This restaurant has been revamped since our visit. It has a new chef, a new look and a new menu.
Last April, for our seventh anniversary, Mike and I had the mixed blessing of having dinner at the French Laundry in Yountville. It was a mixed blessing for while this was without a doubt the best dining experience we've ever had (eating at the French Laundry is more of an event than a meal), it raised our expectations of what a fine meal should be like to such a level that no other restaurant in the Bay Area can approach. Why there can't be (or there aren't) any more restaurants like the French Laundry in the gourmet-mecca-wanna-be Bay Area, we don't know, but we sure wish there were some.
I had no expectations of being able to find a place that would approach our newfound Nirvana, but I wanted to take Mike to a nice, fancy place for his birthday. He loves French food (and is fond enough of what passes for French food in this country) and other gourmet-nouvelle-whatevers and I'm more than happy to oblige. With this in mind I decided to take him to Masa's as it was the right type of food, with the right type of menu, had gotten pretty good reviews, and we'd already visited Fleur de Lys (its most-alike competitor). It was a good choice, while neither the food nor the experience can approach the French Laundry's, Masa's is a very nice second-choice.
The restaurant occupies a large room at the Hotel Vintage Court. It's a very nice place, with dark burgundy walls and drapes, and colorful modern paintings. You can get a pretty good idea of what it looks like by visiting its website. We were there on a Thursday night, when the restaurant was mostly empty, so we were happy to find it very quiet - though we suspect it gets louder in weekend nights. Though the room is rather dimly lit, and the small table lamps are adorable, we didn't find the place to be very romantic - perhaps some candles instead of the lamps would have helped. It was very nice, however, elegant without being stodgy.
We arrive a bit early for our 7 PM reservation and where immediately seated. Only one other table was occupied, and during the course of the evening only a few more patrons came by. The clientele was rather mixed, business people talking work, several couples of diverse ages and some tourists. Everyone (except for me) was elegantly dressed - jackets are required for men, and most men were wearing suits.
Service was excellent. The waiter was attentive and very helpful, and water was constantly replenished. On an interesting note, after we were given our menus the waiter told me he had a note that I didn't eat seafood or animal innards, and that he would talk to the Chef about accommodating my tastes. What I found interesting is that I don't remember saying anything about my taste in food when I called Masa's for a reservation - and while I indeed don't eat seafood or entrails, my principal food aversion is to vegetables, so if I had been asked about not liking any food, I would certainly have said vegetables. I will tentatively surmise that they got me confused with someone else who coincidently did not like some things I don't like. In any case, I thought it was very considerate of them to be willing and able to accommodate different tastes.
Masa's offers two prix-fix menus, a four-course "Menu du Jour" that includes a few dish choices for each course ($70-$75), and a five-course "Menu Degustation" with three fixed courses, and two offering choices ($75-$80). I chose to have the Menu du Jour and Mike the Menu Degustation, as this meant that he'd get an extra course, the waiter very kindly offered to bring me an addition course (I declined).
As many of the choices in the Menu du Jour were seafood, the chef suggested a number of alternative dishes. For the first course, I chose a ragout of mushrooms and I was very impressed with it, there were three types of mushrooms with a wonderful hearty sauce. The mushrooms took the flavor of the sauce superbly and differently, I liked it very much and even Mike, who does not like mushrooms was impressed. I don't remember what Mike's first course was, but he also liked it.
My second course was quail, and it was also delicious. The meat was very tender and flavorful, and the portion was very generous. Mike's second and third courses were sautéed filet of rouget with jus de bouillabaisse and foie gras sauté with Madeira truffle sauce. He wasn't terribly impressed with the fish, which had a very interesting red color (thus its name), but he seemed to like the foie gras. For our entree, I had the mignon and Mike the lobster (if I well remember). Both were very good, though not particularly outstanding - otherwise I'd remember what we had much better. Finally, for dessert I had the "warm sourdough chocolate cake" and Mike had the "banana crème brûlée." We love crème brûlé and bananas and were rather disappointed in this version. The banana flavor didn't add anything to the dessert, and the overall effect just didn't work. In addition, the dessert was served cold, which might be easier for the kitchen but brings down this dessert several notches. The chocolate cake, on the other hand, was very good though not outstanding. It very much resembled a somewhat hardy chocolate souffle and was rather moist inside. After dessert, we got served some tasty petit fours and declined coffee.
There is no doubt that Masa's has a very impressive wine list - the wine menu is several pages thick and includes dozens of whites and reds. Unfortunately, they have very few choices for under $100. Indeed, I found the wine list so intimidating that we decided not to order a bottle of wine at all (Mike got a glass of Bordeaux, I think, which was good). Not being connoisseurs of fine wine it was difficult for us to judge whether the wines in the list were superb (as we think they should be at such prices) or just terribly overpriced. At those prices I wasn't quite willing to try and find out.
All in all our experience was quite pleasant. Dinner took about 2 hours, we liked the decor and appreciated the wonderful service, and enjoyed the food, even if we didn't find it memorable. We liked the fact that Masa's offers prix-fix menus, as it pushes us to eat things we wouldn't otherwise order, and appreciated that the portions are of such size that you are neither hungry nor too-full by the end of the meal. All this said, we were not awed by the experience and I'm not sure if we'd go back. With the French Laundry around, there seems to be little reason (other than skipping the extra one-hour drive and spending hours on the phone to get reservations) to eat at Masa's.
648 Bush Street
San Francisco CA 94108
(415) 989-7154(800) 258-7694