Portland is overloaded with places to purchase sushi of all different kinds ?” traditional sashimi, vegetarian, African fusion, heck ?” you can even get sushi pizza if you are feeling particularly adventurous and have taken leave of your senses completely. Miso finds its way into salad dressings, grilled salmon and hair care products. Saki has similarly become part of our culinary vernacular. This is obviously a good thing, especially as it helps to define a regional cuisine all of our own. The problem is that the portions of Japanese food we get are fairly superficial aspects of a deep, rich culinary tradition.
Tradition is one of the central points of Japanese cuisine, which makes sense for a culture that developed a form of meditation based on preparing and serving tea. Each sense is considered and balanced with the others ?” the visual presentation should complement and enhance the flavor. The variety of textures should add to the taste and appearance. The whole of the meal should help the dinner to feel relaxed and at peace, which leads to the use of much subtler inflections than are commonly found in almost any other kind of cuisine. For special events, sake is served in a small cedar box so that the odor of the wood will complement the flavor of the high-grade rice wine. The name for those boxes in Japanese is “masu.”
Masu Sushi, located in the Stark Street/Brewery Blocks ghetto downtown, brings this ethos to the late night crowd, preserving the best parts of highly conscious cooking and updating where it will enhance a Portlander’s chance of “getting” Japanese food. The interior of this space is extremely well designed. Where a more traditional Japanese eatery will have blank, white walls without windows, so as not to distract from the food, Masu has opted for a meticulously crafted space with floor to ceiling drapes providing a more intimate atmosphere and wall treatments that inspire relaxation while conveying a strong sense of “boxness” that is at once cozy and ever so slightly avant garde.
The menu also extemporizes on traditional themes. The traditional kaiso salad finds a spot on the menu along side a salad of mizuna, asparagus and salmon skin with a sesame oil dressing, both good lunch options which will run less than eight dollars with a cup of miso soup. The notable halibut carpaccio with truffle oil appetizer (expensive) rests comfortably with the traditional array of sushi and sashimi. The usual rolls are competent and well realized however, Masu really shines in their specialty roll selection. I especially like the japanista ($13), a spicy sweet crab and tuna roll and the Buddha ($7), a vegetarian roll combining shitake, asparagus, gourd and radish tsukemono, cucumber and gobo.
As excellent as the specialty roll selection is, I would suggest asking your server for a recommendation or sitting at the sushi bar, especially later at night or when it is slow. The chefs are extremely skilled at sushi creation and love to extemporize. Depending on the day, you can often get unannounced specials, usually reasonably priced that transcend mere comestibles and foray into the realm of profound art that could teach a sensitive diner new lessons about what food could be.
The only major downside to this facility is the clientele – an assortment of yuppies and privileged hipster wasteoids which would be reason enough to avoid a lesser establishment. However, the servers have always been polite and helpful to me. They seem honestly enthusiastic to recommend specials and are quite attentive, depending on how busy the restaurant is, of course. Masu does frequently host DJs, especially on weekends, which can draw a large crowd. You may wish to call ahead if you are looking for a romantic evening and reservations are always a good idea.
I love to take people to Masu, which stays open quite late on the weekends. I have had family, friends, dates and acquaintances eat with me there and it is always a pleasant experience. The decoration, service and menu combine to a relaxing ambience that encourages you to enjoy the fine details of the expertly crafted food and your dining companions at a price point that is customizable to almost any budget. Masu has successfully created a box I love to be in at any time.
Masu is located at 406 S.W. 13th Ave. 503- 221-MASU