Fresh food and fun combine at Masa
Hibachi chefs take center stage at Masa, a newish eatery on South Willow Street in the place of the former Famous Dave's Barbecue.
A crowd of perhaps 100 patrons packed Masa on a recent Saturday night, testament either to the quality of the food or the simple draw of the hibachi entertainment directly in front of diners, where chefs ham it up, toss utensils in the air, bang the gong and serve up plates full of Japanese vegetables, seafood and meat directly off the grill table.
It's high entertainment value, perfect for groups of people looking for an offbeat dining experience, and for families with children who are awed by the spectacle.
On this night, the hibachi room was crowded with families, and there were lots of small children, scampering about with electronic games, coats worn only by the hood and standing on chairs to get a better view of the chefs in action.
That was a little chaotic for us, so we chose the quieter half of the restaurant where booths are lined against the walls surrounding the full rectangle bar. it was a good choice for us, and Masa benefits from the variety. The cocktail lounge was well-populated, and nearly all the booths were full when we arrived.
Subdued lighting combined with an expansive menu make it a bit difficult to see and discern the different nuances of sushi, sashimi and other Asian delicacies listed on the menu, and a long list of specialty drinks and wines take time to read and ponder. Unless you've been there before and know what you want, it's not recommended to hurry during the Masa experience.
We ordered a couple of drinks and two appetizers to give us time to peruse the rest of the menu and, all in all, we enjoyed all that Masa had to offer.
Hibachi orders are available away from the grills, at the tables, and there is a huge variety of single items and hibachi combos as entrees, including Kid's Hibachi ($8.95-$11.95).
We shared the appetizers and the entrees. First up was a plate of Lettuce Wraps ($7.95), with five perfectly round, crisp and conveniently hollow-shaped leaves to hold the diced, marinated chicken with herbs, chili paste and scallions. A large spoon enables diners to fill the wraps with the ingredients, add sauce if desired, then fold the lettuce around the innards like a Japanese taco. A choice of beef instead of chicken adds variety to this dish from the "Kitchen Starters" portion of the menu.
Sushi is mandatory at Masa, it would seem, and its website boast of "the best sushi in the Manchester area" might be spot on. We ordered a Rainbow, from the Masa Special Roll department, and we have to say it was super delicious, fresh and artfully prepared. With crabmeat, cucumber and avacado on the inside, wrapped by sticky rice and mini slabs of tuna, salmon and fluke, our order brought five or six pieces of sushi large enough to be sliced in half at the kitchen, with each half forming a more-than-formidable bite. Dipped into sauce of your choice (ginger, smooth Asian not-spicy mustard, vinegar, hot oil or what have you) these are drippingly delicious morsels of a Japanese specialty you don't want to miss.
And you can hardly miss them: There are 60 or 70 listings of sushi and sashimi, as appetizers, starters and entrees, sprinkled across the menu.
I was adventurous with my entree of Pan Roasted Chilean (as opposed to grilled) Sea Bass, and it was a hearty delight. On top of the thick cut of fish, and rolled into its middle with vegetables, was a perfectly constructed layer of a spicy tuna and crabmeat mixture, and the whole entree was served atop two or three large slices of tomato and covered with a slightly spicy yuzu teriyaki sauce.
Accompanied by thai jasmine rice and garnished further with almond flakes, the sea bass was moist and fresh, a strong seafood dinner. It tended to fall apart, however, as I dined, and then it all mixed with the yuzu and the rice and parts of the dish became a bit undiscernable. But, no matter, the taste was superb and the portion was adequate.
A hibachi order accompanied the bass to the table. Our Salmon & Shrimp Hibachi entree ($25.95) was a feast! A long, thin slice of salmon, nicely grilled and marinated, was graced by a heaping mound of steaming vegetables, five large, grilled scallops, two pieces of hibachi grilled shrimp, and a couple of accompanying sauces. A wonderful meal, large enough for a hefty supper and lunch the next day, or plenty for a couple.
Hibachi dinners are accompanied soup and salad and rice, but only the rice arrived with our Salmon & Shrimp, leading us to believe the soup and salad was only included with those meals served in the hibachi room.
Menu ordering is allowed in the hibachi room but only if one other of your diners orders hibachi; and hibachi orders are available in the dining room. Honestly though, we weren't lacking for the soup or salad, and didn't notice the menu notation until later. Sharing an entree would rate a $10 charge in the hibachi room, but even so, the price and amount of food would suffice for folks on a budget or those who perfer smaller portions.
Masa brings a classy dining experience to Manchester, for its quality food and decor, and offers a wild assortment of multi-colored cocktails ($6.95), a variety of seating options and energetic hibachi chefs.
The waitstaff, however, seems ever present, overly attentive. Our server, Mike, was a suave and friendly and informative waiter, rating high marks. But the kitchen help was hovering everywhere, ready to clear any plate the moment the final bite was lifted. Indeed, we lost a fork as our appetizer plates were cleared; we lost three chopsticks (one that vanished with the appetizer plates and two that disappeared with the sushi dish); we almost lost a cocktail that was only 4/5 empty; and we lost the replacement fork from the plate that had the Lettuce Wraps.
At the end, as I slid leftovers into a to-go container, the busboy was actually waiting at the side of the table for me to put the plate down. A bit unnerving that was, and unnecessary. Dinner-restaurant diners are not in a rush; there is no need to hurry just because the staff has nothing to do.
Masa is built for special occasions and parties in the hibachi room, with its dozen or more grilling stations, and we would recommend it for families who delight in delicate Japanese cuisine and the hibachi's accompanying excitement. We're not sure of the value of Masa for 6- or 7-year-old children, but it seemed to be a wild, fun atmosphere for the little ones and popular for pairs of couples with two children each.
Either way, Masa offers a new and dynamic sushi and hibachi dining experience in south Manchester.