“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.
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.]
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.