[FoRK] [LAT] NYC snatches two of CA's most expensive chefs :-)

Rohit Khare Rohit at ICS.uci.edu
Fri Mar 5 11:36:06 PST 2004

["The rich, they're not like you and me..." --DaMisquoter]



California east

Star chefs Thomas Keller and Masa Takayama have their New York  
  By S. Irene Virbila
  Times Staff Writer

  March 3, 2004

  The two highest-profile restaurants to open in New York in years are  
both from California chefs: Per Se from the French Laundry's Thomas  
Keller and Masa from Ginza Sushiko's Masa Takayama. They opened within  
two weeks of each other under the same roof, the Time Warner Center at  
Columbus Circle, a monolithic new building that's part mall, part  
office building and luxe Mandarin Oriental hotel. Its two towers punch  
right through the Manhattan sky.

  Shoppers scurry away from the building, two bags in each hand. The  
bags don't carry the logos of Coach or J. Crew or Sephora or any of the  
other shops in Manhattan's first large-scale mall. They read Whole  
Foods Market. The new 60,000-square-foot supermarket is the biggest in  
the city, so grand that two shopping carts can pass in the overladen  
aisles, a novelty in New York City. Aside from that, the mall is pretty  

  Except for its collection of restaurants. Developer Kenneth Himmel  
approached Keller first, and Keller struck a deal for his restaurant  
and the right to choose the other chefs who would go into the space. He  
picked Takayama, the only other Californian, along with New York's  
Jean-Georges Vongerichten and Gray Kunz, and Chicago's Charlie Trotter.  
It was the chance of a lifetime: to be in on the planning from the  
early stages and create a restaurant from scratch. And it has brought  
out the latent designer in every chef.

  Keller's restaurant, Per Se, opened Feb. 16. Masa officially opened on  
the 24th. Rare, Vongerichten's steakhouse, and Kunz's Café Gray both  
plan to open at the end of this month or early in April, and Trotter's  
as-yet-unnamed seafood restaurant opens sometime this summer.

  Keller, who is nothing if not ambitious, beat them all to the finish  
line. When Per Se's phones were opened for reservations in early  
February, it took about an hour — and a zillion crazed foodies on speed  
dial — to book the 63-seat, 16-table restaurant through April. (Like  
the French Laundry, Keller's celebrated Napa Valley restaurant, Per Se  
takes reservations exactly two months to the day ahead.) I was lucky  
enough to dine at Per Se that first Friday, when the room was filled  
with a collection of the rich, powerful and connected that only a hot  
Manhattan restaurant can bring together.

  Keller is not unknown in New York: He had his own restaurant, Rakel,  
in 1986, when architectural food was in vogue. But I've come across  
enough references to California casual in the New York press to think  
New Yorkers might be in for a surprise. The French Laundry may be in  
the countryside, but it's the most sophisticated restaurant in the Napa  
Valley, and it's anything but casual. Keller's cooking there is a  
thrilling high-wire act, as disciplined and focused as the cooking at  
any Michelin three-star restaurant. And the service, under the  
direction of general manager Laura Cunningham, is as good as it gets in  
this country.

  When he began planning, Keller said the New York restaurant was not  
going to be the French Laundry "per se" so often that the two words  
became the name. But at first encounter, Per Se seems very much the  
French Laundry East. Only instead of a lovely old stone building  
covered in roses, the setting is a sleek contemporary room, designed by  
Adam Tihany, with drop-dead views of the city and a wood-burning  
fireplace and the same small number of seats as the French Laundry. And  
this in a town where diners are usually squeezed in like subway riders  
at rush hour.

  Did I mention that every table has a view?

Savory revelations

Keller is serious enough that he closed the French Laundry for four  
months to better concentrate on Per Se at the beginning. He brought 25  
of his Yountville staff to New York with him, including the dishwasher.  
Some will stay; some will go back. He and Cunningham, his partner of 10  
years, hired 40 additional staff members and gave them weeks of  

  The chef and his chef de cuisine, Jonathan Benno, lead with some of  
Keller's strongest dishes. Every meal begins with the amuse served at  
the French Laundry: a slender buttery cone filled with gorgeous salmon  
tartare. It's just as delicious here. Then a tall cylindrical "bowl"  
arrives, sitting at the top of a stepped series of porcelain plates.  
There's a dab of something that looks like minced shallots in the  
bottom. Wrong. It's a cauliflower curry cut fine as rice, which a  
waiter then floods with a startling green spinach soup. The perfume of  
the curry, the earth in the spinach: It's as if you've never tasted  
spinach before.

  Keller doesn't need to show off. He's there already.

  I was thrilled to see another of his best dishes, oysters and pearls,  
set in front of me. It's one of the most sensual dishes on Earth,  
sabayon of tapioca "pearls" studded with minerally Bagaduce oysters and  
topped with superb Iranian osetra caviar. You don't want it to end. But  
Keller's strategy is always to send out a parade of dishes in portions  
small enough that you're left wanting one more bite. I doubt very much  
that anyone has ever gone away hungry, though.

  Keller has some fun with a "deviled, pickled, truffled hen's egg"  
paired with a postage-stamp-sized truffled pop tart. The whole thing is  
incredibly lush. With each course, sommelier Anani Lawson follows along  
with a series of wines from Per Se's 600-label list. His choices are  
smart and right on the mark.

  Columbia River sturgeon swaggers in with potato "risotto" and an apple  
jus on a plate shaped like a rounded eye. The apple sings against the  
buttery potato and the subtle flavors of the sturgeon. Lawson's match,  
a flowery Condrieu from André Perret, is dead-on.

  There are more dishes in between, but when we get to the beef, I'm  
floored. This Snake River Farms beef from Idaho may be the best I've  
had in recent memory. Keller serves it plain, with Vichy carrots cut  
like buttons, hen of the woods mushrooms and earthy "peanut"  
fingerlings. Every element is sublime.

  Desserts are a blur of flavors — an extraordinary cilantro sorbet, a  
"cremeseicle" of navel orange ice cream with dreamy dark chocolate  
sauce poured over that hardens to a crust and exquisite mignardises  
from pastry chef Sébastien Rouxel.

  We ask for espresso. And it arrives, like everything, in the Raynaud  
porcelain china that Keller designed, with a fine white-on-white  
houndstooth check — the pattern of traditional chef's pants. This cup  
is strange and wonderful. Tall and slim, it sits in a deep well in the  
saucer. Keller based the idea, he says, on a trembleuse made for Marie  
Antoinette's carriage; he came across it in a porcelain museum. The cup  
fits into the hollow in the saucer so the liquid doesn't spill: It just  

  The meal was every bit as good as those I've had at the French Laundry  
— phenomenal for a restaurant that had only been open five days.

  The next day, just as the crew was sitting down to its staff meal  
before Saturday service, smoke began leaking from a kitchen wall.  
Though the fire department showed up within minutes, the electrical  
fire has derailed one of the most anticipated restaurant openings in  
years, a $12-million project three years in the making. Per Se will  
reopen, but it could take as long as three to five weeks.

  Last week when I called Keller on his cellphone, he was sitting in the  
restaurant watching the snow fall outside the windows. "The dining room  
is stripped," he told me, a note of weariness in his voice. "It looks  
like a crime scene in here. Five teams of investigators in masks and  
rubber gloves are taking apart the restaurant and collecting bags of  

  It was heartbreaking to watch the firemen take apart the kitchen that  
took so long to build, Keller said. It cost some $4 million and is  
actually far larger than the dining room; it includes a chocolate room,  
a bakery and hulking refrigerators at every station.

  Though Keller tries to stay upbeat about the fire, events have imposed  
a hard-won patience on this uncommonly talented, ferociously ambitious  
chef. Instead of taking Manhattan, he's cooling his heels while he  
waits for the results of the fire investigation. Meanwhile, "we'll  
spend the time training," says Keller. "And then we'll open all over  

  By then, New York should be more than ready.

Meditating on the new

We have Keller to thank for luring one of L.A.'s two four-star chefs  
away to Manhattan. Masa Takayama's style is so personal that without  
him, Ginza Sushiko, his Beverly Hills restaurant, could never be the  
same. So he closed it. The master Japanese chef and marathon runner's  
new address is the Time Warner Center. And his new jogging place is  
Central Park. Once Takayama made the decision, he took more than a year  
off. It was the first time in his life that the chef, who started out  
in L.A. in a mid-Wilshire strip mall, hasn't worked at least six days a  
week. He went back to Tochiji prefecture, inland from Tokyo, where he  
grew up. He needed that time to think and reflect, to open himself to  
experience, he says. "Whenever I saw a flower, or a beautiful pot, all  
the time I was thinking about what I would do in my new restaurant."

  He haunted lumberyards all over Japan in search of extraordinary  
pieces of wood he could use in the restaurant's design. In Kyoto, he  
had a free-standing hardwood grill built in traditional red lacquer  
with hand-woven copper grids for grilling. He shopped for knives, for  
ceramics, for sake cups. He's also a potter, and he designed special  
dishes and had them made there for the restaurant.

  You may be on the fourth floor of a massive shopping mall, but the  
minute you walk toward Masa, you forget where you are. First, there's  
the door, a weathered silvery slice of Japanese cypress 2,500 years  
old. It's impossible not to reach out and touch it. And there's Masa  
himself, his head shaved as close as a monk's, a pair of rimless  
glasses perched on his nose. As he strides across the stone floor, his  
traditional wooden clogs sound out a sharp percussive beat. That floor,  
made of New York bluestone, it turns out, is practically the only thing  
in the entire place that isn't Japanese.

  The stunning restaurant has just 10 seats (and two small private  
rooms) — and every detail is exquisite.

  The bar is a 24-foot-long slab of hinoki wood so heavy it took 30 men,  
Masa among them, to carry it up the four flights of stairs to the  
restaurant. The workers had their crowbars ready to wrench open the  
package when he stopped them and carefully unwrapped it to expose the  
white-blond wood. "When they saw this incredible piece of wood emerge,  
they were all looking at it like it was a great jewel!" he says.

  Like Keller, Masa is leading with his strong suit in New York; the  
menu the night I ate there was made up of his greatest hits. The format  
is the same as at Ginza Sushiko too. It's omakase only, but here it's  
$300 to $500 per person, more than it was in Beverly Hills. But then  
again, he's not intending to have two seatings. "I thought about it,"  
he says, "but no. People don't want to be looking at their watches.  
They want to feel relaxed." Part of what you're paying for at Masa is  
the luxury of time, along with the exclusivity.

  We drank sake from pale wood cups with rims as thin as Riedel  
wineglasses. Made from hinoki, like the bar, they're incredibly  
fragrant. To keep them that way, the cups are sanded every time they're  
washed. The delicate sake, umenishkiki from Ehime Prefecture, comes in  
a slender green glass bottle stuck into a burgundy lacquer container  
filled with ice.

  The first dish is a dainty salad of shredded hairy crab from northern  
Japan with sliced pickled cucumber, served in a flowered bowl. The crab  
is sweet and briny.

  When I see Masa turning fingers of toast on the grill, I know what's  
next. "As usual," he says, laughing, placing an etched glass goblet  
filled with pink toro tartare heaped with beluga caviar. The toro is  
sublime, so marbled with fat that it melts in the mouth like foie gras.

  A craggy stone bowl that looks as if it had been unearthed from an  
archeological dig ("My own design," Masa points out) holds slivers of  
Spanish mackerel, tiny violet shiso blossoms and threads of young  
ginger stem that leave a pleasant sting behind.

A rare gustatory experience

I know it's fugu season when I see Masa slicing into the snow white  
liver. It's fascinating to watch his knife work as he cuts the  
blowfish, creating a composition of texture from opaque to transparent.  
He lays it all out on a beautiful cedar tray with the verve of a  
Kandinsky, scattering shiso blossoms and flakes of gold leaf on top.  
It's more about texture than flavor, a rare experience.

  When I ask if anybody else in New York is serving blowfish, he  
wrinkles his nose. "A few, but it's frozen."

  Bent over the grill, he turns pieces of Kobe beef with the blackened  
tips of chopsticks. This too is the real thing, from Japan; the  
difference is in its profoundly sweet taste and melt-in-your-mouth  
texture. He serves it simply with a dab of freshly grated wasabi with  
marvelously complex heat and a little yuzu to squeeze over.

  A meal at Masa's is never strictly sushi: It also includes elements  
from kaiseki and some inventive dishes that are entirely Masa's own.

  Take his foie gras and Maine lobster shabu-shabu. The waiter sets an  
individual ceramic pot in front of you filled with a bubbling dashi  
broth. A plate holds slices of foie gras, Maine lobster and a tangle of  
finely sliced scallion to cook in the broth. The foie gras is amazing  
poached in the broth, which picks up flavor by the minute. At the end,  
you have the marvelous soup.

  More dishes may follow. Or not. At a certain point the sushi will  
start coming. "Showtime," says Masa. First, bluefin toro. Then shima  
aji (Japanese mackerel), Japanese fluke, plush Japanese squid with a  
dot of black seaweed at one end. There's uni in a black sash of nori,  
baby Japanese scallops and his favorite, saba, or Spanish mackerel, all  
served one after another on a square plate the color of heaven.  
Shiitake caps grilled over the hardwood charcoal and then folded around  
an oval of sushi rice are extraordinary too.

  His food here is just as I remember it: stunning.

  I hate that he's moved to New York, but at least he's in the same  
hemisphere. The difference, really, is the expansive, serenely gorgeous  
setting. Of course, with just 10 seats at the bar, it's not going to be  
easy to get into Masa. Not to mention saving up for the experience.  
Fortunately, he's also opened Bar Masa in a separate space next door,  
where everything is à la carte. The menu includes sushi but also some  
interesting cooked dishes, such as uni with black truffle risotto,  
linguine with squid ink and shiso leaf or barbecued eel pilaf.

  Though expectations are excruciatingly high, these two extraordinary  
California chefs may end up showing Manhattan how it's done.


Per Se:  10 Columbus Circle, Time Warner Center, 4th Floor, New York,  
N.Y.; (212) 823-9335

  $150 chef's tasting menu; $125 five- course prix fixe menu with  
choices; $135 nine-course vegetarian tasting menu. Open for dinner  
Sunday through Wednesday, 5:30 to 10 p.m.; Thursday through Saturday,  
5:30 to 10:30 p.m.; for lunch Friday through Sunday, 11:30 a.m. to 1:30  
p.m. Reservations are taken up to two months in advance. Because of a  
recent fire, the restaurant is temporarily closed. It will reopen in  
three to five weeks.

Masa:  10 Columbus Circle, Time Warner Center, 4th Floor, New York,  
N.Y.; (212) 823-9800

  $300 to $500 per person omakase menu only, not including tax, tip or  
drinks. Open for dinner 6 to 10 p.m., Monday through Saturday; for  
lunch Tuesday through Friday, noon to 3 p.m. Reservations are accepted  
only the first week of each month for the following month and require a  
valid credit card. Reservations must be canceled with at least 48  
hours' notice, or there will be a $100 charge per person. Bar Masa next  
door has a less expensive à la carte menu that includes not only sushi,  
but also dishes like uni with black truffle risotto or fettuccine,  
linguine with squid ink and shiso leaf, or barbecued eel pilaf. Finger  
foods, $5 to $18; sushi or sashimi tasting, $85; sashimi salads, $14 to  
$28; pasta and rice dishes, $11 to $34. Open daily for lunch from 11:30  
a.m. to 3 p.m.; for dinner from 6 p.m. to midnight; late-night menu  
from midnight to 3 a.m.

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