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VALLEY WEEKEND | RESTAURANT REVIEW

Musashi Menu Full of Authentic Surprises

Besides fine grilled food, Japanese eatery offers excellent sushi and appetizers in a multicultural atmosphere.

September 19, 1996|MAX JACOBSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Picture a dining room with Chinese- and Korean-speaking waitresses in comely kimonos, and a team of chefs shouting epithets simultaneously in both Spanish and Japanese. We are in the wonderful world of the teppan restaurant, multicultural journey extraordinaire.

Musashi in Northridge is actually much more than that, but it's not as if you'd notice right off the bat. The restaurant is in a mall on the corner of Tampa and Nordhoff, and a few empty sake barrels just inside the door mark the territory as a Japanese restaurant. Beyond that, the place feels modern and even Western, though there are nice Japanese woodblock prints hung over a few booths.

Walking to the rear of the restaurant, though, you find a U-shaped sushi bar, and with it the bulk of the restaurant's Japanese clientele. It is then that you see the considerable number of authentic Japanese dishes served here, amid flurries of grilled bean sprouts and the scent of grilling steaks.

If you haven't been to Benihana or restaurants of a similar ilk, teppan cooking works thusly. One is seated at a common table with a group of strangers, the center of which is a flat metal grill. After time for a silly drink crowned by a paper parasol, a blue-toqued chef comes out and starts flipping things in the air, onto large earthenware plates. There is polite applause. He leaves. You leave.

*

Well, there's more to the restaurant than that. You'll start with lacquer bowls of a light miso (soybean paste) soup, a weak but refreshing sister of the miso you get in say, Little Tokyo. The soup is followed by a rather ordinary salad of iceberg lettuce, but at least this restaurant spares you the idiosyncrasy of topping it with Thousand Island dressing, as teppan restaurants in Japan do. This is really quite a nice ginger dressing, and spicy to boot.

The chef anoints the griddle with an ultralight film of oil, as he lays down a carpet of pale yellow rice for frying, scrambling whole eggs into the mix. The end result is a palatable fried rice. The freshness of the rice and the dearth of oil produces a home-cooked taste, and the vegetables and egg make it tasty enough to eat without adding salt or soy.

Then comes a bland appetizer of chopped shrimp, followed by the meat or fish of your choice and hibachi vegetables, fresh mushrooms, zucchini, grilled onions and bean sprouts, doused in a bland, salty dressing. The meats aren't bad. Hibachi steak is like butter, and the chefs are adept at preparing it to the degree of doneness you prefer. Chicken is fine, too, and several seafoods, which I did not taste, looked fresh and appealing.

But there are better reasons to dine at Musashi. The excellent sushi is one of them. Uni (sea urchin)--a cream and iodine flavored delight that makes the fainthearted swoon--is really wonderful, a fresh tasting, generous scoop atop a nori wrapped clump. Toro (fatty tuna) is delicious, so much so that the chef doesn't doctor it up one bit. And there are plenty of hand rolls, like the poetically named punk roll, crab meat and shrimp tempura inside vinegary rice rolled in tobiko, the tiny roe of the flying fish.

Inside the bound menu are more surprises. Appetizers are uniformly good. Edamame--boiled and salted green soy beans that you pop out of the pods, directly into your mouth--are addictive. A ceramic bowl of bay scallops, shrimp and slender spears of asparagus comes piping hot with a spicy red sauce. There is even the very Japanese agedashi dofu, lightly battered deep fried tofu that you dip in a light soy sauce.

*

The menu is huge, but two dishes deserve a special recommendation. They are bento, Japanese lacquer lunch boxes filled with various tidbits, each placed in its own compartment. Makonouchi bento has it all: two stacked boxes, one atop the other, generously stocked with ginger beef, tempura, broiled fish marinated in sake, green mussels, sashimi, cooked lobster and several stewed vegetables, plus rice, pickles and fresh fruit. Whew.

The vegetarian goren is even more artfully displayed, again two bento boxes but this time holding dishes like cooked spinach with white sesame, a rainbow colored vegetarian sushi hand roll, udon noodles in broth, tofu ankake (squares of tofu glazed with sweet soy), and at least half a dozen varieties of stewed mushrooms, yams and other winter vegetables.

Yes, Musashi's menu has sukiyaki, broiled salmon, chicken teriyaki, but why not be adventurous. Try ordering what the business types from nearby Matsushita Panasonic are eating at the sushi bar, or better yet, something new. And don't worry if you spot the suits doing teppan. Multiculturalism is here to stay.

DETAILS

* WHAT: Musashi.

* WHERE: 9046 Tampa Avenue, Northridge.

* WHEN: Lunch Monday-Friday, 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m., dinner Monday-Thursday, 5-10 p.m., Friday-Saturday, 5-10:30 p.m., Sunday 4-9:30 p.m.

* FYI: Parking in lot. Beer and wine only. All major cards. Dinner for two, $26-$54. Suggested dishes: edamame, $2.50; agedashi dofu, $4.50; punk roll, $4.95; vegetarian goren, $15.95; makonouchi bento, $17.95.

* CALL: (818) 701-7041.

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