Blame Alain Ducasse. Before his eponymous restaurant opened in 2000, you could eat at the fanciest places in town for around $100 per person. Suddenly, the all-in cost of his prix fixe was more than twice that, based partly on absurdist flourishes—such as footstools to put your purse on and a choice of pens to sign credit card receipts—and other restaurateurs began salivating like hungry hounds at the prospect of doubling the cost of a meal. A whole new crop of fiendishly expensive restaurants began appearing. In fact, an entire campus was recently created in the new Time Warner Center, where an elliptical, Vegas-style shopping mall rose around the bewildered statue of Christopher Columbus. Standing atop his pole in an ermine-trimmed robe, even the high-rolling colonialist seemed to be looking away in disgust.
Occupying the mall’s rarified fourth floor are Thomas Keller’s Per Se, Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s V Steakhouse, and, most expensive of all, Masa Takayama’s Masa, where the price for a sushi tasting before tax, tip, and booze rings in at a jaw-dropping $350. Out of solidarity with my fellow diners, who pay for dinner with hard-earned cash rather than company plastic, I resolved never to set foot in the Time Warner Center. Then I got a call from my pal Andy. He reported that he and his girlfriend were regaling themselves with affordable meals on the glitzy fourth floor at a place called Bar Masa.
This offshoot of Masa offers à la carte dining in a passageway that looks like a Great Pyramid burial vault, clad with ponderous and deeply mysterious stone blocks. You can sit at the bar, or at a row of small tables behind rust-colored muslin curtains that undulate as attendants whisk by bearing small white plates. And in contrast to its $500 sibling, you can dine at Bar Masa for around $50 per person, if you select your meal judiciously and drink like a Southern Baptist.
I was delighted by the lobster risotto ($26), sporting a pair of firm lobster claws, truffle flecks, still more lobster meat, and, astonishingly, brittle slices of truffle. Another shareable feast is the seafood casserole ($26), a crock of mussels, white fish, bay scallops, and baby squid in a red broth. The focus of the bowl is a pair of spectacular langoustines, shrimp-like creatures with nasty claws, their tails split so the flesh can be easily extracted. The broth, though, is flawed by blandness and sweetness, like something turned out by TV’s Iron Chef. You know, the one who pretends to cook French food.
In addition to main courses, there are salads, ceviches, fried rices, and steaming bowls of soba and udon. Ranging in price from $10 to $20, these noodles make a nice light meal. But don’t bother with the most expensive, kobe beef udon. Once boiled, the meat tastes just like supermarket beef. Though badly formed, our tuna maki roll ($18) was crammed with bright, tasty tuna, while the California roll sported real crab. More interesting is the “jazzy sushi”: vinegared rice topped with various ingredients, pressed in a box, then cut into squares. This is really oshi-zushi, the historical model on which modern sushi is based. Takayama tweaks the formula with foie gras, shiso leaves, black truffles, and honey. For us, it’s a chance to see what the wealthy are eating next door.