For better or worse, sushi isn’t going anywhere — for every diner carping about freshness or sustainability, there are five lining up to get their fix of tuna nigiri. That said, with the current boom of sushi places throughout the Twin Cities (and Uptown in particular) an eventual die-off seems inevitable; soundly-run old warriors like Origami and Fuji Ya will likely maintain their footing as all but the sharpest of the new breed fight one another to death.
That said, local interest in Japanese food seems to be expanding, if not actually moving on — witness the success of Obento-Ya on Como (which has emphasized bento boxes and charcoal-grilled robata skewers, although the latter were recently dropped from restaurant’s lunch menu), the sake gastropub moto-i in Uptown, and the austere, wonderful, noodle-focused Tanpopo in St. Paul.
And so: We come to the newest, biggest kid on the block, the Tim McKee-launched, sustainable-fish focused Masu Sushi & Robata. We previewed Masu after attending its press event in mid-April, but returned to explore its menu more thoroughly and get a sense of its long-term prospects.
The prospects seem bright, and we were encouraged to see Chris Olson (who successfully opened moto-i and had previously been stationed at Meritage) in the house in a sous chef capacity*.
While showcasing its sushi offerings, Masu equally emphasizes intriguing small plates, numerous robata skewers, and serious noodle offerings. The menu ranges widely and borders on the overwhelming, but it’s organized well enough that an experienced diner should be able to patch together a well-rounded meal. We generally quite liked the robata (above) — the tsukune chicken meatball ($3.75) was surprisingly delicate and packed a flavor punch, and the miso-glazed grilled sweet corn ($2.50) was a novel and delicious choice. A chicken breast and scallion skewer ($3.50, not pictured) was a nicely balanced treat, but we found the pork belly ($4.50, above) to be 95 percent fat; it had a nicely charred crispy outside and pork fat lovers may savor it, but hopefully we’ll get a bit more meat next time.
There’s quite a lot to like about Masu. From its clear concept to its smart-as-a-whip Japanese pop culture interior to its quirky, well-executed food, the place feels legitimately cosmopolitan. Japanese kewpie dolls, pachinko machines, and gorgeous sake bottle dispensers above the bar all contribute to an otherworldly feel, and a well-trained staff does a consistent job of explaining and interpreting everything from the menu’s shôchû “gummi” drinks, to the hospitality over-flow pour of sake, to concept of robata.
Multiple visits revealed some stunning strengths and occasional inconsistencies. The Firecracker Roll ($14) was recommended by our waitress, and it impressed our guests, visiting food journalists from San Francisco. Rice is what sets decent sushi apart from the good stuff, and this stuff was perfectly tender with a mild sweet / vinegar flavor. The texture and taste balance of the roll (between buttery avocado, crunchy shrimp tempura, crisp cucumber, and tempura flakes) was spot on, and it lacked the clown car over-ambition that is the undoing of so many big rolls at many so-so sushi restaurants. Also worth noting is Masu’s house-ground wasabi paste, which sticks out thanks to its pale green color and deep, nuanced flavor.
Less noteworthy was the Masu roll ($16), which felt cluttered compared to the Firecracker. Part of the problem: an overly spicy habañero masago (roe) that overpowered the mellow scallop and avocado and even the unagi sauce.
We liked the Tsukemono ($5.50), an assortment of Japanese pickles, so much that we ordered them on two successive visits. Unfortunately, they changed from one day to the next; they were crisp and sweet /tart balanced the first time, and sticky and a bit rubbery the second. Consistency is the bugbear of every restaurant, and little details like this can make a real impact.
Likewise, experiences with noodles varied from trip to trip. Our first experience, with the Pork Belly Ramen ($11), was underwhelming — the broth tasted underpowered, and the pork belly itself was floppy and not particularly flavorful. The Tonkatsu Curry Ramen ($10.50, pictured above) featured crispy breaded pork and couldn’t have been more different; it was a rich, gorgeous, balanced dish, with the softness of the poached egg standing up against the freshness of its greens, and the crunchy pork maintaining its texture even in the flavorful broth.
Numerous other dishes we tried at Masu ranged from good to excellent. The house version of Agedashi Tofu ($6) comes as a stack of three little tofu logs, stacked up like firewood. With all respect to this delicious dish, it tasted, texture-wise, like the tofu equivalent of tater tots — crunchy little cylinders with creamy, mellow interiors. Shiso and ginger condiments helped spike up the flavor a bit.
A tuna tataki special ($11) was similarly balanced — a soft pillow of avocado made a fine dipping destination for tender pieces of seared tuna bedded on greens and sprinkled with black sesame seeds and fried lotus root chips.
Sake drinkers will likely adore the sake menu, which is explanatory without being pedantic, and plays up the poetic beauty of the various brands and styles (10,000 Ways, True Mirror, Cabin in the Snow, etc.) I thought Seven Spearsmen to be reasonably priced and excellent, but follow your own preferences; the menu is clear enough to help guide you toward your preferred sake experience (mineral, woodsy, melon-like, pear-like, and so forth — the descriptors are precise but also accurate and believable). Most sakes come in 4-, 12- and 24-oz. sizes, which makes hangover management a relative breeze.
BEST BET: The Firecracker Roll packs tremendous flavor and balance; the Tonkatsu Curry Ramen is a real winner in the soup and noodles category.
*UPDATE, June 8, 2011: Corrected to clarify Chef Olson’s job title.
Masu Sushi & Robata
330 E Hennepin Ave
Open Monday, April 18, 2011.
OWNER / CHEF: Sushi Avenue / Tim McKee, Alex Chase, A-san Yamamoto
PRICES: Appetizers $3-$15, Noodles $9.50-$12.50, Set Meals $18-$25, Nigiri & Sashimi $4.50-$11, Sushi Rolls $3-$16, Robata $2-$5.50, Specialty Cocktails $7-$11.