FOOD & DRINK // Masu mania

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June 20, 2011 // UPDATED 9:10 am - June 20, 2011
By: Carla Waldemar
Carla Waldemar
Masu  //  330 E. Hennepin Ave.  //  332-MASU (6278)

This is the real deal. OK, I’ve been to Tokyo only once, two years ago, but based on that single overdose of eye-candy, Masu — the new, Japanese-forward café in Northeast overseen by a number of bold-name chefs — has jubilantly captured the tween dominance of its pop culture. (Translation: Over 21? Over the hill.)

Its gallery-white walls, sporting yummy lime accents, are decorated, variously, with munny toys, anime graphics and blinking Pachinko machines. A much-tweeted mural of the giant eyeball of a supermodel-in-the making hovers over black table tops fitted with a mini bonsai and collectible pottery ware, plus a simple glass tumblers awaiting the already-famous cocktails built from the contents of sake jars, huge and squat as sumo wrestlers, that serve as room dividers.

And the food! Think tapas, Asian-style. In addition to an A list of sushi are a dozen new-to-Minneapolis bite-size apps ($5–$7 range). Following our waiter/mentor’s lead, we ordered three. Dainty, miniature spring rolls held crab and edamame (sweet and crunch ) sided by dips — one chili, modestly hot, one mayo-smooth. Then, a sextet of gyoza (fried dumplings) plump with ginger-scented duck, again accented by dual dippers; finally, the crispy pork hara-age, the only big mistake of the evening — way too much crusty, overfried batter per molecule of pork.

Next up, skewers from the robata (grill), $3–$5 range. I could have just said “yes,” they all sounded so tempting, but as real life often interferes with fantasy, I was forced to choose. Loved the trio of succulent, spongy eggplant cubes bathed in sweet miso. Also the sweet, chewy grilled corn. Oh, and the asparagus. The list continues with seafood, chicken, beef, pork and bacon choices. From the latter, we picked another winner: three bitty hard-cooked quail eggs wrapped in bacon (breakfast on a skewer).

When I return, I’ll concentrate on serious noodle worship (bowls $10 range). Before exploding, I managed to polish off one, the best-selling pork belly ramen — a bowlful of rich broth wriggling with vermicelli-like ramen noodles — a far cry from those of dorm days — tangled around meaty, fatty chunks of pork belly and shards of roasted pork and topped with a lasciviously runny poached egg. Somewhere in the mix appeared a fish cake, too.

My tablemate spied the list of set meals hiding at the very bottom of the menu, unheralded by our otherwise-excellent waiter, and I’d recommend that first-timers to Japanese food cast their eyes there, too: not only are they a great combo of styles the kitchen is saluting, but they represent a real bargain. For instance, my pal’s selection of grilled ribeye, rosy-rare and juicy; delicate tempura batter dressing large, sweet shrimp; sweet corn robata; a cherry-tomato-bacon maki robata;  and kani (snow crab) nigiri, all for $25 (and that’s the most expensive one). Needless to point out, we didn’t have room for dessert.