Masu Sushi and Robata

20 August 2011

Written by Peter Lilienthal, Mpls. St. Paul magazine. August 2011

Enjoy charcoal grilled robata and a comprehensive sushi menu.

Aspiring restaurateurs would be well-advised to take a page from the playbook of Sushi Avenue, the local food service company that recently opened Masu Sushi and Robata. First, it developed an anticipatory buzz by hiring James Beard Award–winning chef Tim McKee to consult and internationally acclaimed Shea Design to create the dining environment. Never mind that neither has an established background in Japanese dining; name recognition in the mix can work wonders.

The second sage move was to hire knowledgeable, experienced, and proven talent to execute the vision. One such seasoned veteran is Asan Yamamoto, a longtime Origami chef who presides behind the sushi bar. The other is Alex Chase, a widely traveled craftsman who oversees the open-to-view kitchen. And then there’s also bartender extraordinaire Johnny Michaels guiding the beverage operation.

On the whole, the concept comes together quite coherently. Whether it’s the fun, hip décor that features wall-sized blow-ups of an Asian model’s gazing visage, a collection of Japanese munny dolls and a small bank of pachinko machines, or the wonderful aroma of charcoal fired robata, there’s an abundance of sensory interest to experience. If I have any criticism, it’s that the emporium approach may be just a bit too stretched.

In addition to a comprehensive sushi menu, there are some 16 small plates, 29 robata choices, 14 noodle dishes, and six teishoku, or set meals. The challenge is figuring out how to mix, match, and time your ordering. For example, select a half dozen robata items and they’re held in the kitchen until all are finished cooking. When they ultimately arrive, some are hot off the fire and some are tepid from idling too long. Other items, especially small plates, get delivered helter-skelter when ready. At times it can get a bit chaotic, with noodle bowls being placed here and corn on the cob being placed there.

In general, the food is well conceived and solidly prepared. The sushi is made with a special variety of seasoned rice, and there are some excellent atypical choices such as superlative arctic char, imported Scottish salmon, and a faux eel option made from sea bass. If you enjoy pickles, the assortment of tsukemono is consistently wonderful, and if you’re up for a unique taste and texture combination, definitely consider the avocado and oyster tempura. Arguably the most enticing choices are the skewered and charcoal grilled robata preparations. Heading my hit parade are just about all of the bacon combinations—particularly the quail egg and the shrimp pairings. The delicious morsels of marinated rib eye, a delightfully flavored miso marinated cod, and simple but elegant seared asparagus are also excellent. At the “can be skipped” end of the continuum, I’d place the flavorless glazed pork ribs, the mushy beef and burdock rolls, and the lackluster chicken meatballs. I also wasn’t a great fan of the set meal I tried. The centerpiece was an attempt at a Japanese-style wafu hamburger that came smothered in mushrooms—its essence was lost in translation.

Other worthwhile choices include a terrific ramen boasting pieces of pork belly and roasted shoulder meat and a delightful meal-end treat of creamy coconut rice pudding brulée topped with fried, panko-crusted banana. Given the multiple-course nature of the menu, the wait staff has to stay on its toes to keep up with the flow, and it manages to do so impressively.

Reserve A Table -NE Only