He and I were contemplating a broad, shallow pot of simmering seafood broth, set on a little gas-fired hot plate in the center of our table. To the right sat a platter of crimson strip loin, sliced into sheer tissues. To the left was an impressive bounty of neatly trimmed and artfully arranged vegetables -- broccoli florets, whole beans, and pea pods; slices of curly Napa cabbage; pale crescents of zucchini; crisp carrot matchsticks; shiitake and button mushrooms -- along with cubes of snowy tofu and thick lengths of pearly udon noodles. Our task, a server explained, was to cook the delicacies in the almost-boiling broth. Our tools: chopsticks, a set of kitchen tongs, and a ladle. And our ultimate goal: to savor the subtleties of our traditional shabu shabu dinner at Matsu Japanese Restaurant.
Predictably enough, "Mr. What, Me Cook?" lost the attitude PDQ, once plumes of fragrant steam began to tickle his nostrils. In less time than it takes to say gochiso ni ("bon appétit!"), he was happily occupied, tossing morsels of food into the broth, then plucking them out and pairing them with a bit of garlicky Japanese-style fried rice, a splash of citrusy ponzu, or a dab of richly flavored peanut sauce. "This isn't so bad," he smiled a short time later, as we conversed above the rhythmic clicking of our chopsticks. Like Alsatian fondue or Ethiopian dorowat, Japanese nabemono (one-pot dishes like sukiyaki, hamanabe, and, of course, our shabu shabu) turn dining into a shared endeavor. And the companionable feelings fostered by such communal experiences are generally every bit as soulful and gratifying as the simple, straightforward ingredients.
Understated Matsu (the name means "pine") opened a year ago, and with its hardwood floor, handsome lighting, and white tablecloths, it makes a mostly pleasant setting for such tabletop adventures. The simple, rectangular dining room's walls are dressed in white paper shades, smoked glass mirrors, and expanses of flamingo-pink paint. The space above the small, unobtrusive sushi bar is decorated with a row of upside-down parasols. A line of windows at the front of the restaurant looks out onto Chagrin Boulevard, while a soothing blend of classical, jazz, and contemporary Asian music plays in the background.
Nevertheless, a few sour notes do manage to insinuate themselves into the otherwise harmonious setting. Whimsical metal dining chairs look cute, but their small, unyielding seats prove notably taxing to the posterior. (Presumably, owners Scott and Brenda Kim are aware of the problem: A handwritten note, at the bottom of the wine list, tells eagle-eyed diners that chair cushions are available upon request.) The open floor plan lacks much in the way of intimacy, making us yearn for booths, banquettes, or alcoves to break up the cafeteria-like space. The charming premeal ritual of offering hot cleansing cloths to diners has been subverted by the substitution of individual, cellophane-wrapped paper wipes. And the pretty Asian-style dishware turns out to be mostly made of plastic. All this detracts from the dining experience and puts a dent in the overall ambiance.
But if the physical amenities leave something to be desired, Matsu's menu remains an enticing read. Sushi and sashimi -- available by the piece, in appetizer combos, or as a full meal with miso soup and salad -- take up nearly half the document. A long list of traditional appetizers includes items like hiyayakko (chilled tofu with bonito flakes and a dipping sauce); light, peppery little gyoza (ground-pork-and-vegetable-stuffed dumplings); and moist, addictive edamame (boiled and salted soybeans) that pop out of their fibrous pods with a satisfying snap. Main-course offerings are tucked into well-ordered categories like yakitori (skewered and grilled foods), yakimono (broiled or grilled foods), agemono (deep-fried dishes), tempura (battered and fried foods), and menrui (noodle dishes). To drink, there's a small selection of mostly lightweight wines, as well as hot and cold sake, mixed drinks, and bottled beer (Yebisu, Kirin, Sapporo, and American brews).
Chef Kim and his sushi crew turn out tidy, fresh-tasting constructions. Unagi (barbecued eel pressed onto a pad of rice) was suitably sweet and smoky; fat futomaki (oversized nori-wrapped rolls, stuffed with crabstick, shrimp, layered egg, pickled daikon, and cucumber) was a lush mosaic of varied flavors. Nigiri-style hamachi (yellowtail) was velvety and mild, although the portion seemed skimpy. Similarly, the ratio of meat to rice seemed disappointingly low in our tekka maki (tuna rolls) and negi hamachi maki (yellowtail-and-scallion rolls).
Rather than ordering à la carte, cost-conscious sushi fans probably would do better to indulge in the generous sushi combination dinners. The "traditional" dinner, with tuna, whitefish, mackerel, salmon, yellowtail, shrimp, octopus, layered egg, crabstick, and crab roe with tuna, provides a kaleidoscope of flavors and textures well suited to the more sophisticated palate. Alternatively, the Rolls, Rolls, Rolls dinner is a good choice for cautious sushi newbies, with its familiar-tasting California rolls (crabstick and avocado), Alaska rolls (smoked salmon, avocado, and crab roe), Philadelphia rolls (smoked salmon, cream cheese, and crab roe), and Mexican rolls (boiled shrimp, avocado, and cucumber). The traditional pickled ginger, wasabi, and soy sauce accompany all sushi.
Most dinners come with an exceptionally salty version of miso soup and a house salad of mostly iceberg lettuce, with a slice of cucumber and a slice of tomato, in a complex homemade ginger-soy-and-sesame dressing. On one evening, the salad was drowning in that dressing; on another, the dressing seemed to have been applied with an eyedropper. On both visits, the lettuce had been poorly drained, so that puddles formed at the bottom of the salad bowl.
While the do-it-yourself shabu shabu was a treat, other kitchen-cooked entrées were ho-hum. Teriyaki chicken -- a boneless, skinless, split breast -- was tender and moist, but dominated by its thick, sweet teriyaki glaze; koura age (a large soft-shelled crab stuffed with tofu and finely chopped vegetables, then breaded and deep fried), was nicely crisp and non-greasy, but bland. The high point of both meals was the accompaniment of perfectly stir-fried veggies: a mix of green beans, pea pods, mushrooms, broccoli, zucchini, and red pepper that came to the table tender-crisp and bursting with flavor.
A good bet for dessert is either the brisk, slightly astringent green-tea ice cream or the sweeter red bean (azuki) ice cream, flecked with bits of chewy bean paste. More mainstream possibilities are from out-of-house sources, and if a large but artificial-tasting brownie topped with a bit of Kahlua, a small scoop of vanilla ice cream, and a drizzle of grocery-store chocolate syrup is typical, they aren't worth the splurge.
And speaking of value, here's a consideration. Unlike many ethnic eateries, Northeast Ohio's Japanese restaurants are not an inexpensive night on the town. Dinner entrées in the $13 to $19 range are typical, with a number of dishes breaking the $20 barrier, and so it is at Matsu. Add some sushi or other appetizers, a couple bottles of Sapporo, and desserts, and it's easy for a couple to run through $80 or more here, eating fairly average entrées off plastic dinnerware.
But then again, there's that shabu shabu, a simple dish whose appeal transcends the taste buds and proceeds to somewhere near the heart. In a world where all adventures carry a price tag, why should this be any different?