The vibe at Masu Sushi & Robata is equal parts authenticity and whimsy. A row of pachinko machines flanks the lounge and giant geisha-eyes stare down diners while Gummi Bears and scratch-off lottery tickets adorn cocktail rims. Sprinkle in tastes from a diverse menu and a certain measure of chaos during Saturday night’s preview event, and we were left with a frantic bite of what could be a much needed shot of adrenaline in the Northeast dining scene.
The Tim McKee-helmed restaurant looks to be an ambitious combination of authentic Japanese elements. The menu is largely divided into Japanese pub grub (izakaya), sushi, robata (smaller bites of meat or veggies, grilled on skewers), and noodles. The Shea-designed space is welcoming and vibrant. A wall of Japanese Munny dolls guards the open kitchen, where diners can watch the flying sparks of charcoal chimneys ready to stoke the robata grill.
Executive Chef Alex Chase drew on his studies in Japan to create a menu he felt the metro was lacking. “A lot of food in Minneapolis, on the Japanese side, is pretty similar everywhere you go around,” says Chase. “There’s so much more Japanese food has to offer. We’re trying to really hit on the robata, which isn’t done in Minnesota really at all. The noodles, one of my personal favorites, just an everyday lunch meal, I really feel like that was lacking in Minnesota too. And the small plates, the izakaya, are just good bar food.” (To be fair to Masu’s competition, Obento-Ya in Como is known for its robata, and St. Paul’s Tanpopo, among others, has cultivated a reputation for its noodles.)
The small bites on display Saturday were all quite satisfying – the standouts were ginger-duck gyoza, crispy pork kara-age, and robatas of zucchini and chicken meatballs. Special mention goes to the bacon-wrapped quail egg robata, with its perfectly creamy yolk and rich, crunchy texture.
Of particular note look to be Masu’s noodles – serious udon, soba, and ramen offerings not seen to that length much in the metro, outside of Tanpopo. A small sampling of the meltingly tender pork belly robata made me ache to try the pork belly ramen – the dish Chase cites as maybe Masu’s best.
He also recommends the braised short rib robata, “And, if you’ve never been a fan of tofu in your life, get the bacon-wrapped tofu,” he says. “It’ll change your mind about tofu.” Though that’s not exactly fair to tofu (I mean, I’d love doing my taxes if my W-2s came wrapped in bacon), it speaks to the earnest hand Masu uses in incorporating Japanese flavors as often as it can.
Masu’s sushi service is front-and-center, with a 10-seat reclaimed-lumber sushi bar presided over by Executive Chef, and long-time Origami veteran, A-san Yamamoto. It is the first sushi restaurant in Minnesota to go entirely sustainable. “It’s an important thing for me,” says Chase. “Everyone’s going to have to go that way, or they should.” Though the packed crowd on Saturday made getting to the specialty rolls a little difficult, the sushi we tasted was solidly in line with the quality you’d expect at Origami or Fuji Ya. Further exploration into their featured rolls will be necessary to gauge where Masu truly stacks up.
The Johnny Michaels-designed cocktail menu is both unabashedly goofy and respectfully artisan. Gummi Bear-inspired sours lead off the menu’s sojourn into the many uses of shochu – the distilled Japanese beverage that gives the drinks a slightly rustic taste and acts as a nice substitute for vodka. “You know, we just tried to make it a lot of fun,” says Michaels. “The gummies, we tried to match them up with the Nigori.” A good introduction to shochu is the aptly named Japanese For Beginners, an ultra-clean, light combination of shochu, lychee, and aloe vera.
Michaels’ favorites? “I really dig the Godzillita,” he says of his spicy ginger-plum margarita. “And the Rano Pano is a pleasant surprise, with the watermelon; I named it after my favorite new Mogwai song, sounds vaguely Japanese, I guess.” Billed as a gin with pickled-watermelon sour, the Rano Pano is flavorful and balanced, equally sweet, sour, and salty – though probably too salty for those in the margarita-sans-salt crowd.
The wine and beer lists are limited, but stocked with requisite favorites. The sake list is a centerpiece – both fairly extensive and helpful to the uninitiated. Each sake is listed with a primer on flavors and food pairings, and five sake flights are organized for further exploration.
As to how the Northeast crowd will adopt Masu remains to be seen. The diversity of the menu isn’t shedding any light on the kind of place Masu will become. It’s part gastro-pub and part sit-down serious. “We have a completely different look than any other place, and we’re in a great part of Minneapolis,” says Chase. “If you’re here for a quick bite, get the noodles. If you’re here with a big social group, try a bunch of the robata and izakaya plates.” For a center of Northeast currently hosting a lot of familiar bar food, it succeeds, at least to begin with, in bringing something different to the table.
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.
Disclosure — Writer and photographer each attended this preview event free of charge.
@ZippsBeer commends @SurlyBrewing on a new feature on their cans, @SweetMsFarm’s CSA sale is running a few more days, @TroutCaviar declares the new “black” (hint: it should come as no surprise), @EatWSK1 unveils the “Yum-Yum Rice Bowl” (including fried egg and yum-yums!), and @Motoi2Go turns two — and offers free sake to celebrate.
“People up here seem to be more adventurous than people in the Cities,” says Sean Martin, who has helped chef and owner Jack Hang open, and is the front of house manager at Hanabi Japanese Cuisine. “They are willing to try new things and let the chef make something up for them.”
After being open only a month Martin and Hang have already hired four new chefs to keep up with the demand. They have only relied on word of mouth for advertising. News of the new sushi restaurant has spread quickly, as the only other option for sushi is the Zen House in Hermantown and downtown Duluth. “The Zen House is more like home-cooking style sushi, where we are trying to go for high end,” says Martin, adding that he enjoys the Zen House, but wants to bring a different style of sushi to Duluth.
Jack Hang has been training as a sushi chef for six years, but Martin notes, “most sushi chefs in Japan study for eight to ten years.” Before coming to Minnesota, Hang worked at Haru on Wall Street in New York. Martin and Hang met and began working together when they helped open Osaka in Coon Rapids. Martin encouraged Hang to open a restaurant in Duluth. “There is the Thai place [Thai Krathong] but that is all there is up here for a higher end Asian place,” says Martin.
The menu includes both traditional sushi and modern Asian cuisine. “We put on the menu a lot of kitchen food because we were not sure how receptive people would be to the raw stuff,” says Martin. “There are some fish you can freeze because it won’t change the texture, you don’t want to freeze something like tuna.” Hanabi sources fish from JFC and True World in Chicago. They are able to get fish delivered fresh, unfrozen, and multiple times a week. “We can order fish that are not in season, but we prefer to keep what is in season,” says Martin, who is a big fan of Aji, a horse mackerel that is currently in season.
The North Shore Roll ($13), one of the most popular on the menu, is known as an “S roll” in other parts of the country. Salmon and avocado are tightly rolled in sticky rice and topped with seaweed and five types of roe. The roll is dressed with spicy mayo and eel sauce. There are four colorful tobiko types of roe (small eggs harvested from flying fish) and one salmon roe. The tobiko roe are sweet with a gritty sticky texture, where the salmon roe has a waxy shell that can be broken to allow the inner fluid to fill you mouth and accompany the taste of the sushi.
Sake is the focus of Hanabi’s bar, but wine, beer, and a full bar are also available. “Grades [of sake] depend on how polished the rice is,” so Martin has put together a sake menu ranging from $9 to $65+ for 100, 350 or 750 ml bottles. “Sake is drank warm when it is cheap to hide the impurities,” says Martin, and thus Hanabi serves the majority of sakes cold. Since most people coming to the restaurant are new to sake, numbers have been included on the menu to aid customers in selecting a sake suited to their taste. Positive numbers indicate a sake that is drier, more acidic and lighter in body. Negative numbers indicate a sweeter sake with a heavier body.
Hanabi Japanese Cuisine
Japanese cuisine in Duluth
110 N 1st Ave W
Duluth, MN 55802
OWNER: Jack Hang
AVERAGE ENTREE: $10-$15
@MotoI2Go offers a chance to win a free pass tomorrow or Saturday to their $175 day-long Sake Education Day, @YoungChef2 enjoys last night’s Be’wiched Beer Dinner, @JustFood announces a chance to chat live today with USDA Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan, @NgonBistro offers a three-course beer or wine pairing this weekend, and @MWMicroBrews tries, but fails, to like the New Glarus Unplugged Old English Porter.
October 1 is National Sake Day in Japan, as well as @MotoI2Go’s first anniversary — to celebrate, they’re offering buy-one-get-one-free sake all day and premium sake, @MplsFarmMarket reviews Eichten’s “Zesty” cheese curds, @CookingWithKARE offers a whole host of recipes, including how-tos for Saffron’s asparagus salad and @DakotaJazzClub’s carrot cake, @HotDishBlog announces the Strib “Taste” section’s 7:30pm showing of “Mildred Pierce” tomorrow night at the Heights, and @Peace_Coffee and @HigherGroundsTC face off about baseball and Michigan’s brewing talent.
Knee-high by the fourth of July — or, perhaps, the twenty-fourth? @GardensOfEagan and @The_Wedge expect to see the first batch of local organic sweet corn the week of the 24th, @TheWinePeople supply an idea for a refreshing summer cocktail, @CookingWithKARE presents a recipe for “Asian street eats” as a prelude to this weekend’s Dragon Festival (check it out — it’s listed on our calendar), and @Motoi2Go offers a limited edition sake — Drip Pressed Yamahai Futsuu Nigori Genshu — 80 liters till it’s gone!
Moto-i, the only sake brewpub outside of Japan, has had an interesting run in the six or so months that it has been open. It had a roaringly good start under the guidance of opening chef Chris Olson but hit a rocky period after Olson’s departure; its gastronomic compass seemed to go a bit haywire and I received what was certainly some of the worst restaurant service of 2008.
Fast forward to spring 2009: Vincent veteran Jason Engelhart’s steady hand has asserted itself at a place that appears to be on its way to becoming an Uptown anchor. Some questionable menu items appear to have been eased out to pasture; new arrivals are perfectly calibrated to the restaurant’s Tokyo-meets-Andalusia small plate approach to food that’s directly inspired by the Japanese neighborhood pubs known as izakayas. Although the menu does offer some larger noodle dishes and delectably delicate one-off buns (such as pork/hoisin or pulled chicken), it’s the small plates and sake that really drive this place, giving it a unique niche in the ecology of Twin Cities restaurants.
House-brewed sake is the star of the show, and a fourth variety — Junmai Futsuu Nama ($6) — has recently appeared on the menu. Theoretically tasting of dried figs, the stuff undeniably has a restrained tang of fruit to it, and may be the most balanced of the restaurant’s sakes — it’s a welcome addition to the menu, particularly as it costs two dollars less per glass than its compatriots.
On the food side, karaage (deep-fried soy sauce-marinated chicken with katsu sauce, $6) is the damnedest thing. Most dishes are premised on flavor contrasts — sweet vs. sour, spicy vs. cool and creamy, etc. Texture and temperature contrasts are also common: the snap of a cold pickle on a hot burger, sport peppers on a Chicago dog, water chestnuts in a stir fry. But the karaage works primarily on a moisture contrast basis — wet katsu sauce contrasting against a bone-dry fried coating covering a super-moist marinated bit of chicken. It’s a novel and pleasant experience, and one plate of karaage should be sufficient to entertain three or four palates.
Editor’s Note: 20.21 is now closed.
An informal chat Tuesday night with Chef Asher Miller of 20.21 morphed into a full-on gastronomic happening, complete with a series of small tastes from the kitchen and bar. Four striking little moments worth recalling:
1. White Port Pairs Well with Lemon
The very existence of white port, a fortified wine made from white grapes, is intriguing enough. But when you put it on the rocks and drag a lemon slice along the rim, you’re in “Summer in Andalusia” territory, recalling a vino tinto de verano. Bright, sunny and refreshing.
2. Scallops Work Beautifully in Eggrolls…
Teamed up with cilantro, the sweetness of scallops makes for a surprising and satisfying alternative to the usual clump of cabbage and other assorted unsavory miscellany.
3. …Particularly When Paired with Hou Hou Shu
Hou Hou Shu is an unfiltered sake that is gently sparkling and boasts a finely calibrated balance of sweetness and soulful rice flavor.
4. Making Your Burger Buns in House Pays Dividends
20.21 makes its brioche slider buns in house, daily. It’s a minor detail in the big scheme of things, but a great bun is a seriously undervalued aspect of a great burger. (For the recipe, check out the Heavy Table’s story on Oscar Night kobe cheeseburgers.)
Billed as the first sake brewery restaurant outside of Japan, Moto-i is a bewildering blend of chic neighborhood bistro, genuinely cultured Japanese outpost, and obnoxious nightclub. Newly opened, there’s presumably a fair bit of fine tuning still taking place at this Uptown nightspot, which defiantly refuses to serve sushi and instead serves up classic izakaya (Japanese small neighborhood bar) fare. There’s no real direct comparison to this concept, but St. Paul’s Tanpopo come closest, with its emphasis on noodle dishes and the simple, earthy flavors of modest day-to-day Japanese cuisine.
The sake, brewed on site, is absolutely excellent, if a bit pricey; the restaurant compensates by pricing its snack-sized and relentless creative bar food at a level that encourages splurgey sake consumption. A melon-esque sake is particularly striking and pleasant.
The music gets crazy loud on the weekends, and service picks up a distinctly cooler-than-thou attitude; weeknight are probably the best bet for a long, comfortable sip-and-nosh session.
BEST BET: The steamed hoisin pork buns ($3) are delicious, and impossible to avoid gobbling up. Also excellent is the silken and richly flavored yakiudon ($10, scallion, chicken and wheat-flour noodles.)
Japanese in Uptown, Minneapolis
2940 Lyndale Ave S
Minneapolis, MN 55408
OWNER: Blake Richardson
12pm – 2am Daily
BAR: Beer and Sake
RESERVATIONS/RECOMMENDED?: Yes and Yes for weekends
VEGETARIAN/VEGAN: Yes and Yes
ENTREE RANGE: ($7-$10)