Matsuri, 1105 S. Charles St., (410) 752-8561. Open Monday to Saturdays for lunch and dinner. MC, V. No-smoking area: no. Wheelchair-accessible: no. Prices: appetizers, $2.95-$7; entrees, $6.95-$14.95. **1/2
Matsuri, the new Japanese restaurant in Federal Hill, is cute as a bug's ear. Located in a corner storefront that last housed the California Grill, the pretty little dining room has a mirrored wall to open up the small space, a few blond wood tables and chairs, a long blond sushi bar and a black and white tile floor. The clock tells Tokyo time. Over our table is a television, showing what looks to my untutored eye to be sumo wrestlers playing darts. Upbeat reggae -- yes, reggae -- plays softly in the background.
Everyone is so young and so friendly; the three of us are by far the oldest, most staid-looking customers. A young woman at the sushi bar wants to know what kind of ice cream we're eating, and nods approval of our choice. The staff is as eager to please as puppies. They are delighted we're here. They thank us copiously when we leave. I've heard from a friend (who loves the place otherwise) that the service is excruciatingly slow on weekends when Matsuri is crowded. There's only one chef and one sushi chef, and everything seems to be made to order. But this weeknight, our meal is brought with dispatch.
You can get sushi at Matsuri, and visually stunning sushi it is. But it's hard to imagine that the restaurant will live and die by its raw fish. Federal Hill dwellers are too fanatically loyal to the sushi counter in the nearby Cross Street Market.
The niche Matsuri fills is simple. Besides sushi, it offers relatively inexpensive and quite authentic Japanese food. And it's more casual and funkier than the city's other Japanese restaurants.
You can make a filling and healthful meal for around $10 out of one of several noodle dishes. Nabeyaki udon, for instance. It comes in a beautiful earthenware casserole, with soft noodles in a flavorful broth.
A lot of care goes into the looks of the food at Matsuri. As composed as a painting, the noodles are topped with fish cakes (rubbery squares that taste of nothing much but smell fishy), two large tempura shrimp (which, to be honest, get rather soggy from the broth), creamy tofu and seaweed in two different shades of green. Actually, it sounds fairly dreadful from my description; but trust me, the overall effect is good.
Those who are into Eating as Design will love the "Matsuri Special Bento" dinner box, which is exactly that: a covered box. Open the lacquered lid and inside the compartments hold chicken teriyaki, tender strips of white meat in a slightly sweet sauce with lots of sesame seeds; a couple of the fish cakes that made an appearance on the udon noodles; a little skewer of grilled broccoli, squash, mushroom and carrot; and crab dumplings. (More about them in a minute.) Appropriately sticky rice comes with the dinner box. I say appropriately because you eat with chopsticks here.
A dinner like pork shogayaki with ginger sauce is less interesting. The pieces of boneless pork cutlet are perfectly respectable, but the sauce seems to be not much more than broth thickened with cornstarch and flavored with pieces of ginger root. A few vegetables are arranged artfully on the side, including what taste like little potato croquettes, hot and soft with a crunchy exterior.
Dinners include miso soup, the classic fermented soybean broth people either love or hate. For a more substantial starter, you might try the crab dumplings, delicate wrappings filled with a crab paste and deep-fried -- each is one crisp bite. Or you could get the tempura, which this evening, at least, hasn't been cooked long enough, so the batter is still a bit pasty. The dipping sauce is flavorless.
Those who are timid about sushi might start with a California roll. You get the look and the general effect without having to deal with raw fish. Matsuri's California rolls are small works of art. Dissect one and admire the cucumber matchsticks, the creamy green avocado, the pink-tinged crab, all wrapped with black seaweed and then rolled in rice with bright orange fish roe sprinkled on top. Have it with a bit of wasabi (the green Japanese version of horseradish) and translucent slices of pale-pink fresh ginger.
What you shouldn't do is order a green salad, which the waiter suggests when he tells us the seaweed salad isn't available. It's as pretty as everything else, but the iceberg lettuce, carrot curls, seaweed garnish and tofu cubes are covered with an almost tasteless, oily dressing.
Dessert comes in beautiful little covered cups. It's a creamy and homemade-tasting green tea ice cream, a pale celadon green topped with a garnish of tiny, red sweet beans.
If only the tea were served in those cups. Instead the yellowish fluid arrives in jarlike glasses. It may be authentic, but it's not very appetizing. Next: Fergie's