Matsuri opened in 1996. I place this in the second wave of Baltimore's sushi experience, when Japanese restaurants began to look as much like the pub next door as the tatami and shoji-screen stage sets of the first wave. Some old-school rituals are in place (diners receive hot cloth towels upon arrival). Some aren't (the hot tea is made from tea bags).
I've returned to Matsuri a handful of times over the years, and I'm never disappointed. On the other hand, I've never had my socks knocked off there either, except for once, a lavish birthday dinner (not my own) in the upstairs private room that the Borgias might have found excessive. Matsuri still works best if you think of it as your friendly neighborhood sushi joint.
The interior at Matsuri hasn't changed much over the years. It's still pleasantly cramped, cluttered and noisy on the narrow first floor. And even though the seating is more comfortable upstairs and the tables larger, most people prefer the buzz and bustle downstairs. The decor throughout might be unremarkable in the particulars, but the place has character, a patina that a restaurant takes on when it's been patronized consistently for 15 years. Matsuri feels lived-in and neighborly, and the people you see eating here look like longtime regulars.
The first floor's main feature is, of course, the sushi bar itself, the traditional perch of the sushi maven for appreciating the chefs' technique and inspecting the fish's quality. However, the dining ledge at Matsuri's bar is very narrow, which makes eating there a little awkward. The sushi is displayed, darkly, behind slightly tinted glass. The chefs are pleasant and a pleasure to watch, and they produce serviceable versions of simple nigiri and maki.
Matsuri is one the rare places where I'd encourage you to forgo the simple sashimi and nigiri in favor the specialty rolls. Matsuri takes things only as far as they make sense, and the rolls don't come across as gimmicky pandering. I was dazzled by the Princess Roll, which placed a translucent slice of super-white tuna on a roll of spicy tuna and asparagus. A dollop of spicy mayonnaise is its crowning touch. The vegetable tempura roll is another winner, a very satisfying assemblage of yam, asparagus and pumpkin tempura, a beguiling play of flavor and texture.
The menu is the kind we've come to expect in the modern American Japanese restaurant: bewildering and burdensome. Appetizers are divided into kitchen, sushi bar and robata (grilled) categories. Entrees are separated into sections of items from the kitchen or sushi bar, noodle soups and sauteed noodle dishes, bento boxes and donburi, or Japanese rice bowl dishes. There is also the a la carte sushi-bar tick-sheet, a laminated specials list and, if you arrive before 7 p.m., an ample list of happy-hour appetizers, maki and kitchen specials.
I always think there has to be a better way, but this formula has endured for so long, not just at Matsuri but at nearly every Japanese restaurant I've been to, that I figure at least some diners prefer it this way.
You may as well jump in anywhere. I loved the refreshing little salad of tender octopus and chilled cucumbers splashed with vinegar. Keep it in mind as an antidote to the thicker, even syrupy notes that come with Matsuri's ponzu and teriyaki sauces. I recommend, too, for starters, something from Matsuri's tempura list. The soft-shell crab tempura (priced very reasonably at happy hour) is a marvelous combinations of crisp batter and tender seafood.
Less appealing, as appetizer choices, were the robata items, and we tried a lot of them — mackerel, squid, broccoli, asparagus and shiitake mushrooms. Undergrilled and underseasoned, there just wasn't much to them.
My favorite food at Matsuri, though, comes from the kitchen. I'm talking here about basic comfort food, like the big bowls of ramen, udon or soba noodles chockfull of grilled chicken, meat, seafood or vegetables; or the bowls of seasoned rice (donburi) topped with raw fish or cutlets of chicken or pork. The best thing about a bowl of seasoned rice with a tender fried pork cutlet is the pretty glaze of egg shimmering on top. A seemlingly bottomless bowl of ramen noodles stuffed with vibrant and crispy broccoli, carrots and cabbage makes for an idea midweek vegetarian feast. The servings of beef, shrimp and chicken on a plate of sauteed, slippery udon noodles are a model of generosity.
The staff is efficient and friendly but otherwise content to let customers remain in their comfort zone.
After 15 years, Matsuri remains a neighborly and and satsifying standby. The downside is that it has become a little boring. When I visited Matsuri, I observed quite a few takeout orders being filled and picked up. Sushi has turned into pizza.
• You be the critic: Write your own review for Matsuri.
Where: 1105 S. Charles St., Federal Hill
Contact: 410-752-8561, matsuri.us
Hours: Open for dinner seven nights a week and for lunch Monday through Friday
Prices: Appetizers, $3.95-$8.95 Entrees, $11.50-$25.95
[Key: Outstanding: ✭✭✭✭; Good: ✭✭✭; Fair or Uneven:✭✭; Poor:✭]