November 3, 2014 | BITE: My Journal
A Feather in His Kappo for Masa
Masa’s best pitch is creamy toro with caviar to spread on ethereal toast and knock your socks off.
Masa’s best pitch is creamy toro with caviar to spread on ethereal toast and knock your socks off.

          Perhaps it was rude to invade Kappo Masa below the Gagosian Gallery on its fifth evening. But my Upper East Side pals were buzzing and jockeying to be first for a caviar’d toro canapé. I liked the near-cultural adventure of walking into the Gagosian lobby, catching a quick glance of drawings and prints I wouldn’t likely see passing by, since Upper Madison is not my usual passing-by turf. 

Masa favors flowering branches in tall vases, here scattered around the room.

          I assumed the man standing by was security; the woman, a welcome. “I have a reservation,” I said. She opened the door to the stairs. And yes, there was an elevator.

          “You are the first to arrive,” I was told at the subterranean check-in-stand slightly behind the striking tall vase of blossoming branches Masa favors. “We don’t seat anyone until the entire party has arrived. Do you mind taking a seat at the bar?” This is my least favorite greeting. High hopes quickly erode.

Welcome to Gagosian Gallery and Book Store. Dinner awaits below.

          "I mind a great deal,” I responded, trying to mimic her hoity tone, “but I’ll go sit at the bar.” I sat there sipping my water, noticing a floorwalker or two churning behind the bar, eyeing me and whispering. Minutes later, a woman who’d watched my dismissal at the podium approached. “I can seat you at your table now, Ms. Greene,” she said. 

          “It’s too late to seat me now. I’m fine here. I’ll wait for my friends to arrive.”

First time out, we’re seated facing the sushi chef action on one side of the room.

          Okay. It was a stumbling start. But finally, seated with two tasting cronies in a buttery mango-leather banquette facing the sushi counter, I took a bracing sip of my smartly boozy Yamazaki Lemonade,   never mind that it cost $22 on a list up to $28 -- I’d signed on for a major investment.  I let myself be beguiled by handsome embossed leather tomes -- powder blue for the drink list, yellow for the menu. I glanced at the lineup. So many choices. The listing went on and on, daunting even for marathon eaters like us.

Uni and sweet raw shrimp seviche are “cooked” in yuzu and lime.

          In Japan, I learned, where restaurants can be highly specialized, “kappo” is a kitchen for grilling, braising, stewing, steaming and frying. That’s what’s going on in the main kitchen here. Traditionally, you do not find sushi at a kappo. But Masa is known for his sushi. That’s why there is a duo of black-garbed sushi ninjas in an extension off the main kitchen.

The shrimp kakiage is exquisitely cooked and classically bland.

          “What would you recommend?” my friend Harriette asks our waitress. And with that, our server, Ariel, launched into a jetée of enthusiasm and erudition. She pirouetted through the dizzying options like a winged creature from “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” (It seems she had studied dance for years and then switched to the violin. We asked.)

          We took some of her suggestions and pounced on a few of our own. Hours later, with a few dragged out intervals of waiting, a couple of thrills and some ho-hums, we signed off at $188 each, including the tip. Disappointed, yes. But most of all, we were shocked that Masa Takayama himself has been nowhere to be seen.

These little “canapé” doodads are cute but not very fresh tasting. The rice is lacking too. 

          “Sorry to hear you were not happy,” said an email from Masa after my tweets the next day. “Come back when I am there.”  I had no intention of waiting for his belated presence. That was before I discovered I could not get a table except at 6 or 9 pm. Mea culpa. I emailed the master. Two weeks later, I was back. The upstairs lobby greeter put me in the elevator, then raced downstairs to meet me at the lift and escort me to the check-in stand.

No way to get in without alerting the chef. Now he stands guard choreographing the kitchen.

          Half a minute later, Masa claimed me. Did we graze cheeks? Yes. I think we did. Don’t leave now please. I’ll give you the story straight. He led me to a table facing the kappo kitchen and we gossiped till my friend Wilford arrived. Of course the kitchen would be better after two weeks – the boss-coach-myth himself in a kappo apron, standing guard in one corner, eyeing all, striding across the room, waving his arms, stepping up to a stewing station, hands on his hips. If you’re a Masa fan or a social striver, you’re going to go anyway. Let me tell you what to order.

At one point there are more chefs in the house, twice as many servers as customers.

          At 7:45, the 82 seats (including the bar) are mostly empty. By nine, the house is packed. Wilford studies the sake list to find something less expensive than a Basquiat print. The sommelier delivers a tumbler with a measured splash. I see the house has added small tweed squares to catch the condensation from the water glass.

          I sip my $13 Shiraz -- what looks like a double pour in a gorgeous goblet. “How’s your sake?” I ask.

          “Nothing special. I think they did this $68 sake with a syringe,” Wilford grumbles.

For many sushi adepts the fattiest toro is heaven and caviar on top is a pat on the head from St. Peter.

          A waiter drops off two small squares of paper, one in front of each of us. “What’s this?” I wonder. “A coat check?” A second waiter delivers two small wooden spoons, resting them on the paper.  Then comes a tiny round of the exquisite toasts that precede the punch guaranteed to send us reeling: The $68 toro topped with caviar. Followed by another dish of auxiliary toasts. Mere bread elevated to sainthood, these warmed rectangles would be heaven with peanut butter.

          But tonight I am surprised that I am not especially thrilled by the toro -- am I becoming jaded that this rare and costly fatty mash no longer moves me? Even the caviar is…just caviar.

Thrillingly vibrant kanpachi rolls with hot chile and crispy potato strings is a dish to swoon over. 

          But then comes a bowl with several furls of sashimi under a tangle of microgreens and fried crisps -- the kanpachi jalapeño with potato strings. I pop a furl into my mouth. And gasp. The bite of chile and the nutty crunch of potato slivers against the fish chill. It’s all deliciously shocking. We both gasp. My eyes open wide. The fish is firm, almost stiff, as if it had just emerged from the sea. I have to shake my head and think about how extraordinary it is. I have to wait a decent interval before I dare take a second little bundle. OMG. It is the same. Wilford is insisting the extra one has my name on it. I don’t even pretend to argue.

I expected surimi pasta with bottarga to taste more of the sea. My companion couldn’t be happier.

          Of course we must order a “Surimi Masa Pasta” from a category listed with his trademark. (They didn’t have any on my earlier visit. “It’s a very rigorous, physically demanding process to make it,” a manager tells me later.)  We have a choice of shiso julienne inked pasta or chile grape tomato with garlic shrimp noodles. But we settle on the chile cilantro bottarga fish version, uniquely complex in a small $28 swirl that we take turns twirling aloft with our chopsticks.

The compelling complexity of small battered shrimp has both of us sighing and moaning yet again.

          Given the choice in the “Fried” section of the menu, I might have ordered calamari with garlic thyme -- I usually do. But I let my companion choose. “Baby dancing shrimp.” A small squad of crusty creatures with deep-fried parsley and lotus blossom crisps arrive on blotting paper in a black ceramic dish with holes. What make the shrimp dance? More chile heat and a wizard’s batter. Again, both our eyes widen and we exchange unfinished words signifying bliss.

These Peking duck tacos are a guaranteed pleasure.

          Then suddenly, Wilford gasps. “I just realized these shrimp have heads,” he said. “They were so battered I didn’t notice. I can’t eat shrimp with heads.” He shook his head sadly as I slowly, thoughtfully, polished off all that remained.

          That first evening, my friends and I had savored mini tacos of Peking duck and foie gras, a luscious few bites I longed to experience again. Being just two tonight, we could each have two since there are four in a $28 delivery. Tables of four can take a measure of the need and order a second.

The spicy wings are a lesson in bar food and totally delicious.

          I definitely recommend the $18 spicy chicken wings, not just for comic relief, but because they’re delicately torrid and luscious too. Wet cloths wait for sticky fingers. The beef sukiyaki with  caramelized onion, glass noodles and foie gras in the “Braised” category was a favorite at that early dinner, but it’s very filling.  I decide Wilford and I should have uni risotto with chanterelle and white truffle. It has haunted me from my first omakase evening at Masa in the Time Warner Center when he spooned some out of a tall pot.

I can’t complain about the rich truffle presence but the $48 risotto is soft and soggy.

          Tonight the two of us reject the $68 portion for a more affordable $48 version. It proves to be a meager amount of rice pressed into a shallow indentation in a large bowl with a reasonable rubble of truffle on top. “I saw the chef de cuisine stop the waiter to check out our dish,” Wilford reports. “I guess he was approving the amount of truffle.” We wonder if Masa had meant it to be a classic risotto, if it had just gotten soft and soggy when he was briefly looking the other way. “I need another syringe of sake,” says Wilford.

The maitake mushroom is a favorite of our first tasting even though it falls apart so easily.

          I hadn’t been impressed first time around with the “sushi canapés.” though they are very cute. A grilled maitake mushroom roll with julienned truffles ($38) was that night’s triumph listed in “Seasonal Sushi Tasting.” Wilford and I agree we like the Masa Toro Toro roll better than the lush tuna with caviar that launched our evening. But in fact, we like grilled unagi with avocado even better.

          It may not seem in the telling that we ate that much.  I’ve noticed that the pauses between courses in a tasting seem to make it more filling. Or maybe we do order too much. The dessert options, recited by a waiter -- soba or black sesame ice cream, miso crème brûlée or grapefruit granité -- are not tempting.

Wilford and I actually prefer the unagi roll with avocado to the quite elegant $68 “Toro Toro.”

          Wilford offers to pay the tip to make up for his two $68 sakes. My half minus a tip is $227. In the elevator I look at the bill more carefully. I notice two glasses of sake cost just $30. “I owe you a small Picasso,” I tell Wilford.

975 Madison Avenue near the SW corner of 76th St. 212 906 7141. Monday through Saturday. Open for lunch from 1:30 to 2:30 pm, and dinner from 5:30 to 10:30 pm.

Photos may not be used without permission of Gael Greene. Copyright 2014. All rights reserved.

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