Japanese, Sushi
$$$$ ($15-$24)

Editorial Review

Matsuri: What Price Success?

By Eve Zibart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, Jan. 6, 2006

It's hard to argue with success. It's just that not everyone defines it in the same way.

Herndon's Matsuri, a handsome and rather Tuscan-looking room with sponged-saffron walls, colored glass candle urns, "floor seating" with cut-out leg room and commodious restrooms, has built up quite a following. Its sake list is an unusually nice one, its nightly specials intriguing (oversize ama ebi, or sweet shrimp, with the tempura-battered heads served alongside) and the staff ingratiating (the belated apology for an appetizer's no longer being available came with a complimentary dish of edamame). The menu has been notable for its lengthy list of "kitchen entrees": grilled and battered dishes, noodles and rice-bowl donburis, elaborate "dinner box" bento assortments and large soups and casseroles.

But Matsuri's owners clearly know what side of the nigiri their rice is wasabi'd on, so to speak. Over the last few weeks at least a dozen of the more interesting dishes have been eliminated from the dinner menu, and the a la carte lunch menu has been jettisoned altogether in favor of an all-you-can-eat buffet. It's probably what most of the clientele wants -- at lunchtime, the restaurant hums as cheerfully as its name, which means a festival or party, would suggest. But it points up several of the kitchen's weaknesses and robs Matsuri of a lot of what put it in the category of Fairfax County's more ambitious Japanese restaurants. (And as it happens, Japanese was not among the many ethnicities represented on a couple of more recent visits, which might be either cause or effect of the shift.)

For one thing, Matsuri has a sweet tooth. The sushi rice is on the sweet side, as are some of the dipping sauces and glazes. (This may be either because the owners and staff are not Japanese but Korean, or because the recipes have been adjusted to a perceived American bias.) For another, the rice beneath the fish is haphazardly and irregularly formed, which is not merely an aesthetic problem -- in fact, it's getting to be rather common, as more and more sushi bars open with informally trained sushi chefs -- but it's one reason the rice balls tend to collapse in mid-air or splatter into the soy sauce.

The fish itself is pretty good, by and large, but a special of what was described as toro, fatty belly tuna, was barely chu-toro, the medium-fat version, and all three slices were stiff with ice crystals. First-rate toro being increasingly available at area sushi bars, it suggests a bargain-buy mentality that the prices might not quite justify. The giant sweet shrimp were good, although the heads of shrimp that size seemed a little "dirty" and bitter to be fried.

The lunch buffet is an undisputed bargain at $11.95 and includes several more familiar flavors of sushi, maki rolls, gyoza (an unusually meaty version, more Korean-style but nicely crisped), salad and a few hot dishes; but again, all-you-can-eat is usually a marker for fish at least one grade below premium.

Among the dishes lost from the menu are the okonomiyaki, the pan-fried pizza-like pancake or omelet; the grilled jaw of yellowtail; rice-stuffed squid; negimaki, the beef (or chicken) and scallion pinwheels; sukiyaki and shabu-shabu, its broth-based cousin; the miso-marinated roughy; and the yosenabe, the seafood hotpot.

Still, there's a lot to choose from. The nabeyaki udon, noodle soup topped with tempura, is a good version, generous with both fresh shiitakes and enokis, though lacking the traditional raw egg poaching on top. Salmon shioyaki, which though not quite traditional (it's salted and grilled rather than cooked on a bed of coarse sea salt), is similarly generous and nicely tender. Oyako donburi -- the name, which refers to the egg and chicken topping, roughly translates as "mother and child" -- is generally seen only on lunch menus, but here is (so far, at least) still offered as a homey dinner bowl.

The usual range of teriyaki dishes (beef, chicken, seafood and tofu) is matched with the tempura list and also with the katsu, or more heavily battered versions. There are several comfort-food noodle dishes, hot and cold, and those fond of Korean barbecued meats should look for the yakiniku don, which tops the rice bowl with grilled, marinated short ribs.

Although the wait staff at Matsuri is very nice, it's in rather short supply, usually two waitresses and a busboy (and two sushi chefs) for the whole restaurant. According to a waitress, this is also one of the reasons the more labor-intensive dishes such as shabu-shabu and sukiyaki, which require a lot of prepping and slicing and traditionally a bit of personal service, have been eliminated.

Matsuri certainly has considered its balance sheet. It remains to be seen if the new market-wise formula is one for long-term success.