The darkly lit Masa 14. Photograph by Chris Leaman
I stand at the corner of DC’s 14th and U streets, Northwest, around 6:30 PM, my blood sugar dropping because I haven’t eaten all day. I’m seriously contemplating a convenience-store stop or a slice at Manny & Olga’s when I redirect my plans to Cork, Marvin, or Masa 14. Having never dined at Masa for dinner (I’d been for brunch), I choose the latter. Its sister restaurant, El Centro D.F., is slated to open the following day, and I think I should know the family better.
I’ve never had dinner at Masa for a few reasons: It always seemed packed and—to be honest—a bit untzy. I love to people-watch during dinner, but I wasn’t fond of the spin-class-gone-Euro ambience. The spot also strikes me as a datey, pickup scene, far from the vibe of where locals hang out and the type of place to which I generally gravitate. As much as I appreciate chef Antonio Burrell and his cooking (I was a regular while he was in the kitchen at CommonWealth), he’s not the one I’ll be sitting next to at the bar.
When I enter Masa, I feel like a tourist in my own neighborhood. I grab the sunlit stool closest to the door at the short end of the L-shaped granite bar, a perfect perch. To my left is a trio of Masa 14 first-timers in suits drinking booze on ice. An Indian couple hovers next to them, the woman standing—it allows her to be closer to and handsier with her guy. A bartender cards her when she orders a cocktail named the Passion, made with Grey Goose, agave nectar, and passionfruit juice. As she scoots off to the lady’s room, he compliments her on her beauty and tells her date that he’s shocked she’s actually 21.
A pair of women flank the other side of the couple, decked in triangles of fabric tied at the neck and the back. Another spiffed-up twosome breezes through the entrance holding hands, he in his khakis and Gucci loafers, she in her black cocktail dress and platform stilettos. Seal’s “Crazy” remix pumps away in the background. Did I mention it’s 6:30 PM on a Tuesday?
My salvation so far is the light of sunset, a breeze from a propped door, a full drink, and Marc Eber, Masa’s newest, very attentive bar manager, who takes good care of me.
Perusing the menu, I feel like a rube: I don’t get the Japanese-meets-Chinese-meets-Korean food in this environment. And the too-similar items on the menu are confirmed when a bartender enters the wrong crunchy shrimp as my order: I wanted temaki, not the dish with chipotle aïoli, sesame, scallion, and masago.
As I sink into the week’s Washington City Paper cover story, runners marched from the kitchen down the length of the bar, dropping off fire-roasted edamame, my shrimp plate, and a steamed pork bun, which I’m most excited about: two pillowy halves like unhinged Muppet mouths flop open to reveal cilantro-marinated tenderloin dressed with hoisin and achiote. Pickled red-onion ribbons perch on top. Diced pineapple fall from the sandwich like confetti.
I feel lonelier as the hour wears on, despite a chat with Burrell about the opening of El Centro and a back-and-forth with the suits about Virginia spirits and (alleged) Cocktails That Girls Like. A guy steps into the middle of the conversation, standing too close to me, his coffee accoutrements splaying across the bar. I scoot down to find my backside nearly on top of the first bank of tables. My place setting seems disheveled, a bevy of dishes with a thin common thread.
The sun has set. Seal switches to techno. The bar is three deep. People lean their full torsos across in an effort to be heard. My bartender is juggling. Now invisible —yet still hungry—I pay my bill, rolling out onto 14th Street, looking for someplace else that feels closer to home.