YOUR TABLE IS READY
by JOHN KENNEY
The New Yorker
Shouts & Murmurs
You do not seize control at Masa. You surrender it. You pay to be putty. And you pay dearly. . . . Lunch or dinner for two can easily exceed $1,000.
—From the Times’ review of Masa, a sushi restaurant that was given four stars.
Am I very rich? Since you ask, I will tell you. Yes, I am. I happen to be one of the more successful freelance poets in New York. The point being, I eat where I like. And I like sushi. As does my wife, Babette.
Unfortunately, we were running late. This worried me. I had been trying to get a reservation at Masa since 1987, seventeen years before it opened, as I knew that one of the prerequisites of dining there was a knowledge of the future. I also knew of the restaurant’s strict “on-time” policy. Babette and I arrived exactly one minute and twenty-four seconds late. We know this because of the Swiss Atomic clock that diners see upon arrival at Masa.
The maître d’ did not look happy. And so we were asked, in Japanese, to remove our clothes, in separate dressing cabins, and don simple white robes with Japanese writing on the back that, we soon found out, translated as “We were late. We didn’t respect the time of others.” Babette’s feet were bound. I was forced to wear shoes that were two sizes too small. The point being, tardiness is not accepted at Masa. (Nor, frankly, should it be.)
The headwaiter then greeted us by slapping me in the face and telling Babette that she looked heavy, also in Japanese. (No English is spoken in the restaurant. Translators are available for hire for three hundred and twenty-five dollars per hour. We opted for one.)
And so it was that Babette, Aki, and I were led to our table, one of only seven in the restaurant, two of which are always reserved—one for former Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, who died five years ago, and the other for the actress and singer Claudine Longet, who accidentally shot and killed her boyfriend, the skier Spider Sabich, in 1976.
There are no windows in Masa. The light is soft, and, except for the tinkling of a miniature waterfall and the piped-in sound of an airplane losing altitude at a rapid rate, the place is silent. We sat on hemp pillows, as chairs cost extra and we were not offered any, owing to our tardiness.
Thirty-five minutes later, we met our wait staff: nine people, including two Buddhist monks, whose job it is to supervise your meal, realign your chakras, and, if you wish, teach you to play the oboe. Introductions and small talk—as translated by Aki (which, we later learned, means “Autumn”)—lasted twenty minutes. I was then slapped again, though I’m not sure why.
Before any food can be ordered at Masa, one is required to choose from an extensive water menu (there is no tap water at the restaurant). With Aki’s help, we selected an exceptional bottle of high-sodium Polish sparkling water known for its subtle magnesium aftertaste (a taste I admit to missing completely). Henna tattoos were then applied to the bases of our spines. Mine depicted a donkey, Babette’s a dwarf with unusually large genitals.
Then it was time to order—or to be told what we were having, as there is no menu. Babette and I had been looking forward to trying an inside-out California roll and perhaps some yellowtail. Not so this night. I was brought the white-rice appetizer and Babette was brought nothing. Aki said this was not uncommon, and then told us a story about his brother, Akihiko (“Bright Boy”), who has, from the sound of it, a rather successful motor-home business outside Kyoto.
I noticed another guest a few tables away being forced to do pushups while the wait staff critiqued his wife’s outfit. Aki saw me looking at them and translated the words on the back of their robes: “We were twenty minutes late. We are bad.”
It was then that our entrées arrived and we realized why this restaurant is so special. Before us were bay scallops, yellow clams, red clams, and exotic needlefish, all lightly dusted with crushed purple shiso leaves. Unfortunately, none of these dishes was for us. They were for the wait staff, who enjoyed them with great gusto while standing beside our table. They nodded and smiled, telling us, through Aki, how good it all tasted. Aki told us that this was very common at fine Japanese restaurants and urged us to be on time in the future, even though he said we would never be allowed on the premises again. He then gave us a brochure for a motor home. Babette and I were strongly advised to order more water.
For dessert, I ordered nothing, as I was offered nothing. Babette was given a whole fatty red tuna wrapped in seaweed, served atop a bowl of crushed ice and garnished with a sign reading, “Happy Anniversary, Barbara” (sic).
Our bill came to eight hundred and thirty-nine dollars. Aki said we were lucky to get out for so little and then begged us to take him with us when we left. We caught a cab and got three seats at the bar at Union Square Café.