Restaurant: Massa

Back to Contents of Issue: October 2000

by Eric Gower

massaImprobable as it sounds, Masahiko Kobe, at the tender age of 30, is probably one of Japan's best chefs. It's hard not to be skeptical of such a claim, but a trip to Massa, his new restaurant in Ebisu, should quickly dispel any lingering doubts.

Kobe is also one of Japan's better-known chefs, thanks to his appearances on Fuji TV's cult-like hit show, Ryouri no Tetsujin (Iron Chef), where he appears as "Iron Chef Italian" to do battle with a "challenger" chef, both of whom work in identically stocked and equipped kitchens, to see who can prepare in one hour the most innovative, delectable multicourse meal using a single theme ingredient (porcini mushrooms, crab, and apple were the stars of three recent shows). By age 27, Kobe had risen to head chef at one of the world's top restaurants, Enoteca Pinchiorri, in Florence, before being spotted by Takeshi Kaga, the show's creator and host. Kobe opened Massa in February of this year.

Massa's immaculate, crisply contemporary interior of wood and glass is comfortable and elegant, but not stiff, and the waiters are knowledgeable and eager to please.

The meal started with a remarkable plate of caponata -- half of a perfect chilled tomato filled with uni (sea urchin), sitting in a delightful liquid medley of tomato confit-like gelatin and avocado. I thought there could be nowhere to go but down after that, but my pessimism cracked as a massive single shrimp, grilled and chilled, was brought out on an edifice of white asparagus and puree made of carrot, egg, fresh cream, and cayenne pepper, each bite savored with a sip of the fine house spumante, a combination that still has me goosebumping a full day after I devoured it.

The next two courses were pasta (Kobe is widely known as "the prince of pasta"); a tagliolini (a skinny fettuccine) with abalone, with a sauce made from the liver of the abalone and olive oil, and a marvelously artistic tortelli (ravioli), shaped in the triangular distinction of the Massa logo and filled with minced inoshishi (wild boar) and gorgonzola, served with anzu mushrooms.

The main event was the roasted duck, simple and exquisite and bursting with juice, along with a mound of snow peas, baby corn, and sliced asparagus. The dessert -- a one-bite-each assortment of fresh peach, pomegranate, orange sorbet, cheesecake, and red wine jelly, all served on a cobalt blue plate dusted with powdered sugar and dabs of raspberry sauce scattered about -- was an edible Matisse. The espresso was served piping hot: a rarity.

The wine list is 100 percent Italian. The only thing preventing a perfect score for Massa was the absurdly stingy glasses of house wine they served. At first I thought the waiter was being generous with a tasting; then he walked away! Two swallows later, I asked a different waiter to pour me another, and he filled it even less! Though good, 800 yen for two mouthfuls is an obscene oversight that Kobe-san ought to rectify, and pronto. Diners are advised to order wine by the bottle, the prices of which are reasonable.

There are two choices for dinner: the 6,000 course, and the 8,000 course. Both are among Tokyo's greatest culinary bargains. Booking is essential: the ten tables are always full.

Kobe himself walked around after the meal and schmoozed with the diners, refilled water glasses, and had the older ladies near my table giggling and flirting. He is a class act. It's nothing short of extraordinary that a 30-year-old can produce these kinds of harmonies with food -- he cooks like he's been around as long as Julia Child.

Ristorante Massa, 1-23-22 Ebisu, Shubuya-ku, Tokyo
Tel: +81-3-5793-3175

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