今天美國餐飲界最大的新聞應該是這個: 紐約單人消費最高昂的餐廳 MASA 被紐約時報的 Sam Sifton 拿掉一星!(4-->3)。
不曉得這與當年Ruth Reichl 把 Le Cirque 降星是否足堪比擬。當年，事件發生後傳奇的 Le Cirque 便一蹶不振，再振乏力，到今天都還沒真正重新站起來。
總之看起來 Masa 被摘星的原因並不是因為料理變差，或者因為核災造成食材不穩之類的。
美國食家們，包括Anthony Bourdain, Eric Ripert 等等內行或行內人，對 MASA 的食物一向是毫無保留地稱讚，我自己沒吃過難以評論，但從洋人口中所描述的，尤其他們歌頌不已的壽司，我覺得在東京大約中上的店就達得到，台北幾間高級壽司店也行，那不外乎是入口即化的鮪魚腹，溫熱的壽司飯，甜美鬆軟的穴子魚，還有如高級珠寶般地切工與造型等等，一萬日幣打死絕無問題，當然那價錢吃不到詹醫師筆下令人神往的魚子醬，不過洋人對此反而甚少著墨，而且坦白說若非看過詹醫師的文章，我可能永遠認定他是一間平庸、只能騙騙美國人的高貴餐廳。
有多貴? 一人450美金不含酒水小費，這個價錢，可以在隔壁的per se餵飽一點五個大人，還含服務費哩。
例如某一次他比預約的時間早五分鐘到，其他客人還沒到齊，前檯的小姐確定他的(假)名之後便收下他的皮箱鎖在櫃子裡，對他說:「你可以去外面等，客人到齊了就可以入座，還有待會兒進來時記得把手機關掉。」SS說他實在很難想像在同一棟建築(Times Warner Center)裡的其他餐廳，例如per se或者 porter house，會請先到的客人自己去外面等著，尤其那已過晚餐時間甚久，商店都打烊了(嗯，就算沒打烊還是很怪，難不成真的要去逛地下樓的 Wholfoods 開胃嗎? 不過這事我真的幹過…還去William Sonoma 欣賞Michel Bras的刀具組，他們真是有夠美的)
第三，就是主廚/老闆Masa Takayama先生對熟客或者吧台上的大戶大小眼，眼睛大小自然與客人花的錢成正比。Takayama桑可以逕自與喝著Meursault、力邀他去 Sun Valley渡假---當然是搭客人的私人飛機---的客人談笑風聲，卻將吧台上另一組客人---就是Sam Sifton自己了吧---徹底忽略，我猜這是最令這位美國紐約時報首席食評家，號稱美食界最有權力的男人，最為不滿的。
至於對菜色的解釋付之闕如這點，我也同意沒有藉口可講，好歹說一聲"Tuna"之類的吧。這在日本就算是不會講英文的老闆娘也會努力做到。但另一方面我不禁好奇 Masa 經營團隊的背景，究竟日本化的程度有多純粹，如果連金目鯛都從伊豆空運過來，那是不是連舞孃或其他外場也原裝進口呢?雖說可能性極低，畢竟這樣的餐廳所投入的資本，不會請不到同時精通英日語的外場人員，況且壽司或天麩羅料亭這樣的餐廳所需的外場服務，在我看來其實要求不高，不是非日本人不可。但另一方面我真的在一風堂的入口遇過英文很不甚靈光的吧台，或者像料理鐵人Morimoto到現在還只能說"very good"這樣。怎麼說呢，只能解釋成日本人想的跟我們不一樣吧。以我的經驗，日籍服務生因為對英文心生畏懼而表現木然甚至有時令人感到粗魯，並不算是太稀有的事。當然我還沒去過 MASA ，一切只是猜測，猜測如果他徹底日本化的時候可能會有的問題。
至於第三點，我只想說，come on~(下巴盡可能往地心延伸)，這在任何地方都是鐵律，有錢有關係的客人得到更好的照顧，這點SS身為記者，食評，而且還在紐約時報工作，應該比任何人都清楚，否則為什麼要匿名呢?不幸的是這在日本料理吧台更明顯，一來是文化---我小時候聽說傳統的壽司店是不會讓第一次來的客人坐吧台的，要老闆有一天看你順眼才行，這點我一直無從証實，有沒有專家可以幫小弟解惑一下? 二來壽司師傅不同於西廚，不能躲在廚房或說後台，話說你怎麼知道Daniel Boulud 在廚房幫你切的鵝肝沒有比 Ruth Reichl 漂亮呢? 畢竟上桌時看起來都差不多，但在吧台，就比較難掩飾了。
SS語重心長地說"…culture at its highest must never feel transactional, whatever its cost." 我只能說這種書生之見太矯情。姑且不論 MASA 的料理或者料理這件事是否 culture at its highest ，在這樣沉痛呼告之前，要不要先問為什麼米開郎基羅或達文西畫的多半是主教、大公、梅地奇's或天上聖母呢? (當然你說人家莫內也畫不用錢的蓮花，梵谷畫付不出房租還少了隻耳朵的自己，但我們當然不會說前兩者沒有後兩位high不是嗎)
June 14, 2011
By SAM SIFTON
IS it worth it?
This is the question that has attended Masa, the stupendously expensive sushi emporium in the Time Warner Center, ever since it opened in 2004. The food at the restaurant is exceptional, offering tastes and preparations that can be unforgettable.
Take one bite of expertly diced, top-grade fatty bluefin tuna tartare cloaked in an equal measure of osetra caviar and discover a central truth: Masa, owned and operated by the chef Masayoshi Takayama, is one of New York’s peak culinary indulgences.
That bite comes at some cost. Seven years ago, Masa had a base price of $300 a person, excluding tax, tip and upgrades like something to drink. Now it is $450 for the same fandango, an increase of 50 percent. A meal for two at the restaurant can easily run to $1,500 — an amount that is a little more than 35 percent of the Census Bureau’s most recent calculation of the median monthly household income in the United States.
The relationships between cost and quality, experience and service have always been sticky ones for those who spend their time and money in restaurants, particularly in New York. Here are the best dumplings you may ever eat outside of China, five for $1. Over there, a steak to blow the mind of the biggest hat in Texas: it costs $190 for two people. One expensive restaurant has ironed tablecloths and nearly obsequious service. Another has placemats and plays the music of the Doobie Brothers, and loudly, too. How do we make sense of the differences among all these? Can that sense be quantified?
I went to Masa to explore those questions, in meals eaten over the course of more than 12 months, first in the spare, quiet dining room and later at the wide and sanded expanse of its hinoki-wood sushi bar. Much of my time was spent in a fog of pleasure, sitting dumbfounded on the shores of excess.
There is no menu and no choice afforded customers beyond deciding whether you want to spend an extra $120 for a plate of thinly sliced wagyu tataki with summer truffles. (In for a penny!) You simply surrender to the restaurant’s will, which is no trial.
The quality of the ingredients and preparations were sometimes breathtaking. This was true from that toro-and-caviar dish that started my meals through the elegant kaiseki-style preparation of sea trout in a shabu-shabu broth, and from an indulgent bite of shaved summer truffles pressed onto sushi rice on through course after course of sushi to the grapefruit gratinée that signaled the end of recent meals.
The sushi particularly astonished. Takahiro Sakaeda, the chef who prepared two of my meals, paced the evenings with the studied wickedness of a great D.J. or playwright, building acts into the meal, replete with turning points, subplots and rising action. (Speaking of: on one night, Mr. Takayama did not even seem to be in the restaurant.)
Nearly all the fish Mr. Sakaeda prepared came from Japan, save some orange clam that one evening he allowed, with a small smile, to be local. There was horse mackerel and the deep-sea snapper known as kinmedai, squid and sea bream and fat red shrimp, all cut beautifully and served over ever-so-slightly warm sushi rice: a near-perfect vehicle for the fish. Mr. Sakaeda dressed these himself under a whisper of soy or a grain of Himalayan salt, depending, and passed them along like gifts.
There was soft, unctuous saltwater eel under the lightest dusting of yuzu zest, a zip that offset the marvelous oil of the fish. And there was delicate grilled tuna sinew, a vile texture transformed through fire into a silky, transcendent one, amazing to behold.
Mr. Sakaeda proved himself a brilliant guide to the gifts of the sea: a careful chef and eager teacher who rewarded interest with insight, pleasure with yet more.
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.”
Masa is on the fourth floor of the Time Warner Center, in the midst of the mall’s vaunted Restaurant Collection, an assemblage that includes Per Se and Porter House in addition to Masa and its prêt-à-porter satellite restaurant, Bar Masa. Per Se is next door. It is hard to imagine anyone there asking a diner to wait outside for his guests.
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.
(“Come stay with us in Sun Valley,” a burgher said to Mr. Takayama one night, handing him a glass of Montrachet. “I’ll fly you in.” Mr. Takayama raised the wine and laughed.)
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?
At the end of its first year in business, Frank Bruni awarded Masa four stars in these pages, the newspaper’s highest rating. Masa was the first Japanese restaurant to achieve four stars since Hatsuhana was reviewed by Mimi Sheraton in 1983. (Ms. Sheraton praised that restaurant’s tempura and its inside-out rolls, while noting that the prices were lower than at other sushi restaurants in the city: “$100 for two, with tax, tip and three Scotches each.”)
Masa, Mr. Bruni noted, “is very much a restaurant of this time and place.”
That is perhaps no longer the case. Bruised by recession, wizened by experience, gun-shy about the future, New York City now demands of its four-star restaurants an understanding that culture at its highest must never feel transactional, whatever its cost. We ascend to these heavens for total respite from the world below, for extraordinary service and luxuriant atmosphere as much as for the quality of the food prepared.
Masa is the city’s greatest sushi restaurant. That is not nothing.
Time Warner Center, 10 Columbus Circle, fourth floor; (212) 823-9800, masanyc.com.
ATMOSPHERE A spare, windowless and neutral-colored room, with just 26 seats and an aesthetic marked by bare sanded wood and a huge spray of flowers.
SOUND LEVEL Hushed.
WINE LIST A geographically diverse list of expensive wines and very expensive trophy wines, with sakes to match.
PRICE RANGE $450 prix fixe, lunch and dinner, excluding tax, tips and beverages.
HOURS For lunch, reservations taken for noon or 1 p.m. Tuesday to Friday. For dinner, 6 to 9 p.m. Monday to Saturday.
RESERVATIONS Recommended a few weeks ahead. Reservations must be guaranteed with a credit card. There is a penalty of $200 a person for cancellations within 48 hours of the dining date.
CREDIT CARDS All major cards.
WHEELCHAIR ACCESS Restaurant is on one level, near an elevator from the lobby.
WHAT THE STARS MEAN Ratings range from zero to four stars and reflect the reviewer’s reaction to food, ambience and service, with price taken into consideration. Menu listings and prices are subject to change.