Roll with it

Pasatiempo - - Restaurant Review -

On-ko chi-shin — it means, “To know the old is to un­der­stand the new.” While this an­cient maxim might typ­i­cally be seen scrawled in Ja­panese cal­lig­ra­phy at mar­tial-arts stu­dios and tat­too par­lors, it also ap­plies to food. In re­cent weeks, I so­journed to the roots of my post-ado­les­cent Santa Fe-sushi ed­u­ca­tion, a place that is also where my free­lance res­tau­rant-re­view ca­reer be­gan nearly a decade ago.

Tucked in­side a strip mall in Solana Cen­ter, Masa Sushi’s ca­sual dé­cor hasn’t changed much since I re­viewed it in 2002. Pale yel­low walls are neu­tral back­ground for Ja­panese art prints, black wooden ta­bles, and a scat­tered army of ce­ramic kit­tens in a va­ri­ety of sizes and col­ors — Hello Kitty-shabby-chic. A clean, well-stocked sushi bar in the back of the res­tau­rant seats seven peo­ple com­fort­ably and is over­seen by chef/owner Sammy, a Thai­land-born, clas­si­cally trained sushi chef who took over the busi­ness a few years ago.

I or­dered lunch to go on a re­cent Mon­day af­ter­noon. Masa Sushi does a brisk take­out busi­ness, and my or­der was ready to haul off in 15 min­utes, as the friendly host­ess had promised. Here’s a les­son I learned the hard way: al­ways check your to-go or­der be­fore you leave a res­tau­rant. Af­ter re­turn­ing to my of­fice, I dis­cov­ered a few mis­takes. An or­der of os­hingo (pick­led daikon radish) had been re­placed with an os­hingo sushi roll. The same fate be­fell an ap­pe­tizer or­der of shrimp tem­pura. Both were good, but I was look­ing for­ward to hot, fried, whole shrimp on a cold day. Steamed edamame pods con­tained ten­der, but­tery soy­beans, and a hot cup of miso soup was briny and fla­vor­ful, a few small cubes of silky tofu and some toasted sea­weed hid­ing at the bot­tom.

Gen­tly grilled un­agi (fresh­wa­ter eel) was evenly coated with kabayaki (sweet soy-based sauce) and draped over two nubs of per­fectly cooked and sea­soned sushi-rice pearls. Too large for a typ­i­cal onebite ap­proach, I split the ni­giri bun­dles in half with a chop­stick. The hamachi (yel­low­tail) ni­giri was smaller and eas­ier to man­age, its ul­tra-fresh, fleshy, off-white meat melt­ing in my mouth.

The Heart At­tack maki roll was a thing of beauty, its name de­scrib­ing its heat level, not its nu­tri­tional in­flu­ence on the myo­genic or­gan. The roll’s spicy tuna was tame, but pick­led jalapeño slices nicely supplied the heat. Crisp cu­cum­ber and “tem­pura crunch” added a cool­ness and tex­tu­ral coun­ter­bal­ance to the mild tuna’s sticky-smooth con­sis­tency. The Camel Rock roll is where the new meets the old here. I usu­ally shy away from re­gional takes on sushi, but “green chile tem­pura” isn’t some­thing I come across ev­ery day. It was sur­pris­ingly de­li­cious and sub­tle when paired with yet more un­spicy spicy tuna, creamy avo­cado, cu­cum­ber, and sweet soy sauce. It was on-ko chi-shin light­ning in a nori-fla­vored bot­tle.

Dur­ing din­ner at the sushi bar on an early Satur­day evening, sushi ser­vice was top-notch. But when we asked a wait­ress to bring a list of sakes, she pointed to the din­ner menus al­ready in our hands. Three or four choices, none of them very in­spir­ing in light of chef Sammy’s great skill, were only avail­able by the glass or bot­tle. Our half-bot­tle of cold Gekkeikan “Haiku” sake (made in the United States) was placed in front of us un­opened — with two em­bar­rass­ingly enor­mous white wine glasses.

Co­conut shrimp con­sisted of five teeny, tail-on shrimp coated in a thick, sick­en­ingly sweet bat­ter that tasted like an­cient Host­ess Sno Balls dipped in sea wa­ter. Chef Sammy came to the res­cue with his din­ner­sized sushi combo. A con­i­cal spicy-tuna hand roll was enor­mous, and this time, ac­tu­ally spicy. The combo’s ac­com­pa­ny­ing Cal­i­for­nia roll con­tained the ex­pected surimi (fake crab), avo­cado, and cu­cum­ber, but Sammy smoth­ers his ver­sion in crunchy smelt roe. We called “chef’s choice” for the combo’s six pieces of ni­giri sushi and six pieces of sashimi, which lit up Sammy’s smil­ing face like a Macy’s Christ­mas tree. Be­fore we knew it, we were bom­barded with com­pact slabs of high qual­ity salmon belly, cooked shrimp, yel­low­tail, al­ba­core tuna, and sea urchin. Stuffed to the gills, so to speak, we skipped dessert — which wasn’t of­fered any­way. Masa Sushi con­tin­ues to do sushi well. But it still strug­gles to pro­vide cer­tain forms of ser­vice, in a man­ner that is at best av­er­age and at worst stu­pe­fy­ing.

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