By Heidi Fellner
Photos by Mike Hnida
If you’re a first-timer, Masu Sushi & Robata can hit you like a ton of bricks. It’s not some Midwestern family restaurant tarted up with lanterns, shoji screens, and an assortment of mournful-looking geisha dolls under dusty plastic cases. This Tim McKee brainchild is your gateway to modern, vibrant Japan, complete with Pachinko machines, cheeky “Lucky Cat” ceramics, and a hipster staff. The pace is Tokyo-fast here, but not frenzied.
I rarely write about service because I don’t trust that I am given the same treatment as every other customer. But here, it is apparent servers, busy though they may be, take the time to really chat with their tables and make helpful menu suggestions before darting off to grab a sushi platter and a few more cocktails. What’s more, Executive Chef Alex R. Chase never turns his back on his kitchen, and is constantly monitoring every plate that goes out. On a busy Friday night dinner rush, if a counter needs wiping, he’s on that, too. In fact, he seems to be one of those rare culinary talents without the ego that usually comes with it. Perhaps the apparent lack of attitude is due to the fact that Masu is his first head chef opportunity, but I doubt it. Chase has an intense passion for Japanese food since spending time there as an exchange student, and a penchant for seafood after working on an Alaskan salmon boat. Perfectionism runs through the man’s veins.
The talent behind the bar (Dan Spa, formerly of Solera) is similarly brilliant, toying with spiced honey and homemade syrups to produce gems like the darling lavender, jasmine, and elderflower-scented Double Precious ($10), and the Godzillita! ($9), a spicy, ginger-plum margarita that mimics the fearsome, green beastie in its potential for destructive behavior. The 8 oz. Gummi Shochu Sours ($8/$6 happy hour) are vodka sours inspired by the cheery gummi bears perched on the rims. We sampled the Happy Gummi, the Rainbow Gummi, and the Secret Gummi (the mysterious and experimental gummi cocktail of the day). Honestly, as juvenile as that list may sound, these little wonders are surprisingly complex, often revealing their subtle heat in a smooth, lingering finishes.
Indeed, it may be wise to plan your first trip to Masu during happy hour, which runs Monday through Friday from 3-6, late night happy hour Monday through Thursday from 10-12, and Sundays from 9-11. House sake, tap beer, and select wines are available for $3, $4, and $5 a glass, respectively. Additionally, noodle bowls, steam buns, sushi, and grilled indulgences like bacon-wrapped quail eggs are available for a discounted rate. With a tall glass of Sapporo, we eagerly tucked in to the ultra-crispy Pork Kara Age ($6.5/$4.5) and the mild Sauteed Shishito Peppers ($5/$3.5) topped with salty katsuo bushi, dried, fermented shaved tuna otherwise known as “dancing fish flakes.” Order it, and you’ll understand why.
The kitchen is nothing if not consistent–during our entire meal experience, there was not one dish that I thought was lacking. However, one currently off-menu item, a Japanese eggplant special, seemed particularly inspired. Delicate slices of eggplant are sauteed with sake and topped with a soft-poached egg. Break into the yolk and it mingles with the semi-sweet sauce to render sliced eggplant downright sensual. Chase tells me that when this dish makes the menu, he will likely feature a spicier version.
The sushi also raises the bar in the Twin Cities, not only in terms of preparation and presentation, but also because of the value that Masu’s sushi chefs place on sustainable seafood. While many local eateries have been faithfully following the new mandate of sustainable, local, and organic, sushi fans continue to narf down many an endangered species, topped with wasabi and whale tears. But no more; not at Masu. While that sounds like a bad thing for sushi restaurants everywhere, Masu’s sushi menu has only become more unique and inventive for it. Sustainability doesn’t have to translate into higher prices, either. During happy hour, even the specialty firecracker roll (shrimp tempura, crab, avocado, spicy tuna, cucumber and tempura flakes) is just $11.50. If you do indulge in Masu’s sushi–and I hope you do–the best way to enjoy a platter is with a flight of sake. Flights of three are all priced under $20, with the “Rustic Flight” as low as $12.50. Say what you will about the silky-smooth sakes, but every now and then, it’s the rustic ones with a bit of bite that I, a Scotch-enthusiast, crave.
Masu, located at 330 East Hennepin in Minneapolis, only opened last spring, but it already has the feeling of a Northeast fixture. While it’s always nice to break a story, I’m glad an appreciative public has already latched on with such ferocity. We’re far from Tokyo, but Twin Cities diners are far more adventurous than an outsider would think, and we know a good thing when we taste it.