I had lunch with a friend at Sushi Masa the other day. We arrived at just about 11:30 AM and were the last group in the door to get a table. Although standing in line to get a table is a real inconvenience for diners, it's a heck of a deal for Sushi Masa. I have to guess other establishments around town would love to have the "problem" of having people lined up to get in the place the minute the doors open for lunch.
Sushi Masa covers what I believe to be the two critical components of overall sushi quality: excellent fish and an extremely skilled chef.
The freshness and quality of the fish is paramount. The uninitiated are always surprised to find that good raw fish doesn't smell or taste like they think it will. I think most everyone understands the concept that if the sushi smells fishy, you are probably in the wrong place.
In terms of straight-up, uncomplicated, not-too-exotic sushi, Sushi Masa offers sushi as good as I have had anywhere else during my travels around the country- Minneapolis, Chicago, Denver, Washington, D.C., Pittsburgh, Atlanta, and notably even San Francisco. The quality of the fish that is offered at Sushi Masa is second to none. This seems counter intuitive considering that really great, fresh seafood has been traditionally a little difficult to come by here in South Dakota. Duh- no ocean, no fresh seafood. Federal Express to the rescue! Thanks to overnight shipping, the fish being delivered here in Sioux Falls is probably as fresh as the fish being delivered nearly everywhere else. The exceptions are probably very high end establishments that are sourcing fish down to the individual producer and serving product that was likely swimming 12-18 hours before it appears on your plate.
Hint: In Tony Bourdain's breakout book, Kitchen Confidential, he counsels against ordering fish on a Monday. The reason why is far from counter intuitive. Actually, it's quite logical: The last time fish was shipped out for overnight delivery was probably Thursday evening for Friday morning delivery. Once when I was in Minneapolis for a business meeting, I unwittingly defied this simple rule, at a sushi place no less. Fortunately, the fish was fine. It hadn't turned to bait. I did have a scallop, though, that instantly reminded me of the rule.
Chef skill is also paramount. At the risk of sounding racist, it seems a Japanese sushi chef, has a leg up on the competition. Maybe it's just mental imagery, but I like to think a good Japanese sushi chef got to be that way because he had to work in near indentured servitude at the elbow of someone like Rokusaburo Michiba stirring rice for 20 years before being allowed to pick up a knife. If you have ever had really good sushi and really poor sushi, you will realize how important chef skill really is. An experienced chef knows exactly how to slice a fish to give the diner the exact texture for the type of fish and the correct portion.
An experience I had right here in Sioux Falls will illustrate this point. A few years ago, the only other sushi place in town was Hibachi- now the west side location of Puerto Vallarta. Hibachi used to be a pretty good sushi experience. In the course of a couple years, they had a few different chefs- all Japanese. Notably, there was a friendly woman who was very skilled. Whenever my family was there we generally sat at the nice sushi bar to watch the chefs work. She would always make the Secret Teaspoon, quite a bit younger then, a little bear made out of an orange. Hibachi didn't make it- probably a victim of too much overhead and not enough business. Yes, it went through a boom period when their four or five teppanyaki stations were going full tilt, but I never could quite figure out how they were going to sustain that level of business in this town. They didn't. I knew Hibachi was in the final throes of a painful financial death when the young, friendly, well-skilled Japanese sushi chef had been replaced by two burly Hispanic guys. Those guys knew the "recipes" but they really couldn't execute. That particular day we ordered a roll of some sort. What we got was pretty much a square (no it wasn't box sushi) and nearly required a knife and fork to eat because each piece was quite a bit more than the standard comfortable mouthful.
At Sushi Masa, they get the preparation right. And the presentation is always nice.
One thing you are going to have to get used to at Sushi Masa is the overall appearance of the place. I was never in the old Matador or Red Lantern, and as I recall, the location was empty for long periods of time on the 80's and early 90's. Nevertheless, except for a few coats of paint and a couple of wall hangings, I can't imagine the place looks much different than it must have in 1978.
Sushi Masa is small and the booth tables a bit rickety. The bathroom are inconveniently located and reminiscent of an old Texaco gas station. If you have to wait for a table, you can leave a number and the staff will call you when a table is available. If you can hear background music playing, it is Minnesota Public Radio. (Come on Fumi, would SDPR kill you?) If you have to wait for a table, there is precious little space to do so. Actually, there might be two chairs to sit in. Maybe. Chances are you'll have to leave a cell phone number and then leave. (Hint: Make sure you have a cell phone. You can wander around downtown, or walk straight to Paramount and have a cocktail while you wait. A further caveat, however, the wait for a table never seems to be as long as the staff says. I usually end up chugging half of a beer because the 45 minute wait ended up being about 14 minutes.) The sushi bar itself will seat 3 or 4 people in minor discomfort. The beverage selection is fairly adequate.
Don't expect any of this to change. Why would it? Despite icky bathrooms, a general lack of decor and atmosphere, the place is always busy. People line up to get a table at lunch time. In the winter no less! The owner and his wife, who are the sushi chefs, can work at a deliberate and seemingly unrushed pace to turn out order after order, never leaving diners to wait a prolonged period of time. From an owner's perspective, this has to be a near-perfect business model.
Nevertheless, I'd like to see Sushi Masa push the envelope just a little bit. The sushi and sashimi combo (sized depending on the number of diners) is great and offers an abundance of well- made, basic offerings: tuna, salmon, snapper, shrimp, cooked eel, egg, and even some squid. It's always all very good. Unfortunately, the squid and the eel is about as exotic as it gets. Every once in a while, though, it's fun to play the home version of Bizarre Foods. Once, and only once, I was at Sushi Masa when the server advised us that they had procured some fresh Uni. That's sea urchin. Even though I believe about 90% of the public is never going to like the stuff, it's a must try. For a lot of people, sea urchin is going to present a texture problem. It has no definite shape and is rather like a semi-firm ooze. It also has a fairly strong flavor. Overall, it's kind of like foamy, fishy, mud, but there is something so sensuous about it. It's fun to eat. You wouldn't want to make a meal of it, but it is good, and if nothing else it's fun to gross out your friends.
Also, on rare occasion, Sushi Masa might have some of the fabled toro. Toro is the fatty belly tissue from a big eye tuna. This stuff is somewhere on the menu of almost every sushi place I have ever been to, but rarely actually available. and, IF it is available, you are probably going to pay at least 5 bucks per slice. It's worth every penny. You'll know you have the real McCoy if it appears whitish, not bright red or even pink. Whitish. It should be loaded with fat. Also, once in the mouth, you should have to apply little if any pressure from your teeth. Toro will, literally, melt in your mouth. It's wonderful.
One interesting thing you should ask for is a salmon skin hand roll. Yes, salmon skin. No scales and cooked, fashioned into a hand roll (sort of like a sushi snow cone) with rice, it's delicious. Chewy and salmony tasting.
I'd love to see more of these exotic selections on the menu on a regular basis.
I'd also love to see a more expanded selection of sake. From what I am seeing when I am out and on the menu, people are becoming more interested in sake. They should. It's good stuff. Sushi Masa has expanded their sake offerings by a small margin. Let's hope this trend continues. Also on the beverage front, I'd also like to see Sapporo beer available in the can. Go buy one of these at Hy Vee liquors and you'll see why. They are way cool.
For all Sushi Masa is not, it is great for what it is- really great, really well-prepared sushi that is as good as you are likely to find anywhere. That's a hell of a good deal for Sioux Falls.