Monday, February 27, 2006
Do Your Plates Come In "Shrink To Fit"?: Musha, Santa Monica
There's a reason they call small plates "small plates" and that's because they're, well, small.
Or so you'd think.
Because before we our food came to the table at Musha in Santa Monica, we thought our plates would take up as much space as "normal" izayaka restaurants. Read on...
My eyes lit up when Sarah from The Delicious Life announced that the theme for this month's Dine & Dish would be "Amazing Graze," a.k.a. a small plates free-for-all, because I love small plates meals. No matter what I choose, whether it be Spanish tapas, Chinese dim sum or Japanese izakaya, amongst others, I'm able to try a wealth of flavors and textures--usually for the price of what I'd normally pay for a couple of normal sized plates!
I'd always heard good things about the more modern and innovative, somewhat fusiony izakaya at Musha, so we decided to give it a whirl. The restaurant, located on Wilshire Boulevard in Santa Monica, was small and packed on a Saturday night. Fortunately, we had reservations so we were seated pretty much right away at a small table for two.
As with most small plates restaurants, Musha's menu gave me a headache because of all its choices. There is alot to read in Musha's menu as they give detailed descriptions of each dish so we undoubtedly took longer than usual to make our choices. There was a specials page written in Japanese calligraphy, a cold kitchen and hot kitchen section, a "tofu world" section, a salad section, grill sections, a starch page with rice and noodles...our heads were spinning.
I've got a menu, and it's got Excedrin written all over it
Now the dish sizes at other izakaya joints, say Haru Ulala or Furaibo, average about 5"x7" or maybe 6-8" diameter and flat for the most part. I already said that Musha distinguishes itself from the others by its "izakaya with a fusiony twist," but what also sets Musha apart from the others, at least in our book, was the fact that we couldn't cram what we thought would be small plates onto our small table. Had we known the dishes would arrive almost at the same time, we would have ordered one by one.
The first dish to arrive was our sashimi combination or albacore, maguro tuna and salmon which sat on a 9" square platter. Including the 2.5 inch soy sauce dipping plates into which we dipped the surprisingly fresh and buttery soft fish, plus the pot of tea, bottle of Kirin and glasses we had on the table, we were still safe but knew we had to be wise with our space.
Our first space hog
Up next, a 10" diameter glass bowl of sesame green bean salad containing crisp green beans tossed with a creamy sesame dressing and bacon bits and dressed up with shredded radish and pea shoots all in a giant fried wonton shell. This larger-than-expected salad was delicious, crisp and cool while being rich and luscious at the same time. Ain't no way we were going to finish that one all at once. It was so good we had to make it last. But I think we were heading into the trouble zone by doing so.
They gave us enough, but we couldn't get enough
Because not two minutes later, our waitress pushed a metal cart up next to our table and unloaded a flaming hot charcoal grill and a plate of raw beef tongue on to it.
The shichirin grill, which was approximately an 8" cube, was a cute little clay contraption inscribed with Japanese characters and topped with a grill grate. We could see the charcoal, which according to the menu is bincho charcoal, a "non-odor charcoal," glowing through small holes on the side of the grill. We used it to grill the tanshio, or thin slices of seasoned beef tongue which, when done, were squirted with lemon and swished in a sesame oil based sauce. While the taste was good, the texture was better--meaty yet having that slightly spongy quality that only tongue can have. And because we had to grill a couple of pieces at a time, we were at this point pretty much out of table space. I don't know why we didn't tell them to slow down; I think we were just speechless from the good food!
We had to start building upwards due to over population
As if they couldn't fit any more stuff on our table, a 12" oblong plate of negitoro croquettes arrived next. I think they had taken away the plate on which the sashimi sat by this time, but with a firey grill and all the other stuff that was on our table, we still felt cramped. And this time, I actually opened my mouth and said something. "OK, no more food!" I giggled to our waitress, who giggled back with a nod. I loved this dish of breaded and deep fried minced tuna, green onion, garlic, pepper, and hijiki seaweed. The tuna mixture was downright tasty and despite its ground texture, held together really well inside its perfectly crisp panko shell. Each bite was made even better by the addictive daikon mayo dipping sauce on the side. This sauce, cool and creamy while enhanced by that funky salty daikon flavor, was so good that when we finished the croquettes, I kept the sauce so that I could dip pieces of the fried shell from our green bean salad into it. And how big was that cup of sauce? Like an inch and a half diameter, I think. Obviously we were getting nowhere with this space clearing thing.
They sat on the edge and took us over the edge
Fortunately, we managed to finish off the tanshio so away went the grill and the plate on which the beef tongue came, freeing up about a foot and a half of space. We still had one dish left to go so this was a good thing. A few minutes later the cart pulled up alongside us once again, this time holding a big hollowed-out round of parmesan cheese and a small pot of Musha's signature risotto. Our waitress emptied the risotto into the block of cheese and started tossing it as if it were a salad. She then scooped the creamy rice onto a plate and left the plate and not the huge block of cheese with us. (Imagine that!) The risotto showed off Musha's fusiony side--it was Japanese in the use of Japanese brown rice and soy milk, and was Italian in cooking method as well as in the use of proscuitto bits and parmesan cheese. It's flavors worked really well together, but it was a little on the heavy side, especially as a final dish.
Oh please don't put that on the table too
*Whew* just the plate, thank goodness
Finally we were done and able to comfortably stretch our arms out on the table. Despite the lack of foresight on Musha's part to pace our dishes so as to not cramp our table, we had an excellent experience here. We will definitely return to test out some of their other specialties like the spicy tuna dip or cheese tofu or kabocha pumpkin croquette. I guess you could consider Musha's style "izakaya on light steroids" as they serve slightly pumped up flavors and portions. The only delicate thing we got that evening? The cute little bag of Japanese candy they hand their patrons as they walk out. Our damage was $75 with drinks, tax and tip--not bad considering our table was always filled to the rim.
424 Wilshire Blvd.
Santa Monica, CA 90401
(additional location in Torrance)