Masu Sushi & Robata is state’s most impressive sushi joint

8 June 2011

It’s a Japan grand slam

Written by Rachel Hutton, City Pages. June 8, 2011

Masu’s striking design is meant to replicate the energy of urban Japanese culture

Can somebody explain the pachinko machines at Masu Sushi & Robata? They look rather like smaller, vertically oriented pinball games, decked out with videos of Speed Racer and Godzilla. There are knobs to spin and buttons to push, but how these things influence the little metal ball’s pinging off pegs and zipping through chutes is something of a mystery.

Masu’s mini pachinko parlor, along with its bright geisha imagery, traditional sake barrels, and cartoon-like Munny dolls, are elements that Shea’s design team selected to replicate the energetic rush of urban Japanese culture. But the restaurant’s concept is actually much simpler than its flamboyant decor: join several powerful culinary forces to create the state’s most comprehensive Japanese restaurant.

The Twin Cities already has its fair share of excellent Japanese restaurants, each with their various distinctions. Origami, for example, is home to first-rate sushi. Midori’s Floating World Cafe serves exquisite noodle soups, while Tanpopo offers immaculate teishoku, or set meals. Moto-i is known for brewing its own sake, and Obento-Ya excels in robata, skewered foods cooked over tiny charcoal grills. Masu’s menu is as deep as it is wide. Its extensive sushi list is only the beginning. The restaurant serves four types of noodles, prepared 14 ways, plus six teishoku options and nearly 30 different robata.

Masu’s backbone is Sushi Avenue, a family-owned company that helps upscale supermarkets, universities, and other large food service operations (Whole Foods, Hamline, Target Corporate) implement sushi programs by supplying chefs, recipes, and ingredients. When Sushi Avenue made its first foray into the restaurant business, the company tapped the James Beard-awarded chef Tim McKee to help develop the concept and menu. McKee made his name founding La Belle Vie, but lately his impact on the Twin Cities dining scene has been steadily increasing as he consults for other restaurateurs, handpicking high-level talent and helping kitchens elevate their ambitions.

Masu’s menu is split in two, and each half has its own head chef. Katsuyuki Yamamoto, who also goes by A-san, manages the sushi operations and is easy to spot—he’s got a shaved head, rectangular glasses, and typically a little salt-and-pepper stubble—methodically slicing fish and shaping rice behind the sushi counter. Yamamoto grew up in Japan before moving to Minnesota in the mid-1990s and then working at Origami for 15 years.

Yamamoto’s menu offers sashimi and nigiri, plus five types of makizushi, or rolled sushi (thin rolls, fat rolls, rice-on-the-outside rolls, as well as “rolls” made with rice shaped into balls or stuffed into tofu pockets). He covers all the bases, from basic cucumber rolls to daring sea urchin sashimi to the trendy, overstuffed Rainbow and Firecracker rolls.

Masu is the first local Japanese restaurant to source fish with mindfulness toward sustainability, a subject McKee became interested in when he opened Sea Change in the Guthrie. So the kitchen doesn’t offer the typical sushi restaurant’s bluefin tuna or yellowtail—both labeled “avoid” by the Monterey Seafood Watch—and instead replaces them with several fish rarely, if ever, seen on other local sushi menus.

Sardines are one such fish that’s worth discovering. They’re a very ecologically sound selection but often overlooked due to their robust fishy flavor. Masu’s chefs prepare the sardines with a traditional cure of salt, vinegar, and citrus—they’re rather like pickled herring and surprisingly good. Arctic char is another good bet for its salmon-like fattiness and mild flavor. If ordered temari-style, the pale pink fish slices wrap around the rice as tightly as a pitcher’s grip on a fastball. The balls are topped with thin lemon crescents to cut the fish’s richness, and they’re awfully tempting to pop down the hatch in one jaw-straining bite. The restaurant wasn’t able to find an eco-friendly source of freshwater eel, or unagi, so the staff created what they call faux-nagi—striped bass that’s prepared in a similar style, topped with a tangy, barbecue-like sauce, and slightly charred. (The bass doesn’t re-create the eel’s uniquely unctuous texture, but it’s an impressive facsimile and can be eaten without the guilt of unagi’s conscience-troubling origins.) Glistening slices of salmon come from a responsibly managed Scottish sea farm and will leave the lips just as oil-glossed as their wild-caught cousins.

Masu’s sushi prices are fairly reasonable, with the omakase sushi assortment offering the best value (it’s available for parties of two or more, for $18 per person). The only downside is that the kitchen’s selections tend to incorporate many sushi staples, such as California rolls and spicy tuna, and it’s a shame not to sample more of the unusual items. Don’t miss the mackerel hosomaki (thin roll) that cuts the fish’s muskiness with green onion and pickled radish. The BTL futomaki (fat roll) pairs crispy salmon skin with lettuce, tomato, basil, and mayonnaise to mimic the fatty-smoky-salty-juicy qualities of the sandwich. Fresh, briny crab and sesame seed can be ordered as inarizushi, stuffed into a deep-fried tofu pocket that complements the seafood’s sweetness.

Rice forms the foundation of great nigiri sushi and rolls, and Masu’s kitchen attends to the details, buying and carefully washing expensive, premium rice. As a result, the grains come out plump yet not gummy, holding together as elegantly as an English dry stone wall.

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