- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Masa 14 is big, and it’s noisy. The bar is 65 feet long and crowded with young professionals, many from the neighborhood. Tables are filled even on weeknights, some with not-so-young diners. Everyone has a good time drinking, trying to talk above the music and supping on some very good food.

Masa 14 has joined the crop of new and nearly new restaurants on 14th Street Northwest, increasingly trendy with shops and theaters as well as restaurants. The restaurant is the brainchild of Richard Sandoval of Zengo and Kazuhiro Okochi of Kaz Sushi Bistro. Dishes are tapas-style small plates, but there’s no Spanish connection.

What comes out of the kitchen is a combination of Latin and Asian culinary concepts. Almost everything works. As with Spanish tapas, the idea is for diners to share several small plates. Three dishes per person is the recommended formula. If we were still hungry after our first choices, our waiter assured us, there would be “no problem” in ordering additional dishes because “nothing takes more than nine minutes” - quite a feat for a restaurant seating 100 diners. The waiter sees to it that not all the dishes come out at once, so there’s time to savor each dish.

The menu ranges from the purely Asian (temaki hand rolls) to classic Latin (tuna ceviche). Most of the menu is a delectable combination of flavors. Grilled octopus is combined with chimichurri sauce and pickled vegetables; barbecued eel is paired with pickled jalapeno and mint. Pork-belly tacos are steamed buns topped with pork, pineapple, lime, cilantro and pickled onion.

A tasty entry to a meal at Masa 14 is one of the wood-oven flat breads. They’re a bit too flat and arrive at the table burned at the edges, but the toppings are interesting. Serrano ham is combined with goat cheese, cantaloupe and arugula; tuna sashimi is spiced with wasabi aioli, capers, yuzu, red onion and arugula; wild mushrooms are flavored with Oaxaca cheese, red pepper and avocado. We tried the flat bread topped with Thai-spiced chicken, shredded carrots and bean sprouts. The peanut sauce added the right touch, though a slight excess drowned the full flavor of the vegetables.

A delicious version of an oft-maligned vegetable is the crunchy wok-fried okra, served with a soy dipping sauce. The whole pod is coated in sesame seeds, and the hot morsels are crunchy and spicy. These are not the fried okra of the South and tend to get somewhat soggy if not consumed quickly.

Green-curry chicken is one of the best dishes we tasted. Small pieces of grilled chicken are combined with spinach, carrot slices and potato cubes in a rich, creamy curry sauce with just the right amount of heat. Black cod is an excellent dish, a small square of perfectly cooked fresh fish. It couldn’t be better.

Braised Kobe beef brisket, although well-prepared, is not as satisfying as the usual beef short ribs; the Japanese-style brisket has less flavor than a Texas steer and is fatter. Fat afflicts the pork-belly carnitas as well. The flavor is fine, but more than half of some of the small squares consist of fat with very little lean. In lieu of french fries, the kitchen serves yuca fries, which come to the table hot, crisp and very good, with mild aioli and chimichurri sauces.

After the small plates, we had pots of white-chocolate creme brulee and panna cotta topped with mango. The former was rich and delicious; the latter light and delicious. We couldn’t decide which we liked better.

Service at Masa 14 is prompt and attentive, with waiters and assistants moving in double time.

The wine list is small but well-chosen. The list of sakes and tequilas, on the other hand, is lengthy. Tequila can be ordered in flights, priced according to type. During happy hour, between 5 and 7 p.m., several of the appetizer-style dishes, house wines and a select list of mixed drinks and beer are available for $4 each.

The restaurant is open for dinner. Beginning Saturday, it will be open for brunch on weekends. A few reservations are taken each day, but Masa 14 welcomes walk-in diners.

RESTAURANT: Masa 14, 1825 14th St. NW, 202/328-1414

HOURS: Dinner 5 p.m. to midnight daily; late-night menu available Sunday to Thursday until 2 a.m., Friday and Saturday to 3 a.m.; brunch 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday

PRICES: $5 to $14; desserts $4

PARKING: Street parking; valet parking $10

ACCESS: Wheelchair accessible

METRO: U Street/African-American Civil War Memorial/Cardozo

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