The Gossiping Gourmet: Get whisked away to Japan at Matsu

What a surprise it is to walk from a Huntington Beach mini-mall parking lot into the reception area of Matsu and be immediately transported to Japan.

Inside, a small but dramatic rock garden is festooned with orchids while the soft sound of trickling water from a bamboo fountain erases all traces of the freeway journey. A pretty young hostess in a kimono, obi, white socks and wooden clogs completes the change of scene.

You can dine in the large bar area, the small separate sushi bar or in the particularly attractive dining room. The soft overhead lighting from the large elliptical paper lanterns creates a warm ambience.

Traditional wood slatted walls and teak lanterns adorn the booths, but they are made unique by a lovely clay tile roof above them. Each booth is accented with a framed Japanese print and separated by etched glass panels. Beautifully costumed Japanese dolls in glass boxes are displayed around the room.

For all the authenticity of the lovely décor, the food is more American-style Japanese with an emphasis on a variety of different kinds of Japanese foods: everything from chicken teriyaki and steak, to sushi, sashimi, teppan and tempura.

Hot appetizers include: beef kushiyaki, soft shell crab, shrimp egg roll or stuffed lobster, to name a few. On the cold side there is shrimp cocktail, a variety of sashimi and three salads.

Teppan entrees (cooked on an iron griddle) are: chicken, filet mignon or New York steak, and they come with teppan shrimp, cucumber salad, soup and your choice of rice or fried rice. There are also regular entrées such as New York teriyaki steak, sukiyaki or a vegetable platter.

If you have trouble deciding what to order, you may choose from the many combination plates, as well as large "gondolas" for two or four diners (or more), laden with a smorgasbord of choices.

For example, the most expensive dinner for two comes in a boat filled with salmon teriyaki, sesame chicken, beef teriyaki, chicken teriyaki, shrimp tempura, California roll and fresh seasonal fruit for $22 a person. All entrées include cucumber salad, rice and one of three kinds of soup: vegetable, miso or clam chowder.

We began with some sushi and fried calamari. The raw fish was fresh, but the rice was too bland. The batter on the chunks of calamari steak was a bit heavy or undercooked so that it wasn't crispy enough and tasted a little oily.

The miso soup that came with the dinners was quite delicious and well balanced. It was one of the better ones we've had. The sunomono (cucumber salad) was refreshing but a bit watery.

We were quite amazed by the size of the entrée portions, particularly the combination plates.

A mountain of chicken teriyaki and steamed veggies would have fed two on its own, and it came with four giant tempura shrimp and three different tempura vegetables. The batter was crispy, and the shrimp were sweet. The dark and light chicken pieces had been grilled without seasoning and then overwhelmed with a sweet heavy sauce.

The best dish of the evening was the nabeyaki udon. The large bowl of excellent fish broth came filled with thick, chewy udon noodles, slices of kamoboko fish cake, spinach and al dente carrots.

Our least favorite was the not-very-Japanese stuffed halibut. The bland fish filet was stuffed with a crabmeat and egg mixture that was also under-seasoned and the crab itself didn't taste fresh.

Ice cream is the only dessert.

Matsu has a lovely environment for dining, and the food is generously portioned and well priced.

ELLE HARROW and TERRY MARKOWITZ were in the gourmet food and catering business for 20 years. They can be reached for comments or questions at m_markowitz@cox.net.

Matsu Japanese Restaurant

Where: 18035 Beach Blvd., Huntington Beach

When: 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Mondays through Fridays; 5:30 to 10 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays; 5:30 to 10:30 p.m. Fridays; 5 to 10:30 p.m. Saturdays; 5 to 9:30 p.m. Sundays

Prices:

Appetizers: $4.50-$12.50

Entrées: $11.50-$33

Desserts: $1.50

Wine:

Glasses: $3-$11

Sake:

Glasses: $3.25-$9.50

Carafes: $12-$13

Information: (714) 848-4404 or matsusogood.com

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