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


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.

Chef Alex Chase oversees the second half of the menu, which includes the noodle, robata, and teishoku selections. Chef Chase took an early interest in Japanese culture when he went to the country as a teenage exchange student. After returning to the United States, Chase worked in the sushi kitchens at Saji-ya, Fuji-ya, and Martini Blu before going to the Culinary Institute of Arts in New York. He later worked at the fine-dining restaurants Vincent, Au Rebours, and La Belle Vie, and even squeezed in a stint as a commercial fisherman.

Masu's izakaya-style snacks include the ubiquitous gyoza and agedashi tofu, as well as more obscure items, such as dried squid. The sautéed shishito peppers are a favorite, with their oil-kissed, blackened jackets and sweet, grassy flesh. The peppers are covered in katsuobushi (dried fish flakes) and square salt crystals that look as pretty as snowflakes. Give yourself five minutes and you'll have nothing left but a pile of stems.

The robata are also good for snacking. The little bites of meat and vegetables are infused with a deep smokiness after being cooked on skewers over wood-fired charcoal grills. They're tasty and cute, especially the bacon-and-quail-egg and bacon-and-tofu options, but they'll run up the bill faster than they'll fill your stomach.

Let noodles play that role. In Japan, ramen is everywhere—it's the country's equivalent of the American street-cart hot dog—but authentic ones are hard to find in the Twin Cities. Masu orders its ramen fresh from a California supplier that tailors the noodles to their precise specifications of flavor, delicacy, and springiness. The noodles are served in heady stocks—roasted animal bones, meat, and vegetables simmered for half a day—that make a far richer broth than the contents of the little foil Top Ramen seasoning packet. One of the best, and most gut-stretching, ways to enjoy the ramen is in a curry-spiked broth paired with a breaded, deep-fried pork cutlet called tonkatsu, Chinese broccoli, and a soft poached egg. The udon noodles are thicker, chewier bands, and Masu's Ja-Ja-Men preparation tops the wavy strands with a spicy blend of eggplant and ground pork that's rich and hearty enough to be considered a sort of Japanese Bolognese.

The teishoku meals offer the most variety, as they pair a main dish with several sides, including textbook tempura and a variety of robata. The Wa-Fú hamburger teishoku is a home-style dish that presents a Japanese take on the American icon. A beef patty is seasoned with bits of ginger, garlic, and onion, plus teriyaki sauce and chili paste. The meat's steaky flavor is complemented by Japanese mushrooms and an umami-rich dashi gravy. You'd never miss the lettuce, tomato, and pickles. Dousing the thing in ketchup would be sacrilegious.

So far, no one's won the big jackpot on Masu's pachinko machines—apparently the secret to success involves putting just the right twist on the dial. Perhaps something from the extensive cocktail list, designed by local drinks guru Johnny Michaels, might assist in honing one's technique? The cocktail choices include riffs on familiar drinks, such as an elderflower martini and a ginger-plum margarita, as well as beverages that express Michaels's signature wit—the Lucky Millionaire Mojito comes garnished with a scratch-off lottery ticket; a mix of Captain and Coke is titled I Have Committed a Great Rudeness.

Michaels also offers a few lesser-seen shochu cocktails, which blend the vodka-like spirit with fruit flavors and affix a gummy bear on the rim. Some of these so-called Shochu Gummies can be a little cloying—the lychee is rather like bubble gum—so better to go with the Rano Pano, which blends gin with pickled watermelon in a refreshing sweet, tart, and spicy burst. It's already a frontrunner for 2011's Official Summer Drink—and it might even help loosen up that pachinko wrist.