Japanese Sushi Master Masa Turns His Knife Skills to Meat
One of New York’s most anticipated restaurants is finally opening its doors.
Tetsu, the TriBeCa robata grill with an elite downstairs tasting menu from one of the world’s most acclaimed sushi chefs, will officially open Nov. 14.
There are few restaurateurs more associated with fish than Masa Takayama. At his eponymous Time Warner Center restaurant, the cherubic chef has redefined the experience of eating raw seafood. And what that privilege can cost: A meal at Masa currently rings in at $595, excluding beverages and tax.
(In more recent Masa fish news, the FDA cited the restaurant for using fish that was improperly stored. Masa responded: “The fish mentioned in the FDA letter is very specialized and requires specific handling. We have been working closely with the FDA to follow the procedures they are requesting both here in New York and with our vendors in Japan.”)
At Tetsu, Takayama will turn his attention to a different protein: meat. On the main floor of the bi-level space on Leonard Street, he’ll serve robata grilled skewers, soups, and stews; downstairs, at the luxe Basement, he’ll offer a reservations-only omakase menu that highlights cuts butchered from whole animals.
Tetsu has been on the verge of opening for years; word of the project first came out in 2012. The chef says he got the idea soon after he came to New York in 2004 to open Masa. “Sundays are my only day off, and when I first moved to New York I was always looking for a place where I could enjoy a cold beer or martini and eat some delicious, flavorful food to go with it. I could never find a restaurant that satisfied exactly what I was looking for, so I decided to just build it.” He adds: “I wanted Tetsu to evoke the experience of dining around the robata [a charcoal grill surrounded by diners], to feel like you’re in my home.”
In the interim, Takayama says the delays were ones that any restaurant going into an 1865 landmarked New York building would have faced. The famously perfectionist chef has also created his own roadblocks: Almost every detail of the restaurant, from the height of the bar and the finish of its cast-iron top to the weight of the serving platters has been obsessed over, and tweaked, by Takayama.
The result is a space that feels vintage TriBeCa, with 14-foot ceilings, restored Corinthian columns, and plenty of iron work. (Tetsu translates as “iron.”) The main floor is dominated by a 36-foot counter fashioned from a single Japanese Bubinga tree, with a mezzanine level decorated with zig-zagging cables.
Fried Chicken and Nigiri Sushi
The idea of a chef whose specialty is the most elite, expensive seafood in the world turning his attention to such dishes as fried chicken and peppercorn spare ribs is compelling. Tetsu’s menu includes sections with names such as “Sizzling,” “Fried,” and the namesake “Robata Grill.” Takayama custom-designed the grill itself, which can be raised or lowered to accommodate different ingredients and various levels of char.
On the menu: A long list of skewered items, costing from $4 to $9, includes juicy pork sausage flavored with three kinds of chile; sweet beef; soy-glazed chicken; coco shrimp; baby potato; and “misoburi” yellowtail. Among the stews are meaty chunks of pork neck with black bean; grilled vegetable and miso; and tender slices of beef tripe in a tangy tomatillo broth ( $8 to $14). Takayama is frying everything from quail to soft shell shrimp with garlic, as well as the aforementioned chicken, available as whole or half ($22 or $14).
Takayama is not ignoring the kind of fish he’s famous for. There’s a selection of nigiri sushi, and it’s cheaper than comparable options at his uptown Bar Masa. (The goal at the downtown restaurant is to make food that’s approachable in terms of prices and selection, he says.) A la carte sushi includes uni ($8); uni with quail egg ($12); grilled ocean eel ($7); striped jack ($6); hamachi ($7); and grilled maitake mushrooms ($5). You could gorge on 100 pieces of kanpachi ($6) for the price of a meal at Masa.
If the plan for the main floor is to be highly accessible, the plan for the downstairs, called Basement, is to create extreme dinner parties. The reservations-only space has 34 seats situated between a long counter facing the kitchen and individual tables crafted from metal and designed by the chef. The omakase menu will be priced at $295 and will start around Dec. 1. (Masa considered a higher price, one that crept closer to Masa’s, then discarded the idea.) The menu will range from 10-12 courses. “There will be a generous use of caviar and truffles, my two favorite things to eat—only the top, best ingredients,” promises Takayama. His focus will be on specially prepared whole fish and birds and large meat cuts, including fatty, marbled Ohmi beef, known as the world’s top Waygu. “Dishes will be prepared in different ways, depending on my mood. Basement is more about a concept and vision than a place. It’s where I can express my cooking philosophy, presenting dishes that capture ingredients as they are. Masa is all about sushi and a traditional omakase experience. Basement will be more rock ‘n’ roll, with emphasis on meat, whole fish, and birds prepared using different techniques.”
One unconventional way that Takayama has coped with his monumental restaurant delay is to sketch out every detail of the restaurant, step by step. “I am always sketching everything. I use rolls of paper towels and sketch every idea I have, illustrating what ingredients should be in the dish, what plate to use, and how it should be presented. I don’t like to communicate my ideas on email—I want to talk to my chefs in person, and most often I just hand them my sketches so they know exactly what I want.”
The delay has also given Takayama time to find a favorite place in the joint. “The far seat at the end of the food bar is my favorite. Every day I’m at Tetsu, I like to spread out all my drawings and observe my team working all around me. I don’t say much, but I get to see how people work and the care they take in my restaurant.”