New Chef de Cuiz’ in the house at Masa 14, Richard Sandoval’s Latin-Asian small plates restaurant on the bustling 14th Street corridor. D.C. native Eric McKamey brings to the table (or to the masa, rather…) skills he has honed at some of the city’s most respected establishments, including The Oval Room, Proof, Central Michel Richard, CityZen, Palena and 2941. The new fall menu keeps on some popular Masa favorites (such as the pork belly steamed bao and various temaki), while also adding a number of McKamey’s own signatures to the mix. Many of the new dishes showcase seasonal and local ingredients, hearty fare but still kept light, with a touch of autumnal comfort.
I recently had the opportunity to try these out with a companion whom it wasn’t difficult to persuade to join me. Things are, for the most part, kept pretty at Masa. Fusion stays at the juxtaposition of Western and Eastern ingredients, rather than striving to attain the more difficult merge of fundamental culinary concepts. This makes for dishes that are offbeat, snazzy and fun,especially enjoyable when shared in good company and paired with plenty of equally colorful and vibrant cocktails. The new menu fits into this scene, while also making more substantial options available for guests seeking to satisfy a more demanding winter-time appetite.
I apologize in advance for the quality of the photos. As a stroke of bad luck, we were seated in one of the darkest, albeit most intimate, sections of the restaurant and since it was a Saturday night it would have been a pain to change tables. I got pretty good photos last time, though, so at least some dishes are well documented… Dinner started with a Roasted Beet Salad in a triage of colors: yellow, pink and a deep purple. Over the top was some frisee lettuce and bits of spiced cashew, toasted to a crunch. There was also some creamy curry leaf yogurt that provided a tart zing to balance out the earthy mineral notes of the beets. These veggies were roasted to a great texture, tender and soft, easy for my teeth to glide right through and become dyed by their beautiful colors. A simple, light option is the Thai Shrimp Ceviche. The tender, slightly gummy shrimp and chunks of fresh mango were coated with a good amount of sweet coconut milk, dotted here and there with spicy serrano chilis. I appreciated the fact that the mango cubes were not exactly ripe, but still bright and tangy, with an acidity that contrasted the sweetness of the coconut. If they had been too mature, combining them with the sweet coconut would’ve resulted in a sickly sweet goop that would’ve overpowered the delicate shrimp. Although I tend to enjoy ceviches that are a bit less creamy and more acidic, this dish was my dinner companion’s favorite. My personal favorite was the Thai Pumpkin Soup, which had a depth of flavor I was not expecting, even after our waitress nonchalantly added, “Oh and there are some chunks of lobster in there too.” What? Pumpkin, coconut and lobster? But yeah, it works beautifully. The pumpkin kept the natural caramelization lured out by roasting, and added a velvety texture to the puree. This was thinned out with coconut milk, which added a floral sweetness that harmonized very nicely with the more mature sweetness of the pumpkin without overpowering it. Toasty achiote seed butter added back some smoke and echoed the char of the pumpkin. After scooping all the way down to the base of the cup, our spoons resurfaced with hunky chunks of bright white lobster tail fluttering around in them. When biting into these, they released a sweet, clean flavor – not a particularly marine one – which added a fantastic depth to the creamy base. Crunchy pumpkin seeds gave textural contrast to the lush soup. I was hesitant to ask for the Autumn Vegetable Chirashi, since I knew there were quite a few dishes still coming and rice tends to fill me up pretty quickly. But when I saw that the title of the menu section changed from “Temaki” to “Temaki & Chirashi” just to accomodate this one new rice bowl, I thought it best to give it a chance. I guess it’s okay to have a vegetarian option for them, though the dish did not make too much sense to me. A cold dish, with cubes of butternut squash, some bok choy kimchi, shiso leaf and shredded omelette dumped on white rice. The brine of the kimchi was very nice, and it woke my tongue up with its fizz of fermentation. I liked that Chinese cabbage was used instead of the traditional napa. The delicate heads were crunchy little bundles for my teeth to sink into. I didn’t think the kimchi had much to do with the rice at all though, and it seemed like an odd juxtaposition. The butternut squash was cold and raw to a crunch. It might have been very slightly pickled (or maybe the flavors of the kimchi just took over), but it definitely did not seem cooked through enough. And the shredded egg over the top was just a bit random. It provided virtually no flavor and a texture which didn’t really contrast or harmonize with the kimchi, but instead was just kind of there as another unnecessary ingredient. I ended up picking on most of the bok choy kimchi and avoiding everything else. We enjoyed Masa 14th’s take on a popular fast food favorite, Lo Mein Noodles. The noodles had a great smoky, even slightly burnt flavor to them, which balanced nicely with the fresh rapini, crunchy hunks of jicama and gummy mushrooms. A light oyster sauce added the majority of flavor, while some chipotle gave the dish a dash of heat. The pieces of hanger steak were really too small to enjoy for their juicy texture, but they soaked up all the flavors of the sauce and provided a good canvas to display these on. Not too oily, but also not uncomfortably starchy, these noodles were kept pretty simple. A full fork bundle definitely made me feel comfortable and satisfied. When I visited Masa 14 this past summer I had the Tuna Sashimi Flatbread, which came with a very mild yet refreshing wasabi aioli and some capers. I remember really enjoying it, but it was the summertime and simple textures with clean, fresh flavors flavors were all I was really craving (well, along with any citrusy cocktail or dry white wine…) When I saw that some of the new items were added to the Flatbread section of the menu, I wasn’t too thrilled. When it’s 20° out I’m more in the mood for braised butt and belly than crusty wafers of bread with fresh yet flimsy toppings over it. But when the two new flatbreads came out, the initial disappointment evaporated. We had the Prosciutto Flatbread with its large patches of tangy goat cheese and more mild, creamy Oaxaca cheese melted on. The latter balanced out the acidity and nutty nature of the goat and the combination of the two made for a wonderful bed for the juicy bundles of salty prosciutto to stretch out on. Some sweet, jammy patches of guava offset the savory flavors, while dried red chiles added heat and a tingle to each bite. Crunchy flatbread. Surprisingly hearty. An even more season appropriate option was the Pork Carnitas Flatbread, which came with smoked panela cheese, spicy crema, onions pickled with citrus and bright green rapini. The little chunks of carnitas were flaky and tender with a good amount of giggly fat adding decadent moisture. The meat was picked up by the tangy onions and soft bits of rapini flower that also added a nice color to the dish. My dinner companion and I thoroughly enjoyed this dish, especially one particular flavor that we couldn’t identify until I took another peek at the dish description. It was the smoked panela cheese, which added a wonderful nutty, charred taste to each bite, coating the chunks of pork with some pizzazz and adding a creamy texture too. I had expected the flatbread to be a bit busy, but the dough held everything up and remained consistently crisp. A wonderfully meaty, wintertime version of an otherwise very light dish. The Drunken Adobo Pork was quite delicious though a bit plain, in my opinion, to appear on the menu at Masa 14. It reminded me of something I’d scoop out of a takeout box on a lazy Sunday night with my roommates. Just not quite pretty enough. Nevertheless, it was well executed and tasty. The marinade had made the pork tender and the meat was cut into slices thin enough to appreciate its flavor without having to chew too much. The adobo had a good blend of spices and some tequila reposado, which was only very faintly noticeable. There were also some springy, fresh long beans in there, shocked to a vibrant green and just barely sauteed to stay al dente. Some light cooked chayote added a crisp texture as well, along with crunchy roasted peanuts sprinkled over the top. The pork came in a rather large portion with a small side of rice on the plate. This might be the best option for that manly man in your life who doesn’t do girly finger-food. Our most meaty dish was the Korean Grilled Hanger Steak, which came sliced thin on top of a bed of the same bok choy kimchi that appeared in the chirashi bowl. Some fresh bean sprouts drizzled with red miso lay over the top, mostly there to be scraped right off. Around the steak was a light guajillo chile sauce with a weak kick to it. Although I felt that the meat was delightfully under-cooked (in a good way), with a great charred exterior, I didn’t think that pairing it with cold kimchi and a smokey chile sauce was the best idea. The dish was generally a bit busy and the beef seemed pulled in way too many flavor directions. I understand that serving kimchi as a banchan along with grilled meat is customary in Korean BBQ culture. However, the meat in this case was not eaten with a side of kimchi, but rather off a bed of the latter. The funky, acidic juices of the pickle touched the meat too soon and kept touching it for too long, until the steak soaked them all up. And really, anything that soaks up that brine is immediately kimchi-afied. The meat was already too acidic and thus no longer available to carry the spice of the red chile sauce or the umami of the miso. Maybe segregating these ingredients into different corners of the plate and allowing guests to add however much they want of each would’ve been a better idea. And for dessert we chose the Toasted Almond Flan, which we were happy to discover actually tasted like toasted almonds and not almond extract. The custard was consistently smooth, firm but not scrambled all the way through. Little dots of crushed almond imbued the cream with extra nutty, roast-toasty flavor that made it quite a pleasure to eat even on its own. Topping the flan was an airy basil-raspberry foam that melted on my tongue, leaving only its tart and herbal fresh flavors. Personally, I thought the raspberry overpowered the subtle almond essence of the custard when combined in the same bite, so I alternated between foam and custard bites and was very satisfied by the result. There was also a crispy vanilla tuile tucked into the flan, but come on… Real flan enthusiast don’t mess around with those.
The new fall menu items stay consistent with the concept behind the food at Masa 14: easy-breezy E/W fusion tapas, except bundled up for the season. The ooh-ahh element is maintained with each plate consisting of a number of ingredients that might be unfamiliar to DC diners. Chayote, what’s that? Achiote – is that some sort of chile? It’s a learning experience and a chance to try something new for many. Not really meant to be pondered over, the dishes are vibrant, colorful and pretty. They set the mood for a fun evening out with friends.