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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, May 16, 2003

Let Sushi Masa take your taste buds on a journey

By Matthew Gray
Advertiser Restaurant Critic

Patrons at Sushi Masa can have their top-quality 'ahi, buttery hamachi, tempura and other dishes at the sushi bar or at a table in the small sit-down area in the back. The restaurant, under chef and owner Masa Nakayama, has been downstairs at Ward Centre for 13 years. Our critic rates Sushi Masa highly.

Deborah Booker • The Honolulu Advertiser

Sushi Masa

1200 Ala Moana

Lunch: 11 a.m.-2 p.m.

Dinner: 5-9 p.m.

Or 11 a.m.-9 p.m. at the sushi bar


Very good

The sushi showdown would take place in an open-air setting, downstairs at Ward Centre, next to Scoozees and in front of the Sedona store.

Sushi Masa has been doing its thing for 13 years. Masa Nakayama is the chef and owner of this charming little place. It's mostly a sushi bar, but there is a small sit-down area in the back if you prefer a table for lunch or dinner.

Nakayama is a very pleasant man. He greets you quietly, not with a roar, preferring to call attention to his cuisine and his artistry instead of his vocal chords.

I was duly impressed with what I was about to experience.

After speaking with Nakayama for just a few minutes, I could tell that he is a different breed of sushi chef. He serves all the standard items, but I'm certain he'd prefer to take your taste buds on a journey, rather than serve California rolls ($6.75), spicy tuna rolls ($5.75) and the like.

You can find top-quality 'ahi, ruby red and rich, along with gorgeous salmon, buttery hamachi (yellowtail), sweet ebi (prawns), soft unagi (eel), pink snapper and chewy ika (squid) for $4.50 per order. Tako (octopus) is $3.75 per order; tekka maki (rolled sushi) is $4.50.

I normally don't eat raw fish, but I was feeling bold and told Nakayama to just do his thing. He sized me up and within minutes he was belting out the sushi hits.

Aji ($5.50), or Spanish mackerel, was firm and flavorful, salmon topped with bright orange salmon eggs ($6) burst in my mouth, and skipjack ($4.50) was thinly sliced, slightly sweet and topped with a crunchy garlic chip.

Next came the Kobe steak special ($5), mildly beefy but not as tender as the legendary tales would have you believe. Scallops ($5) were assembled with sweet and crunchy Japanese pear and wrapped in nori (dry seaweed sheets). He even smokes his own salmon ($4.50), which is delicious. A smelt hand roll ($4.50) came next; it was cooked, hot and juicy, sharing the space with sprouts and various flavors I could not identify.

As Nakayama placed these handcrafted treats before me, he'd say various instructive things: "Eat in one bite, no shoyu," he'd declare, which is tough for me because I'm used to dipping sushi into a shoyu-wasabi mixture. When I forgot what he said, and just as I was about to dip, he'd say, "uh-uh, one bite, no shoyu."

It became quite funny after a while.

"Still hungry?" my sushi master inquired. "Yes" was all I had to say.

He then reached way back into his fridge and pulled out a bowl of thick white creamy stuff. I later learned this was fermented mountain yam ($5).

Winking, he tells me it's "good for your health, especially for men." and as he speaks I'm thinking 'oh dear,' before I try it. After all, he placed it in front of me, on top of rice, wrapped in nori ... I had no choice.

After I devour this, Nakayama tells me that most haoles don't like it. It's not the flavor, but the texture that is challenging here. Ditto with the raw baby lobster tail ($9 with miso soup), a sea treat I prefer cooked if given the choice.

If you feel like something other than sushi, you must try the mixed tempura ($9.50), among the finest I have had. The shrimp and vegetables have a superb coating that seems to give way when you bite into them, so very light and crunchy.

Sirloin teriyaki ($8.25) or the version with chicken ($7.75) includes miso soup and rice. They are both quite good and extremely affordable. There are always many specials to choose from — salads, udon, soba noodles and much more.

Nakayama visits the fish market every day, inspecting each piece of fish his restaurant sells.

He works hard, and his creativity should be rewarded. At one point I asked, "What's this?" and his one-word reply was "food."

Hey Masa-Man, that's good enough for me.

Reach Matthew Gray at mgray@honoluluadvertiser.com.