in front of him, he’ll prepare your sushi.  If you were like us, we had an apprentice preparing our sushi.  Here’s the thing – if I’m paying $600 for my meal, I want Chef Masa to cut my fish and prepare it.  Sure, the food will taste the same with the apprentice since it’s the same piece of fish, but for that price, I want him to prepare my meal!

Also, the dress code is smart casual, so they were okay with my jeans and a sweater.  The entire meal also takes about 1:30 hours.

 

Courses

My memory is horrible, so I’ll try to remember some of them.  The waiter told us there would be around 26 “courses,” but I felt it was closer to 20 then 26.  Here we go:

  • Toro tartar with caviar
  • Crab with umi and cucumber ‘salad’
  • Baked umi (surprisingly the couple next to us didn’t get this dish; can’t be that they hate umi since they got an umi roll later)
  • Basked king crab in its leg (delicious.  The couple didn’t get this either)
  • Matsutake mushroom soup
  • Fatty tuna nigiri
  • I want to say there were 3 other pieces of fish nigiri that I’ve forgotten
  • Abalone nigiri
  • Squid nigiri
  • Scallop nigiri
  • Shrimp nigiri
  • Unagi (eel) nigiri
  • Seered fish nigiri (a helper brings by a hot stick and sears the fish in front of you)
  • Matsutake nigiri
  • White truffle nigiri (yes, they shave a bunch of white truffle, ball it around a small piece of rice and there you go)
  • Umi hand roll
  • Fatty tuna tartar hand roll
  • Dessert was a persimmon slice and some hot tea

 

Conclusion

Let’s talk about the apprentice real fast.  At Michelin 3 star restaurants, consistency is KING.  Every thing has to be top notch.  I thought our service was top notch from the wait staff in refilling our waters and sake glass.  The apprentice though, we could see him cut some pieces of fish unevenly.  I watched Chef Masa most of the night, but I couldn’t see him cut the fish.  Also, our apprentice was also preparing nigiri for the table customers, and we could see him place a dozen pieces of sushi on the tray, and then he would take his soy sauce brush and brush 6 pieces of sushi before re-dipping the brush into the soy sauce for the next 6 pieces. That means the first and 7th piece has more soy sauce than the 6th and 12th.  That’s not consistency!

Another minor thing – Chef Masa would wipe down the sushi trays for his customers when it got a bit dirty.  Our apprentice never did that.  At Jiro’s, his son wiped down the tray almost every time he put down a new piece of sushi.  Clearly there is a consistency issue at Masa.  I think this can easily be solved by having Chef Masa preparing the sushi for all 9 counter guests and having the apprentices preparing the table guests.  At the end of the meal,  Chef Masa was just standing around and wiping down his station needlessly.

Here’s the thing.  I’m not a sushi person at all.  Jiro’s was my first true omakase sushi experience.  I vaguely remember 2 other experiences that aren’t as good.  Once you’ve been to Jiro’s, the bar has been set pretty high (whether it’s truly the best or you got the placebo effect into thinking it’s the best due to his popularity) that you’ll always compare all sushi experiences to the master himself.  The thing about Jiro’s is that you are there primarily to eat sushi.  There’s no gimmicks like truffle and caviar.  You know the man woke up, went down to the fish market, and hand selected arguable THE BEST cuts of fish for the day.  So if you are looking for purely sushi, then you’ll want to go to Jiro’s.  If you want more diversity in your omakase, then Masa may suit you better.  Remember though, Jiro’s was about $300 all in while Masa was about $600 all in.  To be honest, I could have done without the truffle and caviar if that would have saved me $200.

At least I earned 3X UR on this bill.  Oooph!  Looking back, I would NOT have dined here.  Paying $600 so I could randomly say “yes” to someone asking, “Has anyone been to Masa” is totally not worth it.  Paying $300 for Jiro’s, YUP!  Even as I type this, I can appreciate my experience at Jiro’s more and would probably dine at his restaurant again when I make it back to Tokyo.

Lastly, at the end of my meal, I asked the apprentice what he thought of Jiro.  He couldn’t speak English very well, but he sounded like he had great respect for him.  He also mentioned that his sushi has more of a vinegar salty taste, and that it’s just personal preference on how you like your sushi.  I wasn’t able to ask Chef Masa that question… not that they would throw Jiro under a bus or anything… sorta like how chefs hate Gordon Ramsey.

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  • Bill Rubin

    I also would be hesitant to try Masa…but more interested in Jiro. That being said, appreciation for omakase is in the stomach and tongue of the beholder! We had a ridiculously pricey meal at Urasawa in Los Angeles a few years ago for my bday (previously rated 2* when Michelin ranked LA), in the neighborhood of $1600 for the 2 of us (we did buy 2 very pricey bottles of sake, though). No photos allowed, as well. Took almost 4 hours! While I enjoyed it, I did not feel it was worth it, despite the crazy amount of food we had. Not all offerings were to my liking, and that’s always a risk for any pre-fixe or chef’s tasting, regardless of cuisine. But with omakase,there is a higher chance for distaste, IMO. Still, you never know until you try.

    • Miles per Day

      Oh, I’ve been to Urasawa in LA too. A buddy of mine treated us for our buddy’s birthday a few years ago. I didn’t see the bill, but pretty sure it was $$$. I don’t remember much of that dinner except we brought in some $20 bottles of riesling and the corkage fee was much higher than that. Hahaha.

  • Mark Ostermann

    Imagine if they still wanted a tip on top of that….I guess you could have just left a $500 VGC for them haha

  • I’m undecided on Masa.. I’ve eaten at their neighbor Per Se, and I have a reservation at Robuchon next month. The issue I have with Masa prices is that the style of the meal lends the value towards the ingredient, whereas other restaurants have more of a mix of good ingredients plus good skill.

    I do understand that good Sushi doesn’t actually need to be extremely fresh, but also, I can’t help but think that there are many Sushi places that have a similar or better quality of ingredient without the price.

    There’s a place I visit in Japan that is in a small town called Nerima, that restaurant owner has a relationship with Tsukiji going back about 35-40 years, so even though his restaurant is unknown, he gets access to fish before many others, including the big names. Japan is more about relationships than pure pricing. I can’t see that the quality of his ingredients is that much worse than Masa, but maybe I’m wrong.

    Speaking of relationships.. that place I go to has no prices.. he charges you whatever he likes, and it seems to get cheaper when you visit more, but we are talking more like $100 pp or less for Omakase with drinks.

    • Bill Rubin

      Wow, Sounds amazing. If you care to share the name of your secret sushi place, I’d be VERY interested. My email is tarheelbill92@yahoo.com if you can. Thanks!!!

    • Miles per Day

      Matt, I think once you factor in the $600 price tag for Masa, it falls into the “not worth it” bucket. Besides the truffle ball, if you were blindfolded, wouldn’t you think you could have gotten that same piece of sushi at other high end restaurants that are less than half the price?

  • J. Greisman

    That’s pretty crazy Vinh…a lot of $$ for one meal. *gulp*