Masa 14 is a lively space with a unique neighborhood feeling and a colorful Latin-Asian cuisine in Washington, D.C., and they have put together a new gluten-free dinner, which I was invited to sample.
Masa 14 looks new, partially because the interior is very clean and neat. In fact, it was opened in 2009. There is lots of wood and metal touches with a poured concrete floor. This makes for a highly reflective box for sound, so there is a level of noise which can get fairly intense.
It’s easy to get into, there are no lines outside, and it would seem to be easy to score a reservation. The crowd was largely millennials and other young, hip looking, well dressed customers. The chef, Stephen Hartzell, said that they are looking to create an easy, relaxed atmosphere. It appears as though they have succeeded.
When I entered, I was looking for a particular party to join, so I asked the hostess if she had seated my party. She looked confused and said in reply, “How long has she worked here?”
I just said, “I’ll just walk around and find them.” Even after this unsatisfactory introduction the meal was nearly flawless.
I was there for a five course dinner. Hartzell came out and introduced each course, which was very helpful. The first course was hamachi tartar which had a very nice presentation, wrapped in a cone of seaweed, which made it very easy to eat. Crispy tofu surrounding a bed of spinach came after the hamachi tartar. The spinach was cooked to perfection, light and hunter green with some strength left in the shafts. The combination of the tofu and the spinach was very stunning. Once again Hartzell gets high marks for presentation. Charred edamame, one of the restaurant’s most popular starters, followed. It was presented in a white bowl with an empty bowl beside it for the shells. The charred edamame was just slightly blackened so it made it easy to eat from the husks and the flavor was light.
Our waiter brought a bowl of chicken salad made of shredded carrots and cabbage surrounding some chicken. This was to clear the palate. Following the chicken salad was grilled salmon with a red Thai curry-coconut sauce poured over cilantro mint rice. Joined by this was charred octopus atop chorizo, fingerling potatoes, haricot vert, salmon aioli and micro greens. Then we had wok roasted scallops, accompanied by chanterelle mushrooms, scallions, sushi rice, and togarashi-corn puree. For a vegetable there was cauliflower mixed with kimchi, scrambled eggs, bird’s eye chili, and tamarin, light and gorgeous to see.
For the main course there seared ahi tuna which was sushi grade and very flavorful. This was paired with mole negro, haricort vert, and peanut chili. Dry, aged striploin was on the same plate accompanied by masa steak sauce and roasted fingerlings. The striploin was a bit tough, but such a small complaint in the face of so much else that was first tier is highly forgivable.
Dessert brought toasted almond flan, which was light as a baby’s kiss. So, I had a second. Pineapple mint sorbet and roasted strawberry gelato which were both flawless and were sourced by a colleague and friend of chef Hartzell, Rob Duncan.
Concluding the meal, chef Hartzell came to the table and said he wants the mood of Masa 14 to welcome a flow of easy conversation. I would say that his intention is made manifest.
I asked him how he came to be a chef, how he got into cooking. “It is something I have always been drawn to. Even as a kid I shadowed my mother and grandmother in the kitchen, just watching, observing, and knowing that this big meal was going to be the center point for my family to sit around and share the trials and joys of the day. I cooked all through college until I finally decided to take the culinary route. I decided to pass on the academic route and instead looked for chefs whose cuisine I found inspiring and hounded them until they gave me a job.”
Next I asked what his relationship was with his suppliers. He replied, “I try and use as many small businesses as I can. One relationship that has grown over the years is the one with Robb Duncan of Dolcezza Gelato Company. Watching him grow and grow over the years has been an absolute joy. We support him and his family’s business with great pride. We will source seafood, meat, and produce locally when possible. We are currently using a dry aged pork belly from a third generation Amish farm in Eastern Maryland.”
I can say that I loved my meal, the atmosphere, and the service in which nothing seemed to be too much to ask. Masa 14 is great adventure into high-caliber eating.