Written by John Garland, Heavy Table. April 18, 2011
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’sTanpopo, 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.