Masa 14 Marks Happy Marriage Between Latin, Asian Innovation
When Masa 14 opened last fall in the U Street corridor, the city saw two titans of the restaurant industry joining forces in another take on the fusion concept. Chefs Kazuhiro “Kaz” Okochi and Richard Sandoval have interestingly similar backgrounds, though they hail from opposite sides of the world.
Both were born and had their early culinary experience in their hereditary cuisines — Okochi in Japan, Sandoval in Mexico. Both were classically trained at prestigious culinary schools and both ultimately returned to their roots for their culinary inspirations. Okochi and Sandoval are also each renowned for their efforts to bring renewed stature to their respective culinary traditions by modernizing them to respond to trends in contemporary dining. Okochi was instrumental in popularizing Japanese cuisine in Washington, introducing diners to his innovative approach to traditional dishes in his much-lauded Kaz Sushi Bistro. Sandoval is regarded by many as the best Latin chef in the area, introducing diners across the country to his interpretation of modern Mexican cuisine.
A natural next step for both chefs was to incorporate techniques and ingredients that suited the spirit of their cuisines while expanding their range. Sandoval formalized this transition at Zengo, his earlier Asian-Latin venture in D.C. Masa 14 capitalizes on many of the innovations introduced at Zengo, but it works off the increasingly popular small-plates model.
For their joint venture, Sandoval and Okochi tapped Antonio Burrell as Masa 14’s chef de cuisine, an admirable choice given the young chef’s broad experience, ranging from the deeply Southern Vidalia to the British-inspired gastropub CommonWealth to the contemporary French Bistro Bis. Burrell’s deft hand in working with the eclectic array of ingredients that are central to Masa’s fusion approach is a key reason for the success of so many of its unique dishes.
The trio has designed a menu that encompasses parallel foods from both Asian and Latin cuisines, such as sushi and ceviche, and dishes that don’t typically occur in either, such as wood oven-fired flatbreads. Meats and seafood are prepared in traditional ways, but swap ingredients to interesting effect. A fairly traditional spicy tuna roll, for example, benefits from the addition of julienne jicama. Slightly bitter sweet with a bit of a crunch, it’s a nicely executed dish. Another interesting choice is the pork belly steamed buns, layered with slices of pork belly and flavored with an exotic mix of achiote, hoisin, pineapple, red Fresno chiles, lime, cilantro and pickled onion.
An entire section of flat breads is anything but flat in taste and creativity. The wood-fired oblong loaves are prepared with several different main toppings — including Serrano ham, Peking duck, tuna sashimi, beef tataki and wild mushroom — but it is the combination of accent flavors that make these dishes really stand out. The Peking duck is paired with duck confit, cotija cheese, orange-hoisin barbeque, mango and scallion in a very rich dish. The wild mushroom version is simpler and lighter, with Oaxaca cheese, red pepper and avocado.
The fish and seafood dishes offer some of the best options at Masa 14. The crunchy shrimp are delicious. Very fresh, barely breaded and fried quickly, they retain a sweet flavor that is enhanced by the mellow taste of sesame seed and a slight trace of saltiness from the masago caviar. The fried oysters are delicate and mild. Also barely breaded and lightly fried, they are neither fishy nor salty but stand up well to the spicy pickle and chile toreado remoullade. One of the more traditional dishes is the thick filet of barbecued salmon served over buttery spinach with achiote ponzu, which has all the appeal of a timeless classic.
All marriages are not equally successful. The same can be said of fusion dishes. Sometimes, the cuisines can meld in a hybrid that capitalizes on the best of both. Such is the case with the masa-panko fried calamari. Seasoned with madras curry, lime, red jalapeño, cilantro, mint, and sweet and spicy chile sauce, it has a complex and well-balanced flavor profile that blends East and West. In others dishes, ingredients seem to compete rather than complement. The bulgulgi sopes is one such case. Korean-style marinated steak is served with a finely chopped salad of kimchi, huitlacoche, cotija cheese and apple over a small corn cake. It’s a complicated construction that is just not as balanced as many of the other combinations.
With all the novel options to choose from, it is easy to overlook the more mundane choices, but to do so is to miss some really top-tier dishes. Chicken wings for instance get loving treatment in chef Burrell’s hands. Marinated in garlic, teriyaki and sambal and fried without breading, the tender meat, slightly sweet and tasting faintly of tarragon, almost falls off the bone. Meanwhile, the meatballs, crafted from Wagyu beef and pork, are served in a robust smoked tomato yazu sauce and sprinkled with cotija cheese. They are strong, a little spicy and best eaten later in the meal after trying the more subtle dishes.
Given the variety on the main menu, the dessert selection seems rather spare. Rum-soaked spice cake, a dense cheesecake-like flan, mango panna cotta, a very cinnamony Mexican chocolate tart, and house-made ice cream and sorbets offer diners a decent range of choices. While respectable, none rise to the level of many of the main dishes, though the passion fruit sorbet, when it’s available, is a nice choice.
Masa’s beverage program though is a standout and is as eclectic as the food, offering a healthy wine list of varieties from throughout the world (with some available by the glass) and almost a dozen types of sake. Masa 14 also holds the distinction of being Washington’s first “tequila lounge.” A dizzying array of tequilas, including some extra añejo varieties that have been stored for at least three years in oak barrels, are available individually and in flights. For those who don’t take their liquor neat, Masa 14 offers several fruity signature cocktails, of which the Passion — Grey Goose pear vodka, passion fruit and agave nectar — is a particularly good one.
Enjoy the drinks at the 65-foot bar that runs the length of the dining area, one of the largest restaurant bars around and a focal point of the overall design. Beyond the massive bar though, there is something unaccountably appealing about Masa 14’s space. While the minimalist materials are not unusual — brick, wood, steel and concrete — the way they work together is, thanks largely to the excellent work of Amesstudio and Hailey Design. There are few of the stark modern clichés that the materials would suggest, and the designers have not introduced any overtly Asian or Latin elements in the décor. Rather, exposed brick walls and honey-colored narrow plank paneling frame the long, thin space, creating an almost cozy feel despite the fairly large 5,000 square feet of space. Colors are soothingly earthy, with a few accents in shades of reddish-orange in the seat cushions of the wooden chairs. One large raspberry-colored painting of a setting sun graces the walls and is echoed by rows of small sun-like dangling light fixtures.
Though a bit noisy on a crowded evening, especially along the bar (tables at the front are quieter), the atmosphere is peaceful rather than frenetic. The ambience is enhanced by a wait staff that is almost uniformly friendly and knowledgeable about the dishes in general (though not always about the finer points). Masa’s kitchen is also fast, especially on a weekday. It doesn’t feel as though you are being hasted out the door, it’s just that the food sometimes arrives before you are ready for it, so order accordingly. It seems odd that this might be a criticism, but Masa 14 is a nice place to linger as you work your way through the menu — and it’s tempting to do so. After all, you’ve got two continents’ worth of cuisine to cover.
About the Author
Rachel G. Hunt is the restaurant reviewer for The Washington Diplomat.