Portlanders love their cheap sushi. The "conveyor belt" establishments thrive in this town, where, like factory workers at an assembly line, undiscerning diners watch endless plates of raw sludge move robotically beneath their noses. At night, crowds line up around the block to get into Sellwood's Saburo's, a shoebox of a place where hamburger-sized globs of fish and rice are rushed forth into a chaotic, cafeteria-like environment.

Such establishments neglect sushi's great tradition, both in flavor and in ambience.

"Sushi is a whole experience," says Maria Rosengreen, co-owner of sushi bar Masu. "It's an art form that should engage all the senses."

Having enjoyed great success with its downtown location (406 SW 13th), Masu recently built a branch in Southeast. There, origami tessellations hang on the walls, and futons lay behind the chairs. At the gorgeous, wood-paneled sushi bar, the chefs move fluidly. Light glints off knives. Chopping sounds fill the air. The rich smell of the freshest fish available is everywhere.

"[Great sushi] is about sitting at the bar and getting to know the chef," says Rosengreen, who views the cuisine as a form of creative expression open to each "artist's" individual interpretation. Though Masu's menu features several must-try signature plates (the "Chasing the Dragon," for instance, finds shrimp tempura, spicy tuna, crab, cucumber, and avocado rolled in tempura crisps... drool), diners are encouraged to deviate from the menu and challenge the chefs with something new. Bring a list of your favorite sushi ingredients, hand it to the guy behind the bar, and see what happens.

On my visit to Masu East, head sushi chef Brandon Hill scooped out a tiny ball of sticky rice and set it on the counter. He arranged four strips of glowingly fresh albacore tuna around it, walling the rice in, then filled his little structure up with more goodies. He layered on spicy tuna paste, a dollop of tobiko (flying fish roe), a roof of avocado slices, and the finishing touch: a quivering, yellow quail egg. With a flourish, he laid it before me, a veritable pagoda of exotic delicacies, exploding with color even beneath the bar area's romantically dim lighting. I stared at it. It was beautiful.

"How do I eat it?" I managed.

"If you can get the whole thing in your mouth, I'd do that," Hill said.

I nodded and, with a deep breath, opened my mouth. There was one sense yet to fulfill.

Masu East is located at 310 SE 28th, 5-11 pm weekdays, 5-midnight weekends, call 232-5255 to discuss reservations or catering.