Gastronomic globalization


To wit, Salvadoran pupusas can be found on Mexican menus, while pan-Asian hotspots combine Pad Thai with Kung Pao, and Penn Quarter’s Zaytinya borrows freely from both ends of the Mediterranean. But Masa 14, the fusion boite that opened last month in Logan Circle, takes gastronomic globalization to a new level, mingling Latin and Asian flavors like a workaholic juggler under the big top.

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The restaurant shares a broad Latin-Asian ancestry with Zengo, the Chinatown kitchen opened by Masa 14 co-creator Richard Sandoval. But Masa 14 aims to do more than concoct exotic combinations of far-flung ingredients; it sets its sights on remaking traditional dishes using a novel taste palette, leaving diners unable to separate the heat of one region’s spice from another.

Sandoval’s partner in that effort is Kazuhiro Okochi of downtown’s Kaz Sushi Bistro. Okochi explained in a recent interview that Masa 14 goes beyond “just combining my food with Richard’s … we created a new world together from scratch.”

A visit to that new world is best begun by stopping by the bar that stretches 65 feet long (the size of the average Capitol Christmas tree). There, an unfailingly friendly staff pours 100 types of tequila, from anejo to Zapopan, as well as a slate of affordable wines by the glass.

The cocktails are potent but distinctive, their high prices earned thanks to fresh mix-ins such as mango puree and house-made ginger ale.

Especially memorable were the pineapple caipirinha, its tart bite cut with a dose of agave nectar, and the Snow Beauty, an unfiltered sake that packs a sweet but nutty punch.

Happily, the bar’s capacity allows sippers room to order food without the fear of overcrowding, and some of Chef de Cuisine Antonio Burrell’s best work is tailor-made for easy eating. The crispy crab wontons look small but explode upon first bite into a mélange of corn, mushroom, and pungent green shiso leaf. The yucca fries are another perfect bar bite, lightly fried to fluffy perfection and served with a dual dipping sauce of garlicky chimichurri and creamy aioli.

The weeknight crowds lining up to swipe at the bar’s comfortable banquette seating and dozens of ready stools indicate Masa 14’s bar is a major part of its identity. The presence of thumping house music contributes to a clubby feel, but Okochi said his team is focused on putting food front and center. “We’re not a nightclub, we’re a restaurant,” he stated.

The restaurant side of the room boasts a cast of knowledgeable and patient servers, whose openness to letting tables linger over another round of edamame can occasionally put the front-of-house staff on the spot. Depending on the ebb and flow of traffic off of busy 14th Street, hostesses can choose to seat incomplete parties or ask those with reservations to wait — it’s all part of the learning curve, and Masa 14 handles the challenging moments well.

For diners seeking a full evening at Masa 14, working one’s way down the menu in “courses” is advisable. Some dishes do little more than prime the palate, while others are more filling than their size on the plate suggests.

Small wonders in the former category include the crunchy okra, which doesn’t lose its snap even after a thorough soak in spicy soy sauce, and the sushi hand rolls, led by a marvelous mint-spiked barbecued eel. On the flip side, the slow-cooked beef brisket in a tangy achiote-pepper sauce could easily feed one person on its own, especially considering its lush cushion of Oaxaca cheese-blended mashed potatoes.

One dish becoming an early mega-hit at Masa 14 is the pork belly tacos, an homage of sorts to the pork buns made famous by New York City’s Momofuku. Masa 14 goes Manhattan one better by pairing its melt-in-your-mouth fatty meat with sweet pineapple jelly, but those expecting to bite into a tortilla should be prepared for the gooey collapse of steamed Chinese dough. My prediction: By the time the second “taco” is finished, no one will miss crunchy corn.

And if there is any justice in the capital, Masa 14 should eventually be known for another creation: its seaweed salad, a light-as-air duet of briny jade hijiki seaweed and juicy white jicama root. A dusting of daikon sprouts and earthy Mexican chayote root completes the plate, which goes down so easy that I resisted the urge to order seconds.

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Interestingly, the lowlights of Masa 14’s menu seem to be those that bear the closest resemblance to offerings at Zengo. The new spot’s calamari is breaded pleasantly with gritty Japanese panko flakes, and its dressing hums thanks to an infusion of madras curry. But an unnecessary pouf of bitter greens on the top confuses the texture, while making the dish a dead ringer for Zengo’s calamari.

The black cod is reliable without hitting stellar notes, perhaps due to the chipotle-miso sauce that was recently used on Zengo’s version.

On the whole, Masa 14’s recession-centric prices and its eagerness to please smooth the rough spots. Okochi described his vision as “a neighborhood restaurant, not a trendy destination,” and Masa 14 manages to hit that mark even with its in-house DJ booth. When a server from another section stops by the table to pinch-hit with another glass of sake and a spot-on suggestion, you know the formula is working — and the foodie world is truly flat.