Mighty Masu

20 April 2011

Written by Jeremy Zoss, The Journal. April 2011

Japanese pop culture has a long history of “combining mecha,” a trope in which multiple robots combine into a bigger, more powerful form. These amalgamated machines can defeat any adversary in their way, and their exploits have been translated for American audiences for decades. That may seem like a strange analogy for a restaurant, but it’s surprisingly fitting for Masu Sushi & Robata. The new Japanese restaurant in Northeast brings together a notable assembly of culinary talent, and the comparison doesn’t stop there. The menu offers up a diverse selection of Japanese foods. The décor combines traditional Japanese symbols with modern American style. There’s an awareness of both time-honored traditions and sustainability for the future. With so many elements converging into one restaurant, it’s no wonder that Masu makes thoughts turn to Voltron.While many restaurateurs might be annoyed at being compared to a cartoon, the minds behind Masu will likely be pleased to hear it. After all, the concept behind the eatery was to create a different kind of Japanese restaurant. 

“We want fun and energy,” said David Shea of marketing and design firm Shea, Inc. “We don’t design restaurants. We design experiences. And Masu is an experience. It’s approachable, it’s got lots of light, lots of energy. We wanted to give the market something different.”

Something different is exactly what diners will get. Sure, it features Japanese-inspired décor, but there’s a twist to the familiar sushi house aesthetic. The raised glass fish cases of the average sushi bar are nowhere to be seen. Instead, the fish is housed behind a high, curved wooden bar — visible from any seat without impeding conversation. The energy behind the bar is kicked up even higher by a team of bartenders crafting clever cocktails inspired by the cuisine. Artisanal sake bottles hang upside-down behind the beer taps from a custom dispenser rack. Sleek modern furniture shares space with designer Munny toys customized by local artists. 

While the sleek, stylish dining room sports a view of the open kitchen and gleaming chrome Robata grill, the bar area terminates in a wall of bright, bleeping Pachinko machines. And, of course, custom anime graphics are sprinkled throughout — even in the bathrooms.

Like any animated hero, Masu has an origin story, one that began with Sushi Avenue, the Eagan-based company that supplies fresh sushi to supermarkets and grocery stores around the country. Sushi Avenue’s President and CEO Nay Hla contacted David Shea about developing a brand for a new restaurant venture, and Shea suggested the James Beard Award-winning Chef Tim McKee to design the menu. He agreed. With McKee on board, the Masu team continued to grow. 

McKee tapped La Belle Vie’s mixologist Johnny Michaels to design the cocktails. Sushi Avenue’s award-winning chef Stephan Hesse came on board as corporate executive chef, and Katsuyuki “Asan” Yamamoto, best known for his 15 years at Origami, was hired as executive sushi chef. Rounding out the team is Executive Chef Alexander Chase, whose years of travel throughout Asia and experience in some of the world’s best kitchens made him a natural choice for the job. 

The assembled talent alone will give serious foodies reason enough to stop into Masu, but this isn’t a restaurant just for them. The menu is designed to be affordable, as well as welcoming to those who are uncomfortable to the somewhat alien notion of raw fish. “Japanese food is a growing interest in the U.S., but there’s still a whole section of people who would never go to a sushi restaurant,” says McKee. “That’s where the robata and noodle dishes come in. The noodles are really fantastic.”

While several other Japanese restaurants offer noodle dishes, Masu features more than a dozen, with noodles sourced from the same supplier used by many of California’s most popular noodle restaurants. Similarly, few local restaurants offer Izakaya, small plates of Japanese comfort food. But perhaps most approachable to those new to Japanese cuisine is the robata grill, from which diners can choose various vegetarian, meat and seafood options which are skewered and cooked over a specialized wood charcoal grill. 

“In a lot of American grilling, it’s all about giving the food that smokey flavor,” McKee said. That’s not the intent of robata. In robata, the focus is on the heat.”

Masu Sushi and Robata officially opened to the public April 18. Of course, all the assembled talent means nothing without food that calls to the diners. As expected, Masu does not disappoint. Sushi lovers will be thrilled by artfully created sushi that looks as good as it tastes. Those looking for an alternative will love the robata grill creations, with highlights such as the grilled eggplant, the gorgeous tsukune chicken meatball and, naturally, the selection of bacon rolls that includes bacon wrapped around choices like asparagus, jumbo shrimp or a creamy, delicious quail egg. Adventurous drinkers will love Johnny Michael’s Gummi Sours — vibrant and flavorfully powered by the Japanese alcohol shochu. We recommend the ginger-peach “Happy Gummi” or the wasabi-grapefruit “Angry Gummi” for something really unique.

Like a giant robot towering above a city skyline, Masu’s arrival on the dining scene has immediately drawn a lot of attention, and it’s easy to see why. The space inside crackles with energy, which will soon spill out onto the sidewalk when the planned outdoor patio opens. The menu offers up a selection of food that’s alternately delicate and subtle and bold and exciting.

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