- 12336 Shelbyville Road, Louisville, KY
- Overall User Rating:
- (1 rating)
- Monday-Friday, 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m.; Monday-Thursday, 5-10 p.m.; Friday-Saturday, 5-11 p.m.; Sunday, noon-9 p.m.
- Official Web Site:
Depending on the source you check, the Japanese word “masa” can mean various things in English — and all those things are good.
It might mean “true sand,” a metaphor for authenticity. It might mean “graceful.” Or it might mean “straightforward.”
But if you love sushi — that is, if you adore the colors, shapes, textures and flavors created by especially talented sushi chefs — then you can take “masa” to mean this: Get yourself to Masa Japanese Bistro & Sushi Bar.
Chef-owner John Chang has a kitchen history that started in Louisville; nine or 10 years ago, you might have run across him at Hanabi in Prospect. Then he went off to California, where he picked up more skills and ideas. And now he’s putting his experience into play on the eastern reaches of Shelbyville Road, where the quality of his work has vaulted him into the top ranks of Louisville’s sushi masters — based on what he’s accomplished in his first few months with Masa, he’s poised to take his place among the finest chefs in the city, regardless of culinary style.
Masa is a genuine family project; there’s a good chance some member of Chang’s family — his wife or mother, for instance — will greet you, with a happy smile (one caveat, Chang is pretty much a single-handed force behind the sushi bar, and his detailed craft takes time, so don’t expect fast food on a busy night).
Situated in a suburban commercial development, Masa, which opened last fall in a renovated space, offers warm lighting (the brightest glow probably comes from TV monitors), a pleasant mix of comfortable booths and tables, and a soundtrack that sometimes focuses (alas) on vapid pop, but occasionally veers toward bluesy jazz. There’s also a crystal-clear sushi bar where meticulously fresh seafood is on display, and where you can watch the chef at work.
But first, consider the appetizers. My pal David is one of those menu wizards with a knack for strategic ordering. This time he zeroed in on hiyayako ($3.95) and oshinko ($3.95).
Some may shy away from hiyayako. The main ingredient sounds like some sort of bleak punishment: cold soft tofu. Disregard that! You’ll seldom encounter a more luxurious starter than these carved squares of fine-grained, ivory-white curd dressed with grated ginger, specks of minced scallion and sprinkles of bonito flakes.
Served on a bed of ice in a gently wavy bowl, Chang’s hiyayako does exactly what an appetizer ought to do: It surprises and delights the palate and leaves you wanting more. First it chills your tongue. Then it dissolves in your mouth. And all it leaves behind is a gentle cloud of flavor.
Pair the hiyayako with a splendid bowl of oshinko — a spray of purple, yellow, green and orange pickled vegetables, each with its own distinct taste and crunch — and your palate is suddenly alert to the happy subtleties of textural contrast, and all the ways they will play out over the course of a meal.
In fact, you could add another appetizer, say, tuna tataki ($10.95), the fish barely seared and presented in such a way that the light captures the delicate grain of the fish, and you might have a complete meal (or light snack) for two — but I predict you’ll want to go on. (I should note that the menu also includes a small assortment of teriyaki and noodle dishes, for those seeking cooked food.)
What the starters promise, the rest of the meal will deliver. In a city where elaborate rolls are ubiquitous, it’s not so easy to find perfect sashimi, but Chang’s saba (mackerel; $3.95 for three pieces) is a gleaming silver marvel, each deftly sculpted piece of fish carefully enhanced with a faint touch of citrus and heat.
Recent specials included a marvelous Carpaccio of tuna ($11.95), the edges boldly seared and seasoned with black pepper; on the surrounding plate, pale green pools of olive oil and dashes of inky balsamic vinegar added a lovely Mediterranean touch. On another occasion, Chang’s Red Bull Roll ($11.95) was available — moist, spicy crab in the center, draped with torched Angus beef, each slice carved to a perfectly tapered end.
Even Chang’s simpler rolls, like a simple unagi roll ($6.95), with a simple core of smoky eel and creamy avocado, have a mouthwatering texture. And his more elaborate creations, like the Seaside roll — an inner core of white tuna, avocado and crisp cucumber and an outer surface formed of seared scallop (you could just make out the char marks, if you looked closely) — are sublime ($10.95).
Adventurous diners should know that from time to time Chang brings in delicate specialties that don’t have much shelf life. If you happen to be around when he has, say, uni (sea urchin) on the menu, you ought to grab some. He serves it nigiri style, draped over a cylinder of rice with a seaweed wrapper, but my advice: Use your chopsticks to pick up a lobe of the stuff and eat it plain. There’s nothing else like it. Like that tofu starter, it dissolves on the tongue — but it tastes like a salty memory of a pure, ancient ocean.