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Japanese Pub Fare Is Turning Elegant

The new Musha branch in Santa Monica layers refinement onto the boisterous original, but its food is just as much fun.

July 11, 2002|LINDA BURUM | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Whenever I've called the original Musha in Torrance, the commotion on the other end of the line has sounded like a Tokyo train station at rush hour. This chaos is a sign that it's as popular as ever.

Musha cultivates the good-natured sense of faux debauchery characteristic of the Japanese izakaya, an inexpensive pub where people come for tapas-style snacks and countless rounds of sake or beer. Waiters bellow out orders to the kitchen, occasionally slipping in a double-entendre. A loud chorus of "Irasshai!" greets every customer. At large communal tables, office workers unwind with enthusiastic toasts of "Kampai!"

The place has been a favorite hangout for employees of Japanese multinational firms in the Torrance area since the early '90s. A few weeks ago it opened a branch in Santa Monica, a short stroll from the Promenade, but don't expect quite the same raucous scene at the new place. Instead of communal tables, it has several discrete tatami rooms and a somewhat more elegant demeanor that blends izakaya tradition with the global perspective of hip Japanese youth. There's still shouting, but it's been toned down.

The smart facade, exposed air ducts and deep rust-colored, sponged walls are thoroughly contemporary. Still, tradition is echoed in the heavy wooden beams above the bar, the stacks of hand-formed stoneware plates on every table and several tall tables that recall the days when sake-drinking patrons stood at mobile stalls to eat and drink.

Musha's self-described "Tokyo Cuisine" also unites the classic and new. Strictly traditional izakaya dishes include stewed pork with potatoes and small clams lightly steamed in sake. Other offerings, such as Vietnamese spring rolls and Korean-style spicy soft tofu (sun dubu), display the current Japanese taste for foreign cuisines (filtered though they may be through Japanese sensibilities). One successful crossover dish, vongole udon pasta, is an Asian twist on spaghetti with white clam sauce: steamed clams and fat, chewy noodles with slivered garlic, shimeji mushrooms and a touch of cream.

On one visit, my guest ordered the octopus omelet, mainly out of curiosity, but it turned out to be the most spectacular item on the menu. It's a tall wedge of egg cake (resembling a frittata or Spanish tortilla) stuffed with seasoned noodles and a fine julienne of octopus, served on a hand-cut slab of stoneware dramatically glazed with bright colors. And as if this lily needed gilding, it's crowned with a beautiful arrangement of red pickled ginger, feathery shaved bonito and sliced nori seaweed.

The menu lists something called chicken cracker salad. "Chicken crackers?" we wondered, so we had to try it. They turned out to be a subtle take on tsumami, the rice crackers set out at sake bars. The salad is fried chicken and crisp squares of puffed rice tossed with young lettuce and a thin cream dressing. It's delicious, and our order vanished in minutes.

Fried shrimp dumplings are pingpong ball-sized orbs of juicy minced shrimp encased in crackly fried tofu skin--ideal for a high-protein diet. Eggplant stuffed with lovely crabmeat is simply washed in a bonito broth.

Some novel dishes aren't as successful, though. A pumpkin dip on a deep-fried egg roll skin is bland and comes with odd-tasting crackers. And salmon tartar in a rich mayonnaise on a scoop of mashed potato is really just too weird.

Grilled dishes arrive handsomely on tiny clay braziers fueled with charcoal briquettes. Tongue and rib-eye are wonderful this way, but the duck with leeks needs rethinking. While simmering in its tiny clay pan, it cooks to a soggy braise of either overcooked duck or undercooked leek chunks.

Tofu turns up in all sorts of ways, from skinny tofu French fries with two sauces to tofu clam chowder (made with soy milk). With their creamy centers, marinated fried tofu squares are an izakaya favorite, and also one of mine.

Beverages include not only sake and beer but wine, fruit juices and mixed drinks made with rice vodka (soju). Just the ticket for toasting "Kampai!" but in a more elegant way.

*

Musha, 424 Wilshire Blvd., Santa Monica. (310) 576-6330. Dinner 6 p.m. to midnight daily. Beer and wine. Public parking lot on 4th Street north of Wilshire. All major cards. Dinner for two: $22-$30, food only.

*

What to Get: octopus omelet, vongole udon pasta, fried shrimp dumplings, chicken cracker salad, crab-stuffed eggplant, marinated fried tofu.

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