Learning to Roll with Chef Masa at Las Vegas’ New Bar Masa

“I didn’t want to come to Las Vegas, but they wanted me to come,” Chef Masa Takayama tells the journalists gathering in Bar Masa, his new sushi bar located in the Aria resort in the new Las Vegas City Center. Masa isn’t one for small talk. He begins his “class” on sushi rolling, an experience scheduled on a tight City Center press trip itinerary, with “This is how you make toro,” before filleting a 2-foot piece of tuna in silence for the next 15 minutes. Though his lack of showmanship and banter isn’t particularly helpful if you’re trying to learn how to slice yellow tail, it’s a refreshing break from the usual Las Vegas celebrity chef.

Masa doesn’t converse — he responds, replying in stark sentences to questions posed by journalists timidly approaching his sushi bar like dogs hoping for treats. This lack of embellishment, of showmanship, of bullshit, extends to how he makes sushi — which is why it’s so jarring to see Masa wandering amongst the 256 seats at the new Bar Masa and the connecting restaurant Shaboo.

The sushi master has a long-held belief in the practice of shibui, which means simplicity devoid of unnecessary elements. Despite the price tag on a meal at Masa at the Time Warner Center in New York ($400), which opened in 2004, the 26-seat establishment hews relatively closely to this belief system. Chef Masayoshi Takayama presides nightly over the sushi bar, his Japanese cleaver in hand. He serves his menu-less lunch and dinner patrons whatever he feels he should, based on the quality of the day’s catches (flown straight in from Japan) and availability of ingredients, keeping a journal of his guests’ reactions for future reference. His luxuriously priced though simple eatery came out of the recession relatively unscathed, due to Masa’s care, his specifically customized menu, his studious selection of fish, his knowledge of what cold- or warm-water sea stream they were caught in, and his strictness when it comes to quality.

In comparison, the new Masa is positively decadent. Housed in the new City Center, an $8 billion venture between the MGM Grand and Dubai World, it has a giant glittering Vegas entrance and 36-foot ceilings adorned with drop lights meant to look like fireflies. The menu has been tweaked for the less sushi-astute customer. Dishes on the seasonally changing menu include Thai sea bream with white truffle for $48, yari ika with salt and yuzu zest for $14 apiece, uni risotto for $48, and ohmi beef tataki with white truffles for $120. While the PR piranhas played up the stellar sushi selection and decent pricing compared to Masa New York, they tried to direct attention away from shabu-shabu dining room, Shaboo. With a $500 per person flat rate price tag, that restaurant is at explicit odds with the City Center’s press agents talking points — which claim that that the new recession-conscientious center will be an economic boon to Vegas, due to the job creation, sustainability, and the alternative cultural experiences that contrast with the big spending and gambling of the old Las Vegas. Chef Masa has no such agenda and talks excitedly about Shaboo, with its strictly omakase menu that focuses on “hot pot” cookery.

image

All in all, the food was impeccable. I had no idea that squid and sweet shrimp could taste so flavorful, and I was in awe of the Kobe beef skewers, the fresh kanpachi, and the carefully prepared freshwater eel. But if the future of Las Vegas is getting middle America to empty their wallets on sushi fresh off a one-way flight from Japan, and not into slot machines … well, as the saying goes, it’s so crazy, it just might work.

On a rainy day at City Center, Chef Masa stands at the helm of a new piece of his empire, teaching a mass of journalists something he calls the art of umami, the basic essence or flavor inherent in his menu. To showcase this, he chooses to “teach” the method of sushi by the piece, as the group manages a few questions between mouthfuls of ika. Like his sushi preparation, his answers are simple and precise.

Why do you use rare or endangered fish? Today a lot of people ask me about this. Overfishing is the truth. Which is why people start farm-raising. They should have a limit in all the countries, so you can eat it all the time. Price-wise, prices go up, but it’s important so that you may eat the fish forever.

What’s the major difference between Masa in New York and Masa here? Same.

But the experience is totally different. Food is basically the same.

What about price? Same.

[Long pause with journalists shifting uncomfortably in their chairs.]

image

How would you characterize the food then? Japanese food. Simple Japanese comfort food. Not complicated. Sushi, sashimi. The menu is all of my favorite things. No real specialty. Every item I ever wrote down is in the menu. It’s all pretty much my favorite thing.

How much time do you spend in Las Vegas? Every month I am here. For two to three days.

Who designed the space? I did.

You did? In New York I did. Before in LA I did. Now here I did.

Are you trained in design? No, I just love to draw. This is like fireflies [points to the white lights. Note: Richard Bloch Architect is the listed designer, the same firm behind his New York outpost. In other words, it is entirely possible Masa is a Jack-of-all-trades.]

Where did you find the unique serving dishes and platters? I designed those. Clay dishes. Looks like stone. I designed. The ceiling is 30 feet high. I designed that.

Has anyone eaten at Shaboo? Yes, I think so. Would you like to look? (Leads group to the small dining room) See, I designed these tables (points to the electric burners atop a smooth wood surface).

Publicist interjects: Over Christmas we had a group that won big in the casino and celebrated by coming to dine at Shaboo.

What fish do you prefer? You know that. Mackerel! I like really fishy fish. Anchovies, fish like that.

Tell us about the type of fish? Toro means it’s going to melt in your mouth. It’s not meaning it’s the fatty part.

What’s the best method to enjoy toro? A small touch of wasabi between the rice and the fish. Lightly touch it with soy sauce.

What makes the wasabi here so much better? A lot of times there is coloring or horseradish added. The difference is, wasabi needs very clean water. This comes from the very clean mountain water in Japan. Eighty percent grows from the waters around Mount Fuji.

Is this fresh or saltwater eel? Freshwater. We’ve had the eel sauce for about seven years now. We keep aging it and refreshing it so it’s a continuing process.

How is it rolled? Sliced and placed into a thinly sliced celery casing with a bit of lettuce.

What is ika? Ika is squid. It is prepared by using the zest of a yuzu fruit, the juice of a sudachi, which is like a lime and pink Himalayan salt. You eat it with no soy sauce.

Industry Insiders: Paul Liebrandt, Haughty Cuisiner

Paul Liebrandt has worked in some of New York’s most prestigious kitchens — from the decadent Gilt to the critically acclaimed Atlas. His sometimes atypical ingredient pairings in his early days in New York sometimes drew criticism from diners and journalists, a sore point he’s still hesitant to discuss. His current post at Tribeca’s Corton has earned favorable attention and may arguably be his most successful venture yet. Although getting through to the chef took some doing, we got a decent peek into the culinary mastermind’s lifestyle.

Can you describe a dining experience at Corton? How do you mean describe the dining experience? What does that mean?

Can you describe the menu, the ambiance, the experience for our readers who have yet to dine there? Well the menu is modern, contemporary, I guess. French. It’s a very calm dining experience. It’s very refined. Very elegant. You feel excitement in the food and the service. It’s a very refreshing experience to eat here.

How do you react to criticism of your food or your restaurants? Excuse me? Criticism? What do you mean by criticism of my food?

Any sort of negative press or negative reaction. I mean … everybody’s entitled to their opinion

We’re just wondering if you take in stride, or if that’s something that hits home for you? It’s part of any business that you do … people have the right to voice their opinions. If somebody doesn’t like something, that’s their opinion.

What are some of your favorite menu items currently? We have a lovely Japanese Madai on the menu right now, which is lovely, with summer tomatoes and coconut.

What’s is the most unconventional or daring item on the menu? Unconventional. Daring. Well I guess it depends what you call daring, doesn’t it? What I call daring may not be to someone else. We do have a lovely Stilton cheese ice cream. We serve it with a foie gras. It’s really refreshing. We also serve it with a cold cherry soup. And it’s savory, not sweet.

How are New Yorkers different from diners elsewhere? In other cities where? In this country? Europe? Japan? What?

Is there anything that distinguishes New York diners? New York diners are very discerning; they know what they want, and they are very loyal customers. When they like you, they keep coming back.

Which has been your favorite experience in a kitchen? Which has been my favorite kitchen? Is that what you’re asking?

Yes. For what, the restaurants that I’ve owned? Or just in general?

Just in general. Where I’ve worked?

Where you’ve worked. You mean like my favorite working experience?

Yes, your favorite working experience. Well, they all have great things about them, there isn’t one particular kitchen which is better than another one. If I said that one is better than another one, all the other kitchens would get jealous, wouldn’t they?

What’s one piece of advice you would give to novices cooking at home? Choose good ingredients. And when you cook, it sounds a little corny, but I think it is very true — but cook with passion. And really love what you’re doing.

Is there a starter dish that you would recommend to someone who hasn’t cooked very much for themselves? Since it’s summer time, beautiful, beautiful tomatoes are starting to come out of the market. For myself at home, for someone who doesn’t cook professionally at home, say a lovely tomato salad with maybe a little bit of Burrata sliced over the top. I like smoked sea salt, which you can buy at any good store. Just that, it’s beautiful. Very, very nice.

Where else do you eat or go out in New York? I really enjoy Japanese food, so I’m a big fan of Bar Masa. And Blue Ribbon Sushi.

Do you frequent any bars in Tribeca or elsewhere? Not really, no.

Have you noticed any positive trends in New York dining? I think more and more people are using all sorts of sustainable items on their menus. More people are very aware of the impact of using locally sourced ingredients. I think in general, you see a much bigger swing in that regard. The area that we live in here, within New York City, upstate New York, the Tri-Boroughs, it’s very, very good for their locally-sourced ingredients. I think you see a lot more people utilizing that.

Do you have anyone that you would cite as a mentor? Pierre Gagnaire.

What’s your guiltiest pleasure? A weekend in Paris.

And what do you do during your weekend in Paris? Well, that’s something which your readers will just have to find out about themselves.

What’s your dream spot for a project? New York, of course. I live here, it’s my home.

New York: Top 10 Sushi Spots

Bond St. (Noho) – Though it’s lost some mojo on the hotspot meter, the melt-in-your-mouth sushi and swank décor continue to attract sushi snobs and modelizers alike. ● Sushi Yasuda (Midtown East) – Friendly staff and minimalist looks keep focus on expertly crafted sushi. Dinner will set you back a geisha’s ransom. ● East Japanese (Kips Bay) – Though quality at this mini-chain may not be much better than Food Emporium, for kitschy fun, affordable conveyor-belt sushi spot takes the cake. Sushi discounts on Mondays and Tuesdays.

Yuka (Upper East Side) – Got you covered with their $19 all-you-can-eat deal that won’t have you feeling sick for the rest of the week (just enjoy spicy mayo in moderation).Don’t try and sneak some to your friends, as watchful staff keeps an eye on patrons. ● Blue Ribbon Sushi (Soho) – Loses points for not taking reservations, and the price to indulge in their raw eats will set you back dearly, but there’s no denying that this sushi-snob-approved spot delivers with everything from classic California rolls to more exotic options like the kaki fri made with fried oysters and lettuce. ● Sushi Seki (Upper East Side) – Despite sleepy location, serves stunningly transcendental sushi — in both quality and price – until 3 a.m. ● Morimoto (Chelsea) – In the battle of NYC’s mega-sushi temples — EN Japanese Brasserie, Megu, etc. — Iron Chef Morimoto’s spot comes out on top not only because of the eats, but also because of glossy white interior and not-to-be-missed high-tech bathrooms. ● Jewel Bako (East Village) – Sleek digs and unforgettable omakase dinner make this fittingly named spot a true find; be prepared for stratospherically high prices. ● Sushi of Gari (Upper East Side) – With creations that include salmon sushi with onion cream and roasted tomato, marinated tuna sushi with tofu mayo, and red snapper sushi with arugula salad and fried lotus root, Chef Gari-san is the Wylie Dufresne of sushi. ● Sushi Zen (Midtown West) – Masa and its $400 sushi gets most of the attention, and Nobu gets all the stars, but Sushi Zen trumps them both with fresher than fresh sushi artfully prepared and presented by Chef Suzuki, who is not only licensed to serve potentially deadly fugu, but is the chef often credited with first introducing Americans to sushi.

Industry Insiders: Chef Corey Lee of French Laundry Fame

The French Laundry’s chef de cuisine Corey Lee on late-night Chinese food delivery, his non-scenester bar of choice, and the rigorous work schedule of a culinary master.

What’s your job description? I’m a chef at a fine dining restaurant, French Laundry. My job includes a lot of things; mainly maintaining the standards of the restaurant — making sure that the restaurant continues to evolve and gets better but in a way that’s consistent with the identity of French Laundry and with the chef/owner Thomas Keller. Those are the things that are important … that we’re not locked into the same things that we’ve done for years, but making sure that the changes are sensible and still identifiable with French Laundry.

Any culinary guilty pleasures? My one culinary guilty pleasure is definitely American Chinese food. It stems from getting takeout in New York. You can go home from work and have delivery to your home within ten minutes at three in the morning.

Where do you eat or go out? Three come to mind right away, and it’s just a coincidence that they’re sorta Japanese-based. One is Masa at the Time Warner Center in New York — Masa Takayama’s restaurant. The other one is Urasawa in L.A. Those are really the two best meals I’ve had in the States. There’s a certain amount of personality and intimacy that’s conveyed when you eat at those restaurants, and it has to do with the size of the restaurants and that they cater the meal to each individual diner.

The last one is a small bar called Angel’s Share on St. Mark’s in New York. It’s a small bar, but it’s unique in that it’s very much like the kind of bar you’d find in Tokyo where the service is really great. It’s not a scene, it’s not a trendy bar, and it’s been around for 15-16 years now. It’s a place where they make the cocktails very well; the bartenders are serious about what they do. They train for years to finally tend bar, and they have a great whiskey list and great scotch list. It’s one of those places where it’s not about the place that you’re going or the backdrop, it’s about the person you’re with. It’s quiet enough to enjoy your companion. It’s like hundreds of bars you’d find in Tokyo but are hard to find in New York.

Have you noticed any positive trends in your industry? You hear these terms like “ultra-modern cuisine” or “molecular gastronomy” — whatever you want to call it. But to me, the basic idea is that you have a scientific understanding of what’s happening when you cook and what happens to the food. Certainly this trend is happening with food that’s very new and very modern, and it’s something I like not necessarily because of the results but because it’s allowed chefs to have a deeper understanding of what they’re doing on a scientific basis and not just out of tradition. There are so many misconceptions and things you were taught from previous chefs, or that you’ve read in books, that are just blatantly wrong; like folklore, really. And finally we’re coming into an age where chefs — not just industrial chefs, like, say, the people at Frito Lay — but chefs at restaurants are collaborating more with scientists to get a better understanding of what they’re doing and how to better their food.

Negative trends? There’s so much interest in restaurants and chefs the past decade or so; it’s almost been at a vertical slope in terms of outside interest in the restaurant industry. Unfortunately in some instances it’s made the goals of chefs very different than they were a few years ago. Certainly the interest is great for business, it helps people understand the cuisine and helps people understand what we do, but at the same time people have come to associate being a successful chef with having a certain amount of fame. And more and more you see young cooks coming out of school and pursuing those aspects of the industry. That’s not what you should be in the hospitality industry for. We’re there to serve our guests and to work as craftsmen; we work with our hands. That should be the premise behind becoming a chef, not the pursuit of some kind of fame or accolades from the media.

What are you doing tonight? Well, it’s Friday night, so I’m at the restaurant preparing for the evening. Ask any chef what they’re doing on a Friday, and more often than not they’re working.