No one can accuse Portlanders of suffering from a lack of good sushi. You would think then that Masu, hidden off West Burnside, might have its work cut out for it.
Not long ago, the restaurant's expansive second floor studio space might've served as headquarters for a trendy urban-culture magazine, the kind with info about the latest bamboo tableware, and weighed down with 16 Dolce & Gabbana ads before the contents page. But, Masu's owners wisely snapped it up first, and transformed it into a sleek, atmospheric space with inspired offerings.
A "masu" is a traditional Japanese wooden box used both as a measuring cup for rice and a drinking vessel for sake. In Japan, sake is enjoyed from masu only on special occasions. Similarly, Masu the restaurant is not your everyday sushi place. Tuna, salmon, and Inari don't make their way to you via conveyor belt on color-coded plates. Here, you're bathed in well-planned hip. The tunes are Bowie, Tom Waits, and the Velvet Underground. The bar is backlit frosty glass, with several masu stacked randomly on shelves. Cocktails are cleverly dubbed Hello, Kitty (vodka, blackberry puree, a splash of tamarind), and Hatori Hanzo's Sword (tequila, melon, Grand Marnier). Hashi (chopsticks) come with their tips smartly dressed in a bright square of origami paper. When it's time to go, your bill is tucked between pages of a Japanese-language children's book.
The menu does an excellent job matching the vibe of the interior. Masu's admirable specialty rolls are nothing like the typical kappa maki--the humble, ever-present cucumber and rice wrapped in nori. Instead, these are vibrant, entrée-worthy medleys of fish, veggies, and one or two unexpected ingredients. The Japanista ($13), for example, wakes up your mouth with spicy tuna, crab, seared hamachi (yellowtail), and the lingering, crisp heat of jalapeño. The vegetarian Buddha's Hand ($7) combines matchsticks of shiitake, asparagus, cucumber, burdock (aka: gobo), gourd, and radish, and snuggles it all up nicely in rice and nori.
Starters include vegetable or seafood tempura, and a refreshing diced tomato salad with soy dressing under a cap of chilled somen noodles. The accessible happy hour menu offers oysters fried in panko (coarse Japanese-style breadcrumbs), fried calamari, and the Monkey Tama--tempura-style spicy tuna and mushrooms. Desserts include mochi-covered bites of green tea ice cream, a subtle ginger-flavored créme brulee, and chambord cake. Even the booze runs the gamut: cocktails, Heineken, Oregon pinot gris, and superb high-end sake brands served in, what else? Masu.
Negatives? There aren't many: slightly overcooked edamame, and the nigiri (the ubiquitous slice of fish on a hand-formed bed of rice) are tiny for the price ($4 for eel or shrimp; $4.75 for tuna). You'd be far better served at Saburo's, if that's the specific item you're looking for.
Masu is gunning to attract the nearby Pearl District crowd, but not at the expense of the rest of Portland's discerning sushi lovers. Wieden + Kennedy execs can schmooze clients over mouth-watering Kobe-style tenderloin ($23) or lobster tail with shiitake and shiso leaf ($23), while a group of friends enjoying a night out without the luxury of an expense account can dig into salmon skin rolls and down hefty bottles of Sapporo. Even in a city teeming with sushi bars, Masu's poised to make its mark.