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RestaurantsSanta Cruz
April 18-25, 2007

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Masako

Photograph by Carlie Statsky
Balancing act: Masako offers up the right mix of quality ingredients and customer satisfaction.

Fitting In

Masako beats the odds

By Selene Latigo


Every town has those seemingly cursed restaurant locations that have a turnover rate quicker than the seasons. A delicate balance of dedication, good management, money and, of course, food quality is required to even attempt to reverse the momentum of doom at these fated establishments. I'm never surprised to see a new county notice posted on the corner of Soquel and Ocean and honestly, I kind of assumed the same fate at Bay and Mission. However, the pride and perseverance of Masako seems to have tipped the scales in this case, hopefully to sustain the level of quality we encountered last Saturday night.

We chose a plush, semi-enclosed booth from the diverse seating options, ranging from sleek tables under modern lighting, direct and action-packed up at the sushi bar, or intimate and soft as ours was. I'm generally one to linger for as long as possible over meals, especially with courses of sushi, however we were ambitiously trying to make a movie downtown and dropped this tidbit to our friendly server. Throughout our dinner, she consistently put forth every effort to expedite the process without making it seem rushed as well as being genuinely pleasant.

We did our part too, by being decisive and efficient with our menu browsing, often a difficult task for my detail oriented weighing of options. Success, mostly due to Dave's hunger and a smoothly navigable menu, had our order streamlined. The sake list offered over a dozen chilled varieties, including our bottle of unfiltered ShoChiKubai ($9) made at Takara Sake in Berkeley. Although we've sampled cleaner, more complex examples of this type, the sake still had the creamy melon element that we love.

A blessing in disguise, my mom's preference for "cooked fish" was an opportunity to diversify our typical order. Her Masako's Combo came with miso, salad, rice and a choice of two out of nine specialties. The miso arrived first and was hot, blooming and kissed with a sprinkling of tofu cubes and seaweed but a bit diluted in flavor. While Dave and my mom sipped soup heartily, I chewed up my Ocean Salad ($5.25) that was balanced with sesame and hot pepper, enhancing the toothy strips of glistening seaweed.

Next came the large compart-mentalized box holding a moist scoop of rice, a typical crisp iceberg salad with cabbage, carrots and a creamy, mayo-based dressing. The salmon teriyaki was cooked perfectly with dark grill evidence and an even, sparse hand with the not-too-sweet teriyaki glaze. Also flawless was the vegetable tempura, a varied mix of carrot, sweet potato, broccoli and onion coated in a shell of batter that shattered audibly with every bite. The vital key to enjoying tempura while hot and fresh was no problem for the three of us.

Our sushi arrived on a large wooden boat with fluffy wasabi and pickled ginger that was not the usual artificial neon pink and seemed spicier and true to its natural form. Our three nigiri selections all showed attention to detail and knife technique and were at their ideal freshness but the rice was somewhat bland and on the dry side. The hamachi ($5.50) was buttery and almost melted in one bite while the hirame (seasonal price), a toothier fish by nature, was aptly sliced thin and paired with shiso, creating a clean, elementally oceanic flavor. The unagi ($4.75) was tender and thick without an overly cloying sauce and an earthy finish from the grilled skin.

Two rolls were exactly enough for us all to feel satiated and complete. The Dynamite ($5.75) was a play on a spicy tuna roll with peppery radish sprouts (more would have been even better) and cooling cucumber. The masa maki ($5.25) featured strips of tempura yam, bits of bright lemon, and avocado. The touch of mayonnaise, along with the rich avocado and savory fried crunch of tempura was countered by the sweet yam and tangy lemon for a brilliant balance.

With just minutes before our time deadline, we snuck in a dessert request for tempura green tea ice cream ($4). One golden scoop set in a martini glass arrived for a beautiful ending. The outer crunchy layer gave way to a protective, tender blanket of cake and a core of very hard, cold green tea ice cream that soaked in appealingly the more it softened up. We dashed out the door, so appreciative to have had such a great dinner at Masako instead of a hurried pre-movie gut buster of burritos.



Masako

Address: 1520 Mission St., Santa Cruz

Phone: 831.429.4088

Hours: 11:30am-2:30pm, 5-9:30pm Mon-Thu; 11:30am-2:30pm, 5-10pm Fri-Sat

Price Range: $4-$19.


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