Masu goes beyond sushi

  • Article by: RICK NELSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 21, 2011 - 9:07 AM

A winning collaboration brings flavorful attention to the art of Japanese cooking. Masu is turning out some of the most artful nigiri, sashimi and makizushi in the Twin Cities.

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A sushi sample plate at Masu.

Photo: Tom Wallace, Star Tribune

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The Twins should be so lucky to have an opening lineup as starry as the one at Masu Sushi & Robata.

Let's start with the money. The cash behind this game-changing Japanese restaurant is Nay Hla, owner of Eagan-based Sushi Avenue, which supplies sushi to supermarkets, colleges and corporate campuses. That kind of volume translates into ultra-pristine fish and competitive prices, the two friends of sushi lovers everywhere.

For his first foray into restaurants, Hla did his homework. He wisely lured longtime Origami chef Katsuyuki (A-san) Yamamoto to oversee sushi operations. The effort has paid off, because Yamamoto and his crew are turning out some of the most artful nigiri, sashimi and makizushi in the Twin Cities. Even the most ordinary of selections is touched with go-the-extra-mile flourishes. It's so pretty that Masu probably boasts more Flickr images per capita than any other local restaurant.

But what really sets Masu apart from its formulaic brethren is Hla's other hire, consulting chef Tim McKee. Is there anything this guy can't do? In the past decade, McKee has ventured beyond the Mediterranean platform of his high-end La Belle Vie and applied his considerable creative force to an increasingly eclectic mix of cuisines. In many ways, Masu is the farthest from McKee's comfort zone, although if he's feeling any anxiety about his inaugural venture into Asian flavors and traditions, it's not apparent.

What's most admirable about McKee's work is the way he surveyed the competition and determined that the standard sushi-tempura-bento setup was too narrow a snapshot for the wide-angle lens that is Japanese cuisine. Enter robata, the grilling tradition that, for reasons I have never understood, has barely achieved a toehold in the local dining market. It's such a satisfying way to dine: You start ordering, tapas-style, one skewered and grilled bite-sized nibble after another, until your appetite is ready to cry hakufu (that's uncle in Japanese).

With robata, the hardwood charcoal-fueled fire is less about infusing foods with smoke and more about quickly searing uncomplicated ingredients with high heat. At Masu, the 30 or so grill selections cover a lot of ground, from vegetables, to a half-dozen seafood items, to pork and beef, most of them brushed with a ginger or miso glaze before they hit that grill. There's plenty to love -- chief among them the cod, the sardines, the beef rolled around burdock, the irresistible chicken meatballs -- but my favorites are the goodies (asparagus, tofu, quail eggs) wrapped in smoky bacon.

Unlike the many exceptional pho joints in this town, which have taught several generations of Minnesotans the merits of a big, steaming bowl of Vietnamese noodle soup, there are few places that shine a spotlight on Japanese noodle soups. This is where Masu really shines, partly because McKee builds his foundations with such care. The menu's dozen or so variations feature soba, udon and ramen, all hand-pulled by a Los Angeles noodle-maker. The broths, slowly nurtured over 12 hours, are richly intense and filled with a finely calibrated variety of flavors and textures.

When they arrive at the table, you can't help but close your eyes, wrap your hands around the handsome earthenware bowls and take a deep, restorative inhale. I'm crazy about the udon-edamame-crab combo, and the soba with ginger and green onions, but the real star of the show is the ramen -- crimped, golden, glorious -- paired with a slab of seductively fatty pork belly and a barely poached egg. To say that it is one of the more memorable dishes being served in the seven-county metro area is an understatement.

Another standout: the terrific slider-sized sandwiches, made with steamed buns and filled with all manner of deliciousness: crisp fried tofu with tangy pickles, that fantastic pork belly, teriyaki-glazed chicken with wonderfully sour kimchi. They're only served at lunch, a bummer because they could round out the evening menu's short and creative list of izakaya, the small plates that are an integral part of Japanese pub culture. Don't-miss items include the refreshing quail-egg/oyster shooter, the delicate avocado-crab spring rolls and the exceptional sautéed shishito peppers finished with dried tuna.

An exceptional crew

McKee enlisted several members of his deep La Belle Vie talent pool to contribute to the Masu effort. Chef Alex Chase delivers discipline and consistency in the kitchen on a day-to-day basis, mixmaster Johnny Michaels is responsible for the you've-gotta-try-this cocktail list and pastry chef Diane Yang has made a valiant effort at negotiating a balance between Minnesota tastes and Japanese sweets.

Shea Inc., the Minneapolis design firm, got into the act, too, with energetic results. To transform a former cookware store, a modest budget was stretched by blending art gallery elements -- a haunting series of images that are the collaboration of photographer Michael Haug and model Margaret Sinarath, amusing anime graphics by comic artist Jesse Barstad -- with colorful pop culture fixes. These are in the form of Japanese pinball-meets-slot machines and a rogue's gallery of Munny dolls, Japan's too-cool-for-school version of the Cabbage Patch Kid crossed with an action figure. My favorite seat? At the bar, where sushi chefs and bartenders work side-by-side behind a curving stretch of reclaimed white oak, the timbers anchored by intricate bowtie notches.

Even the restaurant's PR push was a high-water mark, with an opening weekend that launched the kind of social media tsunami usually associated with, say, a Lindsay Lohan court appearance. For three days my Twitter feed was nothing but Masu, Masu, Masu. But for once, the frenzy was justified, because the restaurant represents a welcome turn toward the novel in Japanese dining. And that, my friends, is a message that's totally worth tweeting.

  • related content

  • The Masu team.

  • MASU SUSHI & ROBATA ★★★

    Location: 330 E. Hennepin Av., Mpls., 612-332-6278, www. masusushiandrobata.com

    Hours: 11 a.m.-midnight Mon.-Thu., 11 a.m.-1 a.m. Fri., 4 p.m.-1 a.m. Sat., 4-11 p.m. Sun.

    Atmosphere: An ideal setting for the We-Shop-at-Uniqlo set.

    Service: Well-intentioned but often rough around the edges.

    Sound level: Punishingly loud when full.

    Recommended dishes: Pork belly ramen, pork cutlet/curry ramen, crab-edamame udon, robata (cod, chicken thighs, chicken meatballs, pork belly, quail egg-bacon, asparagus-bacon), sushi chef's choice assortment, fried tofu sandwiches, sautéed shishito peppers.

    Wine list: A decent sake selection is upstaged by splashy cocktails, particularly the Gummi Bear sours; a thoughtful nonalcoholic selection, too. Value-conscious happy hour.

    Price range: Small plates and sandwiches, $3-$15, sushi $4-$16 (assortments $12-$23, or $18 per person), robata $2-$6.50, noodles $9.5-$12.50, desserts $5-$8.

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