July 31, 2012
Neta was opened in March 2012 by two former chefs at Masa, the wildly expensive sushi restaurant in the Time Warner Center. With Linda out of town I went by myself for dinner on July 7, 2012. Nick Kim (on the right) helped open Masa in 2004, and stayed on as head chef until 2010. His partner, Jimmy Lau, (in front) was head chef at Bar Masa in New York and in Las Vegas and international fish buyer for all Masa restaurants.
I was fortunate to be seated right in the middle of the long maple counter; there are also tables around the edges of the plain dining room. I was in front of Mr. Lau’s prep and plating station, which you can see at the bottom center of this photo. He was able to lean over the counter and describe dishes to me as he served them, although even then it was hard to hear above the music and conversational hubbub.
I could watch the vibrant culinary theater as the ten cooks prepared the meals. It was a good restaurant in which to dine alone as there was plenty to keep my attention and conversation would have been difficult above the noise.
To the left in front of me was a station where sushi was prepared for tables which had ordered à la carte.
There are à la carte selections and omakase menus at $95 and, my choice, $135. It was explained to me that the higher price was for higher quality ingredients more than for higher quantity. Indeed, some of the dishes I was served had very high à la carte prices. I ordered a bottle of sake: Tamagawa “Kinsho” Kyoto-ken, Junmai Daiginjo. It had an aromatic flavor that went well with the cuisine. It is made by Philip Harper, the only foreigner ever to be designated a Toji, or master sake brewer.
The first course was Dungeness crab, cucumber, wild parsley and dashi vinaigrette.
The crab had a lovely fresh flavor, enhanced by the mild, appropriate garnishes.
Toro tartar & California caviar; warm grilled bread
The top quality tuna was chopped fine and served cold, contrasting with the warm toasts. The fishy saltiness of the caviar brought out the flavor. Excellent.
Grilled Boston sea scallop in its shell; Santa Barbara sea urchin, maïtake mushrooms, garlic soy butter, lime
This was luscious, very rich and very good. I have read that they used to use foie gras instead of the mushrooms in this dish, which would have been excess.
Softshell Crab Karaage, Corn Tempura, Yomogi Leaf
Karaage is a deep frying technique similar to tempura, but using a light flour coating instead of a batter. It was perfect for the soft shell crab and the leaf. Underneath is a mound of sweet corn tempura. They said that the Mugwort leaf was foraged in Central Park, which would make it a slightly different variety than the Japanese Yomogi. It had a slightly bitter, sage-like flavor that contrasted nicely with the sweetness of the corn and crab. Excellent.
Szechuan Spiced Salmon, Bonito flakes, crispy rice
The crispy rice cake underneath had been cooked on a teppanyaki grill; it was served on a hot flat rock and was still quite warm. The spicing of the chopped salmon was just right and the smoked bonito flakes made this a good, complex dish.
Then the sushi started; little bowls of soy sauce for dipping and pickled ginger for palate cleansing were put aside my place. The chef would usually indicate when serving across the counter whether or not the soy sauce was to be used. The rice had firm, distinct grains, just cooked enough to stick together. Its flavoring was delicate.
The first sushi piece was a particularly high grade of toro. No soy sauce was to used with this. The tuna melted in the mouth with an elegant delicate flavor.
Sawara: Spanish mackerel topped with slivers of young ginger
Hirame: Long Island fluke was formed into a sushi roll and served with a sauce that was light, but I thought still too vinegary for the delicate fish.
Akami: This is lean tuna from near the spine, not appreciated in Japan as much as the fattier cuts, but the contrast with the first tuna was interesting.
Uni: Sea urchin from Santa Barbara, always one of my favorites.
At this point they presented a bottle of good tequila and prepared a
lime granita with sea salt and tequila.
This was fun, as was the point, but we didn’t really need a Trou Normand or palate cleanser at this point and it didn’t do any favors to the sake. I suppose I didn’t have to drink it, but I was there for whatever they wanted to serve me.
Suji: Grilled toro sinew
Like the akami, suji is held in low regard and is often used for soup, but I enjoyed this. It reminded me vaguely of cooked swordfish in its texture and flavor.
Thick slices of grilled shiitake mushrooms created interesting sushi.
Sushi of tempura of soft-shelled shrimp:
I had never heard of soft-shelled shrimp before. Apparantly they are little used outside the Gulf Coast as they are fragile and not easily transported. I ate the whole shrimp , including the shell and tail, but was disappointed that the head was not served, with extra crisping, as it usually would have been in Japan.
Uni Porridge: sea urchin risotto, king mushroom, Summer Truffle
The risotto was luscious and rich. The umami of the large oyster mushrooms helped bring out its sea urchin flavor. The mild, nutty flavor of the thin slices of summer truffles added mostly a sense of luxury.
Grilled eel and avocado roll.
This is a standard offering in any American sushi bar, but I thought it was high quality. I could watch the grilling and cutting of the eel as well as the preparation of the avocado in front of me.
Neta Roll: Toro & Scallion
This is also a standard sushi item, but it was well done.
Peanut butter ice cream.
This tasted just like you would expect.
The meal had been very enjoyable. The top-quality ingredients were treated with respect, but not usually served without well-conceived enhancement. The meal was consistent, but with enough variety. The pace was just right for me. Damon, who took my order and served my sake from behind, was always ready to explain dishes to me when I asked.
The entry to Neta.