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Valley Life : restaurant reviews : Big Fish in a Big Pond : With good food and laid-back ambience, Matsuda is a standout among Ventura Blvd. sushi spots.

September 24, 1999|MAX JACOBSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

"You're the best," rejoices a regular as Hiro Matsuda hands a gaudily stuffed hand roll across the slate-gray sushi counter at his Ventura Boulevard restaurant.

The man enraptured by his hand roll, I discover, was one of Matsuda's best customers when he worked down the street at Teru Sushi, before he left to open this new restaurant, named Matsuda.

The man had better be right. Because Ventura Boulevard is lined with competitors, from Teru Sushi and Sushi Nozawa in this neighborhood, to dozens of other good sushi restaurants clear out to Calabasas.

The chef is easy to spot. He's the handsome fellow with jet black hair and no bandanna, working directly in the middle of the counter. His new restaurant has a high-beamed ceiling, a row of simple tables and a good supply of blond, wooden chairs with slate-blue cloth cushions. The real action, though, is at the sushi counter. That's where most people want to sit, ordering their meal from a long paper list. This is not the only way to do it at Matsuda, incidentally. There is also an extensive folding menu of cooked dishes, plus a host of chef's specials that change daily.

No one should come, for instance, without ordering gindara saikyoyaki from the folding menu. Gindara, also known as butterfish, is a silver-bellied cod the chef marinates in snow-white miso from Kyoto. This chunk of fish is meltingly soft, with charred black edges and the subtly sweet fragrance of the miso filling every mouthful.

One evening I feasted on a mixed sashimi platter, a chef's special, containing butter-soft toro (fatty tuna belly), fat pink slices of hamachi (yellowtail) and two rubbery but delicious pieces of mirugai, a giant clam that comes across as unreasonably chewy for sushi novices. Matsuda stocks all the sushi bar standards: sea urchin, salmon egg, freshwater eel and more. But he also turns out several creative things that Japanese are fond of calling "new style."

The wryly named Studio City Roll, for instance, is an enormous rice cylinder with spicy tuna, crab meat, avocado and--of all things--cream cheese in the middle. I find it ridiculously rich, like a bagel and lox with too much cream cheese. He also does a fine beef kushiyaki, which is skewered, grilled tenderloin of beef, something not common to the more orthodox sushi bar. Ask for the chef's seared toro steak, ultra-tender tuna lightly seared around the edges. One off-menu item I favor is seaweed salad. It's a bed of greens heaped with kelp, sea tangle and seri, a mild Japanese watercress.

Unlike the intimidating sushi bars on this street, which I won't name, Matsuda is a cheerful haunt where strict sushi etiquette is not necessary, and the chefs' repartee with customers is a hoot.

That's what I call new style sushi.

BE THERE

Matsuda, 11837 Ventura Blvd., Studio City. Lunch noon-2 p.m. Monday-Friday; dinner 5:30-9:30 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 5:30-10 p.m. Friday-Saturday. Parking in lot. Beer and wine only. All major cards. Dinner for two, $32-$58. Suggested dishes: gindara appetizer, $8.95; seaweed salad, $9.50; yellowtail sashimi, $8.90; toro steak, $13. Call (818) 760-3917.

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