Pretty Things at Masa 14

A great rooftop option for beating the crippling heat waves hitting D.C. this summer is Masa 14 in Logan Circle. A central staircase leads up from a spacious, chic, under-lit dining room to a long, elegant second floor bar. This opens to a roofdeck with a living wall of plants inclining upwards from the center, a leafy green display that gives the place its open, natural character. During Happy Hour, groups of smiling colleagues and friends sit around smooth wooden tables covered with wine-side snacks ideal for sharing. During dinnertime, highchairs are pulled closer together by couples, blushing dates happy to be brought somewhere with a view of the sunset.
1The menu at Masa 14 is one that brings a moment of thoughtful silence over the table. Chatter is temporarily halted by the wild array of dishes crafted by Executive Chefs Richard Sandoval, Kaz Okochi and Adam Goldman, small-plate treats that fuse South American flavor with Asian preparation. There are Japanese temaki rolls accented with jalapeño and jicama. There are light soups and salads, as well as veggie sides such as fried yucca and kimchi brussel sprouts. A selection of light, sundress-friendly flatbreads is followed by heartier Carne Noodles and Shrimp and Bulgogi Fried Rice. A shrimp, octopus and scallop ceviche and a Spicy Crunchy Salmon Chirashi Bowl constitute the raw portion of the menu. But it doesn’t stop there. The menu continues with a meat and poultry section which offers everything from crispy Japanese-style chicken wings to grilled tenderloin steak to meatballs in a tomato-yuzu sauce. Octopus, crab, shrimp, calamari, oysters and mussels all appear on the seafood section along with a chipotle miso black cod and a hoisin glazed salmon…

3Needless to say, choosing only a few dishes is a bit of a challenge and what follows that initial silence is conversation about what to share, an ideal icebreaker topic. I don’t think anyone goes to Masa 14, glances at the menu and closes it, going “Yeah, I’ll have the Green Apple Curry Chicken.” What may help is picking out the drink first and matching something to that. Besides the great selection of seasoned margaritas, mojitos and caipis which match the rooftop scene perfectly, there are also some very nice tequilas, mescals and piscos along with the more popular gins and whiskeys. The wine program is humble but contains some great stuff, especially when it comes to whites by the bottle – two Argentine Torrontes’, New Zealand Sauv Blancs and Spanish Verdejos. On Mondays, all bottled wines come half priced with dinner, a fact which might explain why on the Monday my dinner companion and I went almost every table had a bottle of frosty white crisping up in ice. I got one of their signature drinks, the Spicy Cucumber Margarita, a blanco tequila infused [in house, I think] with cucumber and fresno peppers, a bit of agave and lime added. The drink was nice and green from the cucumber with a feint heat from the pepper infusion and only a very slight sweetness since agave was used to sweeten it instead of syrup. Not too exciting but delicate and light. After a few sips, ordering became easier.

24Upon the recommendation of our server, we started out with the Spicy Tuna Sushi Handroll, one of four temaki’s flagging the dinner menu as unofficial must-order appetizers. The roll came neatly stuffed into a graceful little metal ice cream cone holder, which reached up towards us and made the contents more visible. A mushy wad of very delicate spicy tuna was inserted into a cone of rice spotted here and there with wasabi and topped with crisp, hydrating jicama and scallions. Nice and simple, and about 3 times the size of a traditional handroll to make each bite more satisfying and to make it a shareable thing. Biting through the nori was relatively easy, though the seaweed stuck to my teeth a tiny bit. The tuna was a great texture and the ratio of fish to rice was spot on. The rice was cooked to a nice consistency, firm enough to stand up to the soft fish. Shreds of jicama added a bit of crunch and moisture to each bite, though I wouldn’t have minded these being seasoned more, perhaps marinated in the wasabi which was incorporated in an uneven way through the dish. I did really enjoy the fact that the bottom of the cone contained a nice little heap of wasabi as it woke up my senses, cleared my palate and got me ready for the following courses. It was also a clever little nod to the chocolate Drumstick ice cream cones with chocolate in the tip.

56From the Meat & Poultry section of the menu, we ordered the Pork Belly Steamed Buns, which came out as single rectangular hunks of juicy pork belly marinated in hoisin, topped with a creamy, slightly spicy achiote sauce, some onion pickled in red wine vinegar, pickled red fresno peppers and, which was unexpectedly my favorite ingredient, small chunks of fresh pineapple. A visually striking dish, with bright, healthy colors that made my mouth water as I was taking photos. Although a little bit busy with ingredients, the flavors of the bao-stuffing harmonized well, with the onion perking up the deep herbal flavors of the achiote sauce, while the pineapple brought a sweet contrast that went well with the cloves and allspice in the achiote. The pickled pepper rings added some heat but not an overwhelming amount – this is not a spicy dish but a balanced one. The textures were all there as well, with the pillow soft, stick-to-the-teeth steamed bun wrapped around a hunky chunk of succulent meat and the veggies and fruit adding hydration and crunch. I’m not sure whether or not this was on purpose, but one of the pork belly pieces had more of a crispier, caramelized but drier thing going on, while the other was more juicy and fatty. I appreciated the experience of trying both textures.

89One of the best summertime bets on the menu is the refreshing and light Hijiki Seaweed-Jicama Salad. This is a heaping mound of what looks like colorful spaghetti but which is actually hijiki, thinly sliced jicama and some bright orange carrot shreds mixed up with chunks of crispy cool chayote and squash and tossed in a nutty, smokey sesame dressing, topped with baby-fresh daikon sprouts for some color. This one was all about texture, as the sesame dominated the dish in flavor for the most part. The slightly chewy reconstituted hijiki seaweed gave the dish most of its bite, while the carrot added body and the jicama and chayote cubes brought that water chestnut-apple type of crispness and moisture. The veggies soaked up the smokey sesame seasoning and acted as a sponge for the display of its flavors.

121311The one dish I didn’t enjoy that much was the Cornmeal Crusted Oysters which came topped with a lemon togarashi aioli and pickled green papaya slaw as well as a few pickled red fresno peppers. The aioli had a great flavor – a very nice blend of tangy citrus and mild heat from the chili – and the texture was thick and creamy enough to cling to the cornmeal crust. However, I felt that the ratio of the crust to the oysters inside was too large and the texture became dominated by the crunch of the cornmeal instead of finding a balance between that crunch and the mushy-soft moistness of the oyster inside. I think the oyster had also dried out a bit or perhaps it had “popped” during the cooking process” since it didn’t gush out that briny, murky marine juice into my mouth when bitten into. I also felt the papaya slaw could have been left a bit fresher – it had been pickled in vinegar and sugar to the point of losing all of its papaya character and becoming virtually indistinguishable from sauerkraut. It’s flavor did not go with the rest of the ingredients as there was nothing particularly smokey or cured for it to contrast against. Likewise the acidity and heat coming off the pepper didn’t really go in any particular direction but was just kind of there. I’m generally not really a fan of anything that comes served on a flimsy lettuce leaf which is not really firm enough to hold anything up and which cheapens the presentation overall. A dish that knows what it wants to be but hasn’t quite gotten there yet.

161415Out of the wood oven we tried the Tuna Sashimi Flatbread, which came drizzled with wasabi aioli and topped with fresh yuzu-splashed arugula, capers and red onion. Where I felt that the Cornmeal Crusted Oysters tried to do a bit too much in terms of flavor components, this dish kept it simple and fresh. A generous amount of slippery smooth and juicy tuna sliced thin and layered onto a humble wood oven fire flatbread crusted over with corn kernels. The contrast here was great – the moist, cool fish locked the crispy, coarse bread into a loving embrace and the ratio between the two was perfect. The wasabi aioli added a clean heat but not too much flavor. It opened up my senses, making them more conscious of the subtle sweetness of the tuna. The flavor punch came from the salty little pickled capers which were nestled between leaves of fresh, peppery arugula. The capers didn’t really clash with the wasabi as they just provided a base flavor to which the heat of the wasabi could be added. I did think that there were a tad too many capers on there, at least in some patches of the flatbread, which is probably why I couldn’t taste the yuzu too well. But otherwise, a great summer snack to share.

The dishes at Masa 14 are quirky and fun, like summer love. They brighten up the afternoon and the fusion element adds spunk and intrigue, “oohs” and “aahs” that work as great conversation starters in an easy-breezy environment. This is an example of surface fusion done right where it’s more about the juxtaposition of culinary elements rather than any real blending of two or more cuisines, but in a way that satisfies aesthetically and as part of a merry experience. A place with plenty of air, light cocktails and colorful fingerfood – I will definitely recommend Masa 14 for a great summertime after-work spot.

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