Unagi in cucumber sheaths

[Ramsay de Give for The New York Times]

When I opened the NYT this morning, I turned straight to Ben Brantley’s review of Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark. Had Bono and the Edge salvaged the show since Julie Taymor’s dismissal or was it still a hopeless mess?

You can read Ben’s thoughts yourself and find out. Turning to the weekly dining section, I found myself captivated by a different review, that of famed New York Sushi restaurant Masa by Sam Sifton. Sifton is a fine writer. Even though I’m never going to eat at Masa, when his subject is one of New York’s great restaurants, I pay attention.

Frank Bruni, Sifton’s predecessor, had given Masa the highest and rarest of ratings — four stars — a year after its 2004 opening. Over the course of the past year, Sifton visited and re-visited Masa before deciding to award it three stars. Sifton loves the food, writing of spending his time there “in a fog of pleasure, sitting dumbfounded on the shores of excess.” However, he finds the service wanting.

But extraordinary food alone does not an extraordinary restaurant make. The experience of eating at Masa can clash, sometimes greatly, with the grace, simplicity and excellence of the cuisine on display.

One night I entered the 26-seat restaurant five minutes before my reservation time, arriving before my three guests. The room was empty, save for servers and one occupied table in the dining room. The woman at the restaurant’s front checked my (fake) name off a short list of reservations on a piece of paper on a block of wood in front of her. She took my briefcase and placed it in a closet.

Then: “You may wait outside,” she said. “When you return with your guests, please have your cellphone turned off or on silent.”


There are other wrinkles in Masa’s fine silk. At the sushi bar it is not uncommon for the prepared dishes served at the start of a meal, which are brought to the bar by servers, to be placed before customers with no explanation whatsoever. In the dining room it is possible for the same lapse to occur with the arrival of the sushi. It is unsettling, given the luxury of the food, and the question of its cost.

Some will take issue with the fact that Masa serves an enormous amount of bluefin tuna, a fish that some say hovers on the brink of collapse as a species. (The reason is presumably simple: its taste.) Others will cavil at the manner in which Mr. Takayama caters to some guests in the restaurant while ignoring others, in seemingly direct proportion to the amount of money they are spending.


Finally, meals at the restaurant end with a clank: you are given a dessert and it throws a switch. Everyone turns away and you will have little contact with the staff until you find someone to give you the bill. Guests stare at one another awkwardly: What do we do now?

Read the full review. And check out the accompanying slide show.

Categories: Journalism, Restaurants
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