Restaurant review: Matsuri is a satisfying lunchtime getaway

Compared to the endless assortments of sandwiches, burgers and fries you find at most lunch spots, good sushi can seem like a vacation.

Baltimore is blessed with enough serious sushi places that you don't need to go far to get away. If you're in Federal Hill, one of the best options is Matsuri, right next to Cross Street Market.

12:02 The street level dining area is small, bordering on cramped, and the apparently random accumulation of decorations makes it feel more so. The upper-level dining room can seat larger groups and private parties of up to 50.

Our corner window table gave us good light and placed us at eye level with a small school of goldfish. You have to wonder what they're thinking while they drift around their tank watching you eat their distant cousins.

12:12 We ordered two rolls and a bento box that featured salmon, tuna and California rolls, fried wonton and rice. The service here impressed. Matsuri's waiter brought serious presence to his routine. He had with a minimalist's touch — no chatting — and had a genuine, professional bearing, seeming genuinely into the work.

12:19 A small salad and bowl of miso soup came courtesy of the bento box. Iceberg lettuce and a pinch of shredded carrot isn't much of a starter, but it's a fantastic vehicle for the creamy sesame dressing that drenched the dish. It was practically drinkable. The soup was warm and mellow, delicately enriched by the miso.

12:28 The presentation of our sushi rolls, and less dramatically the bento box, furthered the minimalist feel set by the server. Our White Dynamite roll ($10) from a daily specials menu contained everything you need to know about Matsuri's attitude toward sushi. At its center, the white tuna had firm flesh with a hint of ocean seasoning. It was surrounded by rice that almost sparkled — as the green roe did. A drop of spicy mayo at the top lent an echo of pepper.

The Federal Hill roll ($11.95), sea-salty eel dripped with tsume sauce, tasted more robust. If you're curious about eel but can't get past the tough chewiness and fishy aroma too often served by lesser kitchens, Matsuri's roll is worth trying. You get the racy eel experience without the dockside odor and rubbery chew. Our roll was nicely tempered with smoked salmon and cool avocado, making it even more accessible if you're on the fence about this still slightly exotic ingredient.

In blunt contrast to our maki was the Fuji bento box. Its tuna and California rolls were fresh but pedestrian. The salmon arrived well done: tasty, but lacking the sweet verve and silkiness of a moderate medium rare. The fried wonton was perhaps the best in the box, a nice shift in texture from the rest of the meal.

The preponderance of sushi on the Matsuri menu, the restaurant's spot-on quality, and the artistry evident in its rolls made it clear that fish comes first at Matsuri. It's an exceptional sushi destination that, judging from one brief experience, may wisely prepare its non-sushi dishes for those who want tamer, fully cooked Japanese cuisine.

12:46 We take a moment to watch the operation behind the sushi bar. The nonchalance of the sushi makers always amazes. Shouldn't they be more intense? The two at Matsuri build their rolls with an ease and pace of factory piecework, or the relaxed hands of a practiced musician.

12:52 My dining companion said Matsuri may make the best sushi in town. It's far less hazardous to say with complete confidence that it is among the best. Fresh, inventive food, nimble service and a good vibe are all things we watch for, and Matsuri delivers the entire package. It's a satisfying lunchtime getaway.


Where: 1105 S. Charles St., Baltimore

Contact: 410-752-8561 

Lunch hours: 11 a.m.-2:30, Monday-Friday

Lunch entrees: $3.75 - $17.95

Food: ✭✭✭1/2

Service: ✭✭✭1/2

Atmosphere: ✭✭✭1/2

Dining time: 54 minutes

[Key: Outstanding: ✭✭✭✭ Good: ✭✭✭ Fair or Uneven: ✭✭ Poor: ✭]

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