Writing about eating a whole day's worth of meals for $40 made me think about the other end of the spectrum. The big splurge.
It's time I write about my dinner (really a midnight snack) at Bar Masa, where my wife and I spent well over $40 on one dish, a platter of sashimi. But I'm getting ahead of myself here and will get down to the blow-by-blows later. First, let me tell you how I ended up here.
As you probably know, I had just gotten back from my month in Spain when I landed in New York to meet up with N. While I was picking up tips on how to perfect my paella and tortilla, my wife had spent the summer wrapping her mind around finance and philosophy in grad school.
The night after I returned, we had planned to meet up with one of her classmates at Tavern on the Green. Quelle horreur! Not that tourist trap (just look at their website)! Do I bring friends who visit us in San Francisco to Pier 39? But, alas, you cannot deny a pregnant woman's wish, especially when she, like N, had just survived six weeks of grad school. So off to Tavern on the Green we went.
If the lights of the Tavern weren't as bright as three suns, you'd probably smell it before you saw it. It reeks of horse shit from the dozen hansom cabs perpetually parked outside the legendary restaurant. The lights I had expected, but the smell was an unwelcome surprise.
We hurriedly entered the building to get away from the stench and were transported to the 1970's television of my youth, like walking onto the set of the Love Boat and Love American Style. Waiters in powder blue tuxedos with over-sized ties, women with big hair, tropical drinks with little umbrellas, plastic ferns, disco music. We quickly fumbled our way through the carnival fun house maze of lights and mirrors searching for our friends to no avail.
We briefly stepped outside to get our bearings and were quickly reminded of why we had run inside in the first place. With a choice between horse shit and disco balls, we made a second trip through the labyrinth, this time admiring the kitsch value of the place. Seen through a mai-tai or two, we might be able to warm up to the place, in an ironic sort of way.
However, after learning from a cell phone call that our friends wouldn't be able to join us, we happily bolted.
By Spanish standards, it was still early, barely eleven. That's when we decided to scurry over to the world's most expensive food court, the Time Warner Center in Columbus Circle.
The Time Warner building is of course home to some of America's greatest chefs and their restaurants: Thomas Keller's Per Se, Gray Kunz's Café Gray, Jean-Georges Vongerichten's V Steakhouse and, eventually, Charlie Trotter. Amongst all these überchefs, Masa Takayama has managed to steal the show with his Masa, where for $300 and up ten lucky diners get to eat omakase-style what is purportedly the best Japanese food in America. I'll never know.
Giddy with anticipation, we ascended the escalator past eerily familiar anywhere-in-America mall shops to the "Restaurant and Bar Collection," hoping to perhaps snag a table at Café Gray, the least expensive of the lot. We were disappointed to discover that you cannot peer into any of these exclusive eateries. We had to console ourselves with reading the drool-inducing menus, as we grew increasingly peckish. I suppose I wouldn't want any gastro-tourists gawking at me while I swoon over Thomas Keller's masterpieces, either.
Then a sign caught our attention. How had I managed to miss that a cheaper, or rather more affordable, version of Masa exists called Bar Masa (see I told you I'd eventually get to back here)? Here it was before our eyes and it was still open.
We walked into the deceptively plain-looking, in a minimalist Zen or Shinto kinda way, space that wouldn't have looked out of place in San Francisco's Japan Center. However, on closer inspection, we realized the room was composed of the textural interplay of simple, earthy materials. The walls were chiseled limestone, the floors pine, the bar one thick, long rustic slice of a (formerly) majestic hundred-plus-year-old tree.
The menu consists mostly of grander versions of small dishes and noodles that would be familiar to any veteran of Japanese dining, such as edamame, tempura, miso eggplant, chicken yakitori, soba and udon noodle soups, pan-fried yakisoba and of course sushi and sashimi. Some of the more enticing and unusual offerings include squid jerky, lobster tempura and uni risotto (which I've since heard is divine).
What caught our eyes, though, especially since it was a sticky hot late summer day, was the selection of ice cold sushi canapés ($28) and the seasonal sashimi tasting ($68). Both were simply and beautifully presented (so sorry I decided against taking photos, but sometimes you just want to savor the occasion...besides, N wasn't yet used to the odd sight of me whipping out my camera at every meal...you have to kind of pity those who accompany the food blogger).
The sushi canapés arrived first, a platter of eight tiny sushi rolls, two each of tuna tartare and caviar, salmon tartare and chives, scallop and shrimp, and amber jack (kanpachi) and truffle, which was my favorite.
But it was the sashimi which rocked my world. The platter consisted of three pieces each of eight types of fish/seafood: salmon (sake), sea bream (tai), fluke (hirame), squid (ika), horse mackerel (aji), snapper (kinme), giant clam (mirugai clam), and fatty tuna (toro). All of them lived up to Masa's reputation for procuring the most pristine ingredients available, apparently flown in daily from Japan. Each bite redefined my conception of freshness.
We saved the toro for last, knowing it would be truly special. We, or rather I was not disappointed. It's difficult to describe the experience without resorting to vocabulary more suitable to a Harlequin romance novel's description of the heiress's tryst with her gardener. Suffice it to say, the texture of the toro was a cross between the best chocolate pot de crème and the best foie gras terrine you've ever tasted.
I also discovered something fabulous about my relationship with N. It turns out toro is not her favorite thing in the world. After the initial shock of this revelation ("what kind of person does not like this heaven-sent substance?"), it dawned on me that I may just be the luckiest person alive. For the rest of our lives together, I get to have all the toro!