Matuba Restaurant, on Cordell Avenue, has served sushi and other highlights of Japanese cuisine for more than two decades. It’s been awhile since I dined there, so when I learned of their Thursday night rotary buffet special, I decided to try it with my kids. Matuba had embraced the hecticness of this week by promoting a back-to-school Bento box for $15.50.
Matuba was one of the first restaurants in the Washington, D.C. area to install a rotary buffet—a conveyor belt that rotates small plates of food around a bar. Guests take whatever plates they want. In some restaurants, diners pay for each order individually, but at Matuba the rotary buffet is a fixed price. You pay your bill up front (on Thursdays the dinner buffet is only $16.95, but Friday through Sunday the rotary buffet is $18.50) then sit down and try whatever strikes your fancy. If your complaint is you can’t fill up on Japanese food, I challenge you to take a seat.
The rotary buffet is in the back of the restaurant, past tables and the sushi bar. My daughters and I sat down with a few other patrons and began our moveable feast. When the conveyor belt started to move, my daughters were enchanted. Here we were on a Thursday night, actually eating vegetables without a complaint! Maybe because we were watching small plates sail by, crying for us to sample them. Both they and I excitedly left our comfort zone to bravely taste seafood, spinach and tofu. If we were home, or paying for each plate, we probably wouldn't have tried half the things Matuba offered.
The meal starts with bowls of fresh salad covered by a tangy sesame dressing. Next, we asked our waitress for miso soup, and she delivered hot bowls, plentiful with tofu cubes and spinach. While we munched on our first two courses, the sushi master inside the rotary prepared California rolls with lightening speed. Each daughter made a personal request for specific sushi rolls and were quickly handed a small tray of their favorites.
Next, dumplings appeared on the rotary. They had shrimp dumplings and vegetable dumplings, along with fried tofu squares. They were crispy and hot. You can ask for goyza sauce if you like, but each place setting has a plate of ginger, wasabi and soy sauce. The dumplings were followed by salty edamames and fried chicken balls.
We said we liked tempura and teriyaki, so in a short while, our server placed colorful plates of crunchy shrimp, sweet potato and zucchini tempura on the rotary for us to try. She explained the chef varies the tempura selection, so sometimes they serve broccoli or green beans instead. Each piece has an overly thick crust, but fortunately, Matuba’s tempura isn’t greasy.
The teriyaki chicken was lightly covered in a sweet sauce. Not over-salted, some pieces had crispy skin over moist slices of thigh meat. It was so addictingly good that we each had two helpings. Bowls of fried rice were flavored with chunky onions and scrambled egg in dark-soy sauce. The nuttiness of the soy was slightly overpowering, but the dish created a pleasant lingering heat.
What’s a sushi bar without sushi? The sushi master explained that on the rotary they only offer white fish, salmon, tuna and eel. But they came in various combinations. One favorite was the eel encrusted with tempura, topped with a thin slice of avocado and bright orange roe (fish eggs). He also made a sushi roll with a mound of spicy tuna on top of a crunchy avocado. Another standout was the silky salmon upon a pedestal of rice. You could choose tilapia, cooked shrimp and cones of spicy tuna.
The meal ended with a refreshing plate of orange and melon slices. As you get up to leave, Matuba’s manager, a gregarious gentleman who shouts friendly greetings whether you’re coming or going, inquired about our satisfaction. We expressed our appreciation for the food and the friendly service. Matuba’s staff is efficient and gladly answers questions. Although especially welcoming to families, they’ve created an ambiance for all ages--girls’ night out, couples, families, seniors, or even lone diners—just about anyone will find a comfortable spot to nosh here.
Matuba offers a variety of promotions throughout the week—Monday's dine-in sushi special has some bargain prices. Happy hours are Monday through Friday 5:30 – 6:30 pm with discounts on saki and beer. In other areas of the restaurant, they serve bowls of udon noodles and donburi rice bowls. The rotary weekday lunch buffet is $12.95 and $14.95 on weekends.
Matuba hosts private parties, and we thought of many friends who would enjoy gathering here. This is one restaurant that will put you in a party mood. I guess that explains why Matuba has been successful for so many years.