Take two trends and mix
Fusion small plates work at Masa 14
By Tom Sietsema
Sunday, February 7, 2010
The year is young, but 11 months from now, I bet I'll still recall the banh mi I'm eating at Masa 14 as one of the most memorable dishes of 2010.
The waiter describes the riff on the Vietnamese sandwich as a "slider," possibly to make the dish more appealing to the uninitiated. But the banh mi as rethought by chef Antonio Burrell sells itself. In place of the usual cold pate, there is warm foie gras, snuggled against a slice of ham and served with julienned pickled vegetables and bright red rings of chili peppers. The filling, both cool and hot and rich and light, is held together by a small, lightly toasted and aioli-slathered bun. The only disappointment is that there are three sandwiches per order -- and two people sharing the plate. When a friend reaches over for the last bun, my inclination is to race him for it.
Dishes like that banh mi, a truly special special (and now a regular), are what keep me coming back to this newcomer in Logan Circle. Well, flavors such as those and a fun room in which to enjoy them. Masa 14 is built from concrete floors and brick walls, but it exudes a warmth that's unusual for 5,000 square feet. The design, which includes wooden half-walls and the requisite open kitchen, demonstrates that you don't have to have a big budget to throw a good party. Instead of flowers, the bare tables are set with glass bowls of chopsticks, set upright in a base of colorful dried lentils. Instead of paintings, the brick wall off the entrance is decorated with tequila bottles, stripped of their labels.
Like practically every new restaurant to open in the past few years, this one serves small plates. Setting Masa 14 apart are its hybrid dishes, a reflection of the partnership forged by New York chef Richard Sandoval, whose restaurant empire includes Zengo in Penn Quarter, and Washington chef Kaz Okochi, the owner of Kaz Sushi Bistro downtown. "The menu is Mexican and Asian," a waiter is likely to preface a meal, before continuing with a line that has been uttered a zillion times in the city by now: "We recommend three to four plates per person."
That's easy advice to follow when there is tender and smoky octopus, and flatbread topped with serrano ham and goat cheese, in the lineup. Fusion menus have gotten a bad rap over the years, sometimes justifiably, for foisting clashing ingredients or techniques on one another. For the most part, Burrell, whose Washington resume spans the Southern-themed Vidalia and the veddy British CommonWealth, keeps everything in check. That octopus is ignited with red pepper flakes and gets a refreshing jolt from its nest of pickled vegetable threads. And that flatbread keeps the palate entertained not just with the air-dried meat and the tangy cheese, but also with peppery arugula and cool slivers of cantaloupe. No one flavor dominates in the salad-on-a-crust. Every note has a good reason to be there.
Bon bon chicken, which gets its crunch from fried noodles, is more ordinary; it would look at home at bridge club. Green curry chicken makes a better impression. Nicely balanced, the combination of poultry, carrots and spinach is like what a dozen good Thai restaurants dish up.
"The meatballs come out fast," a server tells us when we order them. But so does almost everything else here. Order your food a plate or so at a time if you don't want dinner to end in 15 minutes. Those meatballs are good, by the way; they're tender and flavorful with grated cheese and a hit of fire from sriracha (hot chili sauce).
Consistency is one of the hardest details to nail in a restaurant. Masa 14 needs to make it more of a priority. One evening, I find myself apologizing to a fellow food lover for what I had pre-billed as a delicious night on the town: Almost everything we order is flawed, and a lot of the food goes back to the kitchen unfinished. Tuna seviche is overwhelmed by its coconut milk, and the diced pineapple topping appears to have been thrown on as an afterthought. The best that can be said of the hot oysters on cool lettuce wraps is that the oysters sport a decent crunch from frying; otherwise, the snack has zero taste. Even the usually pleasing flatbreads are a bust (instead of cracking, the crust bends). The amateurish cooking makes me wonder whether everyone in the kitchen has called in sick.
Dessert alert: Garnishes tend to be the best thing about the last course. Dig peanut brittle? Get the chocolate flan, which is more like a cheesecake than a custard. It's flanked by a sheer, glassy brittle that's irresistible. Are linzer cookies your thing? Something similar graces a creme brulee that has only a vague sense of its promised tea flavor.
When it's firing on all cylinders, however, this kitchen rocks, and the thrills extend to the liquids. From behind the restaurant's handsome 65-foot-long bar come dozens of chances to see how well tequila goes with this style of food: quite nicely, my investigation reveals.
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The Name Game: "Masa" was a suggestion of the restaurant's Turkish partners. It means "table" in their language. The number 14 refers to the hot spot's address.
Masa 14 offers a grown-up vibe
By Fritz Hahn
Friday, October 30, 2009
The buzz: Masa 14, the latest addition to the bustling 14th Street bar scene, has been creating quite a buzz since opening Oct. 12. Part of that is because chef-owners Kaz Okochi of Kaz Sushi Bistro and Richard Sandoval of Zengo collaborated on the Asian-Latin fusion menu. The gorgeous space is another reason. The modern main room, decorated with blond wood and steel, is a 5,000 square feet and holds 240 with plenty of room to spare. The 65-foot bar -- which they claim is the longest in the District -- dominates one wall and is lined with dozens of stools. On the weekend, when neighbors Saint-Ex and Bar Pilar are almost uncomfortably crowded, even a full Masa 14 is comparatively calm.
Throw in DJs, a Latin-flavored cocktail list and a kitchen that stays open until an hour before last call, it's no wonder there are hour-plus waits for tables.
The scene: "I'm a very discriminating bargoer," says Ana Molina, the chief financial officer for a video game trade association. "Sometimes you walk into a place and you know it's going to fail. And you walk in here and you get this vibe and you know it's going to work."
Although Molina thinks the wine list is "nothing to write home about," she says the bar scene is lively and comfortable. "It's not trying to be more than it is. You don't feel put off when you come in."
But, more important, Molina says, scanning the line of smartly dressed couples at the bar, "I like it because the crowd's not on the younger side. It's a little older."
She may be on to something. Last Thursday night, most of the patrons at the bar I spoke with were in their 30s and 40s. It could be that Masa 14 feels more "grown-up" -- like Cork or the Gibson -- than some other spots in the neighborhood.
Of course, I've visited Masa 14 with friends for after-midnight snacks on weekends, when DJ Dimitris George (of the HipsterOverkill parties) is spinning up-tempo electronic music, and the crowd feels a bit younger, but the atmosphere remains similar.
"You can definitely feel the energy in here," says Dave Mazzulla, a 43-year-old IT consultant from Virginia. His friend Noelle Coleman, a 39-year-old government editor, agrees. "What I like about it is that it's so expansive, but it feels cozy at the same time." She is sipping the house drink of the night, a vodka-and-lemonade concoction with strawberry puree and agave. At the far end of the bar, local developer Chris Donatelli is having drinks with colleagues. "I can't believe how popular it is. It's awesome," he says. Donatelli points to the mix of people hanging out at the bar -- people who live around the corner and a group of women from Bethesda. He likes the food, he says, but "it seems like the social part is what's driving" the buzz.
In your glass: Like the food, Masa's cocktails reach to the Caribbean and Latin America for inspiration. There are multiple variations on margaritas with fresh agave, though I was most taken with the light, sparkling Patron Paloma, which mixes Patron tequila with lime juice and grapefruit soda. The Caipirinha Pia adds a twist to the classic Brazilian cocktail, muddling pineapples along with limes in the glass. The bartenders also will make off-the-menu drinks, including virgin mojitos.
There are almost 100 tequilas in the house, with sampling flights of three starting at $13.
The wine program is interesting, too. Outside of the 16 by-the-glass selections, bar manager Ivan Iricanin has put together a list of 65 bottles that sell for $45 or less.
On your plate: Small plates may be a tired trend in the restaurant business, but they're perfect bar snacks. Choose from a short selection of sushi rolls, pork belly tacos or tasty flatbread pizzas prepared in a domed oven near the sushi bar.
Price points: Most cocktails cost $9 to $12, while glasses of wine are $7 to $9. Draft beers are a flat $7. Small plates are $4 to $14, with most between $6 and $11.
Need to know: Masa 14's kitchen usually stays open until 2 a.m. on weekends and 1 a.m. on weeknights, welcome news in a neighborhood where most options include half-smokes and jumbo slices. Just be warned that the kitchen might close earlier if business is slow that night.
Nice to know: DJs spin from 11 p.m. to 2 a.m. on Friday and Saturday nights.