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Photograph by George Sakkestad

Soy, What'll You Have?: Everything's fresh at the Masu sushi counter.

Sushi Cue

Saratoga's Masu calls itself a Japanese bistro, and the juxtaposition yields unexpected surprises

By Joseph Izzo Jr.

MAYBE tradition is overrated. When I called Masu and inquired if they had tatami seating, the hostess replied, "Tommy who?" Figuring she didn't hear me right, I had to laugh, but it did make me wonder what was going on at this relatively young restaurant.

On my first visit, I learned that Masu, as my initial impression indicated, sidesteps tradition. It bills itself as a Japanese bistro, traversing politely the rigors of Nippon custom in favor of invention and creativity.

It didn't take long before my guests and I were swept up in the joyful activity typical of real bistros in France. High ceilings refracted the noise so it came at us like marching soldiers. Babies in strollers were parked at tables, cooing over tuna rolls. People gabbed at the speed of motorboats as servers zipped from table to table, telling stories and laughing along with their guests. Holding high our bamboo boxes overflowing with chilled sake and toasting friendships was the perfect thing to do.

The dining room at Masu is washed in white except for the abstract expressionist paintings that splash the room with bright reds and blues. A wall-sized mirror on one side evokes the illusion of elbowroom where there is none.

Though we were seated at a table in the dining room, I did notice a small and very busy sushi-boat counter--a good place to view the chefs and their fast-flying knives. A board over the counter announces Masu's enticing departures on the sushi theme: Dynamite ($5.50), Rock & Roll ($5.95) and the Crazy Horse ($8), to name just three. The well-staffed kitchen puts out food that tempts the palate with fetching presentation and delicate flavors. Freshness was obvious in everything we ordered.

First to the table came an appetizer of shiitake ($8) stuffed with minced vegetables, sealed in tinfoil flowers used to retain the abundant natural juices. Shrimp stuffed gyoza ($6.50), in the shape of ravioli with silky flowing wings, teased tradition without losing integrity. Masu's assortment of boat-fresh sashimi ($19.95) in stunning rainbow colors included tuna, salmon, yellowtail and octopus, all precision-cut and arranged artistically. From the sushi ledger, we sampled Spicy Tuna ($5.50), peppery, yet cooled to the taste by pieces of cucumber, and the Spider Roll ($7), a classy version of crispy fried soft-shell crab rolled with vegetables.

An unexpected surprise came in the form of New York strip steak ($14.75), grilled over the coals, doused in a liquid teriyaki and cut into chopsticks-handy pieces. The meat possessed the indicative flavor and tenderness of well-aged beef. From the teriyaki section, we also had Tonkatsu ($14.50), an enduring Japanese specialty of ringing-crisp deep-fried pork cutlet, cut for the chopsticks and served with a ginger-laced katsu sauce so good it could be spooned. For dessert, tradition reappeared in the service of a thirst-quenching orange cut into perfectly symmetrical slices. How simple!

Our server confessed she had just been hired, but she had the instincts and hands of a professional, and she managed our table with efficiency and grace. Hot dishes arrived from the kitchen without delay; sashimi and sushi came straight to our table from the chef's knife. When mistakes were made, she was the first to admit them and apologize.

Masu nestles comfortably in the shadows of Saratoga's fanciest four-star restaurants on Big Basin Way. Business was good on the Friday night we went. The restaurant is making a go of it, even in these dreary times. It's a good place to go for reasonably priced, tasty Japanese dishes--and to leave dreary times behind.

Address: 14510 Big Basin Way, Saratoga
Telephone: 408.868.0600
Hours: Lunch 11:30am-2:30pm Mon-Fri, noon-3pm Sat-Sun; dinner 5-10pm Mon-Thu, 4:30-10:30pm Fri-Sat, until 9:30pm Sun
Cuisine: Japanese
Price Range: $4-$15

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From the February 27-March 5, 2003 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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