A restaurant within a restaurant isn’t a new concept. We have E, a mini-restaurant within Jaleo at the Cosmopolitan, and San Francisco has Mission Chinese Food within Lung Shan, a modest joint that recently opened another location to a wave of publicity in New York City.
But by any standard, Tetsu at Bar Masa is something special. Masa Takayama, the New York Times’ four-star chef at his eponymous restaurant, is known for setting standards that border on the impossible. So when he ripped out his Shaboo concept—shabu-shabu as part of a vertiginously expensive set dinner costing upward of $400 per person—and put a teppanyaki room in its place, Japanese food lovers waited with bated breath.
Now, the wait is over. The modern, airplane hangar décor of Bar Masa remains, as does the high-grade imported sushi and sashimi that made the chef famous. But over to one side of this giant space are soaring stainless-steel hoods perched over flat griddles, and seating areas next to them for parties from six to 20. Let the show begin.
In case you aren’t familiar with teppanyaki, it’s a form of Japanese cooking that became popular after World War II, where food is cooked on a griddle. It’s not traditional, but it has stuck, in large part thanks to the Benihana chain. Masa, obviously, is taking it to a higher level.
How high? Well, that depends on whether you like cubes of wagyu beef in your griddled fried rice, or gourmet comestibles such as the rare blue lobster, which sells for a cool $110 per crustacean. Masa has trained his chefs scrupulously, but he’s also had them cut down on the theatrics. Each chef is trained to use two knives at once to do the cooking. But the acrobatic slicing, dicing and Ron Popeil hijinks are nowhere in residence.
Start a meal here with reasonably priced sushi, such as fluke (three pieces for $15). I tried sizzling jalapeño octopus ($12), and it was soft, fragrant and delicious, the scent of the peppers gently tickling the palate. Those on an expense account may want to try an amazing dish from the Bar Masa menu here: toro roll with caviar, or fatty tuna belly with Spanish caviar, the chef’s signature item. Yes, it’s $60, and yes, it really is that good.
When the grill was turned on, we selected Australian wagyu, six ounces for $60, and found it incredibly good, the richness of the meat making up for the small portion size. I also ordered shallots, corn on the cob, eggplant, shishito peppers and wagyu fried rice, loaded with tiny cubes of that rich beef, which I think is overkill, since the rice is so good without the beef. But the vegetables were vividly colored, flavorful and deftly turned.
Dessert was a highlight, a refreshing grapefruit sorbet, but really a granita. I would have chosen the menu’s chocolate sundae, but the server told me Masa was still tweaking it. “He’s not satisfied with the quality of the chocolate,” she told me.
It is possible to eat here for less, but it’s still going to be a considerably expensive proposition compared with Benihana. Two young tourists shared our griddle and got out cheaply, ordering Jidori chicken, sweet corn, asparagus and vegetable fried rice, items which added up to only $39, before tax and service. I think, though, that they may have left hungry. They almost walked out before ordering, when they saw the prices.
“This isn’t Benihana,” the young woman grumbled.
No kidding, babe.