The top of the mountain — the summit — as well as a circle representing wealth and success are a couple of the cultural connotations restaurant owner Alex Han drew upon when naming his new Asian fusion restaurant. The word “Maru” means mountaintop in Japanese, but it’s also known colloquially to represent money because the Chinese character of the word is circular.
Maru opened its doors about six months ago with clean white platters of sushi and steaming bowls of Korean and Japanese cuisine.
Don’t be fooled by the unremarkable exterior set back from the road. With just one step inside you’ll see there is nothing nondescript about Maru. Large windows light the spacious front dining area, secluded booths are set back under low-hanging lamps, there’s intimate seating for private parties up by the sushi bar and even a lounge downstairs.
Warm earth tones, painted brick, dark wood paneling, soft-colored lighting and big TVs throughout play a part in setting the mood. Han, who also owns Izumi Sushi & Grill, Pho the Good Times Asian Bistro and Peachwave, knew what he was doing when he separated the large venue space into different sections, each with its own ambiance.
“Our goal is to be a place where everyone can come and have a great time,” says general manager Dennis Borchers. “We really want to be a fun place that has something for everyone.” Maru embraces this ideology with a wide variety of menu items, from sushi to hot and cold tapas as well as meat-lover, vegetarian, vegan and gluten-free options.
Borchers says the dol-sot bibimbap, an entree with veggies and meat over rice topped with an egg and served in a steaming hot stone bowl, is the most popular dish. Or, if you’re looking for spice, Borchers recommends his favorite, the yukgaejang, which is a kind of super stew with vegetables, beef, brisket and a delicious flavor.
The tapas are most popular with groups who order several and try a little taste of everything, particularly the deep-fried gyoza, either vegetarian or pork, with dipping sauce.
Located across from Matthew Knight Arena, Maru draws students and professors as well as other locals. Borchers says they are still building a base clientele, and he predicts they will be where they want to be in six months.
For now, Borchers says he takes pride each time a new customer decides to come back and becomes a regular. “Our number-one goal is to give great food and great service. If we do those two things our customers will keep coming back,” Borchers says. “I am always thinking of ways to improve, to do things better and try new things. As a new restaurant we are still evolving and we are always trying to get better.”
Head sushi chef Truman Ducker, who has been making sushi for six years, creates new, surprising sushi rolls regularly for the specials menu. When you think of sushi, tropical fruit rarely comes to mind, but last week the special was a Hawaiian roll with real crab, cucumber, mango, fresh tuna, yellow tail and garlic aioli sauce.
Sammy Yoshida, one of the sushi chefs who has been with Maru since the beginning, explains, “A lot of our rolls are innovative, but also derived from traditional sushi making, and fusion is the creative part.” Yoshida says their goal is to make sushi that tastes good, looks good and is sometimes a little bit surprising, like their Burrito Roll.
Maru knows how to play to its audience with both a Phill So Good Roll and an Olympic Torch Roll that shouts Nike-loving Track Town USA. They don’t miss a beat with the college kids either, offering both an Ex-Boyfriend Roll and an Ex-Girlfriend Roll. But watch out, the Ex-Girlfriend is all spice.
Maru Asian Tapas Bar & Lounge is open 11 am to 10 pm Sunday through Thursday and 11 am to midnight Friday and Saturday, with happy hour specials from 3 to 6 pm and 9 pm to close at 1796 Franklin Blvd., to-go and delivery available. Call 541-636-3169 or check the website for more information: marutapas.com.