That Origami has the best sushi in the Twin Cities has long been a matter of settled law. Owner Kiminobu Ichikawa (Ichi) has always paid top dollar for top fish, using his network of Japanese suppliers to get better ingredients than anyone else. And his longtime sushi chef, Katsuyuki Yamamoto (known to friends and fans as chef Asan), kept the kitchen operating at the highest level. But everything changes. Last April, Asan was lured away to a new restaurant, Masu Sushi and Robata, where he was put in charge of the sushi kitchen and where the hot kitchen was manned by Tim McKee, the award-magnet and chef of Minneapolis’s leading white-tablecloth restaurant, La Belle Vie. Masu opened with all the fanfare of a New Year’s Eve bash: they were out of everything, always; service was anxious and slow. But could you blame them? It was craaaaazy!
However, as the months passed, a sushi connoisseur was left to wonder, who had been the real possessor of the sushi magic these last 15 years: owner or chef? And where should a real sushi-hound do his hunting now that Masu has had time to get their feet under them and Origami has had time to regroup? I set out to compare apples to apples; or, rather, raw sweet shrimp to raw sweet shrimp. I planned to go to both Origami and Masu for a spare-no-expense omakase meal as well as a more budget-conscious lunch of noodles supplemented by a few of the most common nigiri sushi options.
The first wrinkle in my plan appeared when I discovered that Masu had an $18-per-person omakase meal on their set menu. Omakase, of course, is the charming tradition of telling the chef you entrust your meal to him and will take whatever comes, typically based on a conversation the two of you have based on what you like. When I had Asan’s omakase meals at Origami (some of the best food experiences in my Twin Cities dining life) they typically cost $45 to $75 a head, depending on what was in season. (For instance, ankimo—monkfish liver, the foie gras of the sea—is only in season in the winter.) Faced with Masu’s fairly low price for the meal, I wondered: won’t that limit the possibilities for both the creativity and the quality of the ingredients, making it merely a more creative variation of the ubiquitous chef’s choice sushi?
Another wrinkle at Masu: after sitting at tables on two occasions and being told they were out of uni, the sea urchin roe that’s fairly easy to find at most Twin Cities fish specialists, I was told by a few sources that in order to get the good stuff, I should sit at the sushi bar. Unfortunately, the sushi bar is contiguous with the regular bar, and I ended up seated near the dish sink, making my dining experience one of fetid smells in a crowd of milling servers. Aside from that, however, the omakase sushi was charming; the futomaki hand rolls, little cones filled with vegetables and chopped salmon, were particularly adorable. Sitting at the sushi bar, I asked for uni and was first told the restaurant was out of it (again!), but after a little while, it magically appeared, confirming in my mind that the only way to get the best of the best at Masu is to sit at the sushi bar.
I also tried a few of Masu’s more delicate sushi options—scallops, ama ebi (raw sweet shrimp), aji (whole horse mackerel delicately cut)—which brought about a whole new set of odd moments. Typically, ama ebi are served raw alongside their heads, which are deep-fried and make for a delightfully hot and crispy treat, a sort of sea potato chip. When Masu sent out the shrimp heads, however, they were cold and there were too many of them—four, stuck together in clumps of two—leading me to wonder: whose shrimp heads are these? If you’re the sort of person who gets worked up about your shrimp heads, Masu is not the restaurant for you. I concluded that the omakase at Masu was charming and a good value, but was eager to get to Origami.
Origami’s omakase meal kicked off with an amuse bouche of mushrooms and cucumbers that offered a bewitching flavor, one that tasted like birch trees smell, snappy, woody, and light. Origami’s new sushi chef, Jun Abematsu, dazzled with a progression of inventive and delicate innovations such as raw codfish tossed with fish roe, minutely cut octopus dressed with a jalapeño-infused froth, ama ebi so fresh it twinkled on the plate, scallops so fresh they glimmered and dissolved in the mouth like dew, and red snapper dressed with a creamy fish-roe sauce that tasted sea-fresh, rich, and original. Every piece of sushi, and most of the rolls, were better at Origami than at Masu. The cost? Two- to- three-times more per person—on my visit, $60-a-person was the price of being dazzled at Origami. The service at Origami is also more practiced than at Masu, and the sake list superior. The only real problem I had with Origami was that there were several types of bluefin tuna offered on the sushi list. “Do you really have bluefin tuna?” I asked. “Oh, yes,” said the server. Oh dear.
Any environmentalist knows about the plight of the bluefin tuna, a fish perilously on the edge of extinction. Even though it is still legal to catch the fish, most environmental thinkers attribute this to a failure of international policy, not to the actual health of the species. Personally, I’d as soon eat bluefin tuna as I’d eat a tiger or a bald eagle; there comes a point when even the most sensuously oriented carnivore has to draw the line. If you yourself can’t make heads or tails of the worldwide tuna situation (as of this writing, the Monterey Bay Seafood Watch website had eight pages devoted to the various health statuses of the many tuna species) and wish someone else would do it for you, Masu has. They serve only sustainable fish and seafood. That’s huge.
To decide the ultimate sushi champ, I went back to both Masu and Origami for a more casual meal of sushi and noodles. I found that Masu’s ramen, especially the fried-pork cutlet tonkatsu curry ramen, remains some of the best noodles in the state. However, the sushi was as dull as that from any old supermarket: the ahi tuna was mealy, the salmon was dry—nothing to see here. Meanwhile, at Origami, I discovered the opposite: the ramen was a snore. However, the silky fat noodles in the nabe yaki udon, topped with a just-set egg and fat shrimp tempura, were excellent, as was the sushi, an array of plump salmon and scallops as light and ethereal as a tune played on a flute.
The winner? Origami, if you’re looking for luxurious splendor of sensual indulgence and willing to put the time into figuring out the state of various fisheries. But, if you eat with your wallet as well as your head, then Masu is the spot for you.
The Perfect Dish
What do you get when you pair rich and savory broth, fresh tender noodles, and a generous piece of good pork? Masu’s ramen, a.k.a. the best thing to happen to Minneapolis noodles since the founding of the Minnesota Macaroni Company, now known as Creamette, in 1912. Thanks, Masu!
Three more contenders for Twin Cities sushi supremacy
Best on a Budget
Koyi Sushi Too: A U of M-area restaurant with the most generous $21 sushi assortment in town and a good cheap wine list. Koyi is the tasteful grad student’s ace in the hole. 2111 E. Franklin Ave., Mpls., 612-353-3389, koyisushi.com
Best for Vegetarians
Sakura: While Sakura has excellent regular sushi, its true strength is in how many things it does well, from broiled smelt to the abundance of vegetable treats so central to Japanese Buddhists’ lives. 350 St. Peter St., St. Paul, 651-224-0185, sakurastpaul.com
Best for Date Night
Nami: The most romantic and stylish of all our sushi restaurants, Nami has a sexy nightclub vibe, lighting to make you look like a movie star, and top-flight sushi by chef Hide Tazawa. 251 First Ave. N., Mpls., 612-333-1999, namimpls.com