Masa (NYC) – My Best Sushi Meal

How much would you pay for perfection?

Conventional wisdom (mine included), among those who have eaten at both restaurants, says Urasawa (LA) is a better experience than Masa at one-half the price. It was a case of the student, Urasawa, surpassing the teacher, Masa. The Masa experience has been derided for its exorbitant price and short duration. If you factor these two variables out, and just focus on the food, I had the best sushi meal of my life at Masa this past February.

I say that begrudgingly because eating at Masa, contrary to its Zen-like atmosphere, is not enjoyable. Before being asked for a drink, the waiter asked me if I’d like to “upgrade” to the kobe beef menu with its $100 surcharge (he might have learned this trick from his buddy Thomas Keller.) This is on top of a $400+/person menu. It’s impossible not to think about the price as you eat each piece of sushi. When the first dish arrived, they scolded me for taking a picture – “no pictures.” My sushi chef, the most junior of the three, did not say a word to me all night – an automaton cutting fish and rolling rice. And, just as you’re getting started, the whole thing is over; for me, during the later seating, it was 1 hour and 45 minutes, and that was stretching dessert out for 1/2 hour.

But this was the best sushi meal I’ve ever eaten, top to bottom, item for item. Every piece of fish, save the toro, was remarkably fresh and full of flavor. The timing of the meal was certainly a crucial factor – sweet and oily – trademarks of the winter sea. My automaton may not have talked but he was programmed to dole out perfect rice. I don’t remember the rice being better than Sushi Yasuda on my last trip but this was the best rice I’ve ever had.

The highlights were a deep sea snapper that had a beautiful consistency, its texture redolent of the most perfectly steamed black cod – despite being raw. The saba mackerel was pure heaven. The uni risotto w/ black truffle divine, the black truffles better than a majority of the ones I ate last year during the Truffle Trip. A pickled lotus wrapped around a shiso leaf with a sour plum dot was the perfect palette cleanser (is any chef listening? This was perfect!)

Their grill guy might give Etxebarri a run for their money – he deserves an immediate pay raise. The grilling was remarkably done – never overpowering, almost always just right (although the grilled white fish was not charred enough.) Very close attention to detail – it appears that’s all he does standing there in the back.

The only disappointing items were the fried fugu and toro. The fried fugu came nowhere near the magical wonders of that perfectly fried mystery leaf two years ago. The fugu was juicy and tender but the batter was greasy. The toro was very fatty but it lacked much taste. The most senior chef said they were getting it from Boston right now, directly from the fishermen, but I’ve definitely had better from the same waters.

Irregardless, a truly outstanding meal. The complete menu:
- japanese peeky toe crab w/ seaweed & yuzu
- toro tartar w/ caviar
- fugu w/ its own liver w/ yuzu
- fried fugu
- uni risotto w/ black truffle
- wild hamachi shabu shabu
- shabu shabu soup

and then the sushi parade:
- toro x2
- shimaji
- japanese fluke
- deep sea snapper
- sweet shrimp
- grilled white fish w/ black truffle + sea salt
- grilled scallop
- grilled toro
- clam of some sort
- saba mackerel
- grilled shitake
- octopus w/ (potent) black truffle dollop
- hokkaido uni
- squid w/ sea salt
- black truffle ball sushi w/ black truffle dollop – too dry
- sea eel
- grilled unagi
- toro roll
- pickled lotus wrapped over a shiso leaf topped w/ sour plum – *outstanding* finish

And a lone slice of very ripe Japanese melon for dessert. My American palette would have preferred an ice cream – oh well.

I would highly recommend Masa if you are ready “for the next step.” However, I will put disclaimers in that recommendaiton – you must understand what you are getting yourself into. I ate this meal in February when the fish quality is very high (winter = colder waters = fatty and oily.) This was only my second meal at Masa and it could have been an anomaly – my first meal was about 90% of this one. The rice plays equal partner to the fish. It is insanely expensive (even for this blog) – you can not get out for less than $600/person after tax and tip. And, finally, don’t expect a four hour meal – expect two, anything more putting you in the bonus round.

Would I rather eat at Urasawa? Yes. Will I find myself eating at Masa again? Absolutely.

- chuck

Other reviews, both very positive, include Gotham Girl and A Life Worth Eating.

  • sygyzy

    Excellent review as always. I don’t always need to go for the very best … bang for your buck or best value works usually. In this case I am definitely going to leave Urasawa on my todo list and move Masa down a few notches.

  • Paul

    $600= ouch i certaInly would have to think twice before i payed that amount of money to eat there, as for the no picture policy that seems very petty if you ask me IMO

  • mark

    I was also there in late Feb, and had the exact same menu, except for a lone strawberry for dessert. But I have to say that I am sorry that you didnt have Masa doing the sushi. For me that was a integral part of the meal. As we ate on the early side, it was two of us and Masa. He was actually fairly talkative and added a touch of caring and warmth to the zen-like atmosphere. The food was outstanding, however outrageously expensive. (1500 for 2) We opted for the kobe, which was delicious and much better than anything I have seen in NYC. The Toro was a bit bland for us as well, but with the caviar…. not too bad. The grilled membrane (not sure what they call it) however, was a highlight…. unreal and I am looking forward to taste Extebarri this summer to compare grill masters.
    Again as always great review.

  • ChuckEats

    sygyzy – definitely try Urasawa first.

    paul – i agree on both accounts.

    mark – thanks for your report and highlighting what i think is an important distinction that i failed to mention – Ursawa is always behind the counter, checking every ingredient; Masa sometimes. Masa was not at the restaurant when i ate. one could argue if that’s necessary given the extraordinary meal i had. when i book next, i will ask to be seated in front of Masa.

  • Val

    Strawberry! lol

  • mark

    Im shocked that he wasnt in the restaurant. I know they have always made a big deal that he is “ALWAYS” there and if he is not they will cancel all reservations. Would be a shame if he is changing his position on this.

  • ChuckEats

    someone asked and i overheard “he’s next door at bar masa.” maybe, maybe not, but he wasn’t in masa proper during the late seating that evening.

  • Luxeat

    Great review ,Chuck. Will definitely go there next time i am NY.