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An Exotic Catch

George Sakkestad

Whatever Floats Your Boat: A small sushi bar with seating augments the marble-topped dining tables at Masu.

On Saratoga's restaurant row, Masu updates Japanese classics and creates its own traditions

By Andrew X. Pham

BACK IN THE '80s, it was fashionable to "mac-out" at burger joints before (or after) hitting the town, bedecked entirely in black Italian tailored attire, to nibble on outrageously overpriced sushi of Lilliputian proportions served on exquisite handcrafted porcelain imported from Japan. It's a good thing those days are (largely) gone, and that now there are unpretentious places like Masu to bring back some of those flavors minus the high prices and the props.

Recently unveiled in downtown Saratoga, Masu sits in an elongated, irregular space that gives it a wide sweep of windows. Modestly sized, the restaurant nevertheless boasts trimmings that are reminiscent of contemporary metropolitan sushi restaurants. A concrete floor is decked with blond pine chairs, and fairly uncomfortable benches run along under the windows. Sake bottles flank the walls in the glare of spot lighting.

Masu really does attempt to please everyone. Ultra-hip bar dining is available for those who'd like to watch the cooks work. For the sushi-boat diehards, Masu has what must be the smallest sushi-boat canal in California. And regular table-diner types can have dinette sets topped with rose-colored marble. Frankly, the place is a little schizophrenic, but, hey, therein lies the charm. After all, this is the late '90s and, yes, you can have it any way you want it.

You can even have Japanese pasta! We tried the soy-ginger spaghettini ($9.50), which was prepared in Asian fashion--overcooked, nowhere near al dente. Its seafood inventory was disturbingly short: two prawns and two scallop coins. The vegetable complements were monastic as well, a few snow peas, five brows of red bell pepper, a sliver or two of carrot, a bit of sautéed onions. Though we tried, we couldn't detect a breath of ginger.

The restaurant does not make noodles and pastas from scratch, so we sidestepped zaru soba (skinny buckwheat noodles) and zaru udon (fat rice noodles). Their uncomplicated nature demands that the noodles be crafted in-house daily.

The zensai, without a doubt, wins as the best part of the menu. There is much to like among the 14 offerings: beef sashimi with hot mustard and shiso (beefsteak plant), gyoza with rock shrimp, clams steamed with sake, and various tempura. We thoroughly enjoyed our ebi pancetta ($7), four prawns (shelled but not deveined) wrapped in shawls of bacon, flash grilled and served with chile paste. The bacon lent the barely cooked prawns a delectable finish.

In the same vein, the house special nigiri sushi, featuring among other things roasted eggplant, fresh asparagus and black caviar, definitely marked the restaurant as out of the ordinary. The roasted red pepper sushi, for instance, was a lovely pair of pepper tongues, lipstick red, carried on snowy fingers of rice. And the foie gras sushi, toting large caps of goose liver, tasted so rich that no amount of wasabi could shock a palate out of that buttery immersion. Good stuff.

Seven main entrées, all from the grill, ran the carnivorous gamut ($11.50-$15): chicken, pork, beef, quail, eel and fish. We went with the Chilean sea bass ($14.50). By far the most ornate presentation we've seen in months, the perfectly grilled bass, doused with a light soy-based jus, posed in a white paper basket, singed on the edges for effect. A palm of steamed baby bok choy, flower petals and looping ropes of Chinese long beans added much drama to a pearly tangle of crispy rice noodles.

Our fresh raspberry and pear cobbler ($5), topped with a bonnet of whipped cream, kindly saw us through the finale with homey mugs of green tea. Masu is a nifty spot, a place to eat good-looking food and to look good in black.

Cuisine: Japanese
Ambiance: Fashionably casual
Menu: Starters $2-$7, sushi $2.50-$9, entrées $11.50-$15
Hours: Tue.-Sat. 5-9pm, Sun. 4:30-9:30pm
Address: 14510 Big Basin Way, Saratoga
Phone: 408/868-0600

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From the Nov. 13-19, 1997 issue of Metro.

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