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Restaurant Reviews - July 2006

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Mamasake - Squaw Valley, CA                                        

Early mornings and late evenings can be the perfect times to get out and experience the underbelly of any new travel destination. Sometimes seamy, sometimes serene, always better than the glaring light of midday, the wee hours on either side provide a great opportunity to take the pulse of an unfamiliar spot. When its guard is down, with its tourist face removed, at its most relaxed. For many travelers of course, partaking in the latter tends to exclude one from enjoying the former, especially in a vacation setting where R and R is the idea and we agree that it's sometimes hard to burn both ends. We at the Goliard however have always made it a point to try. We figure that's what they invented the siesta for. Anyway, it has long been our habit to arise early and ramble around the places we visit to see how things shake down and size up before the day proper gets started. And since this usually occurs mere hours after we walked the same paths the previous night taking in the revelry, the fresh perspective is all the more, well... fresh. The contrast is often the thing.

The Village at Squaw Valley was cool and dewy and refreshingly silent that morning as we made our way through the pines towards the village center. We passed under the quiet gondola and skirted a silent fountain and remembered the thumping rhythms emanating from the upstairs of the adjacent Olympic House a few hours before. It hadn't looked like much of a night spot when we'd passed it early in the evening but a groupie of some sort had appeared later out of the dark as we strolled leisurely around and invited us to "come with me and have a great time at Zenbu." We had gone along to investigate thinking that Zenbu might turn out to be a sushi place by day but found instead that it advertised itself as a "Tapas Lounge" and was all but hidden in the upstairs of a ski chalet. It advertised late night dining and dancing and claimed to be frequented by "professional athletes and hipsters". We didn't see any of those around but did see couples out groping and smoking beneath the trees and a guy drunkenly climbing up a giant wheel so his buddy could take his picture. We suppose he could have qualified as a hipster but since the criterion escapes us we weren't in a good position to judge. We hadn't gone in to Zenbu, opting instead to end the night with a good bottle of wine and a quiet balcony. Standing before the place a few hours later, we marveled at how different things can look in the dark.

Continuing on our morning ramble, our eyes were drawn to the nooks and crannies around the side of the building and the vegetation nearby where it seemed likely that, if any of the groping we'd seen had graduated to more serious liaisons, this was probably where they had played themselves out. The layout just looked perfect for that sort of thing for some reason and, as we ambled by picturing the rutting and rubbing of the night before, a shining object in the grass caught our eye. We went to get a closer look and found that the shiny thing was a cell phone and a quick survey of the immediate area seemed to bear out our prurient suspicions. 

In a small enclave behind a little copse we found what could have been the nicely laid out clues of a crime scene. The grass was bent and flattened in what was almost the shape of a body. Nearby the cell phone was a wallet, a lighter, and a coaster with a cryptic number written on it. A short ways away was a condom wrapper and a pint glass half full with an amber liquid. Or perhaps a pint glass half empty as the case may be. It was as if a vignette from the proceeding night was being exposed in still life to tell us its little tale in the breaking light of a new day. We were loathe at first to touch anything even though there was certainly no evidence that an actual crime had been committed. 

We probably wouldn't have touched anything anyway except that we figured whoever had left the wallet and cell phone (whether or not it was the same person who had negotiated the condom wrapper and beer) would probably prefer that the former two items be retrieved out of the wet grass and either returned to them or at least secured at some central location so they could have a chance to pick them up later. We stood there pondering the situation for a few moments wondering if we should get involved. We didn't know of a lost and found where anyone would think to go and maybe the best thing to do was just leave the stuff where it was and hope the person came back for it. We had a raft trip scheduled in a couple hours and didn't really want to spend the morning on some goose chase. Hmm, a dilemma. Just then some construction worker types appeared on the periphery looking prepared to do some yard work or painting of some kind so we decided the stuff would be just as good in our hands as theirs so we grabbed it to see what we could learn about this person who may or may not have been involved in some tryst in the grass the night before.

It's a funny feeling possessing a stranger's personal belongings and different thoughts passed through our minds as we walked over to the Starbucks and waited for it to open so we could indulge in a latte and bran muffin while we considered what our next move should be. A bunch of twenties were hanging out of the wallet along with credit cards of the gold and silver variety and it occurred to us briefly that, as the Slim Pickens character in Dr. Strangelove announces, "Shoot, a fella could have a pretty good time in Vegas with all this stuff." We weren't in Vegas but Reno wasn't too far away and we've known plenty of people over the years who would have been at a casino within the hour having a field day with such a serendipitous find. We had read T.C. Boyle's novel Talk Talk recently which is the brutal tale of a couple victimized by identity theft so the nightmare of what can happen if the wrong folks get a hold of your personal information was fresh in our minds. Some Goliard reader's opinions to the contrary however, we are not the wrong type of people and capitalizing on other's misfortune has never really been our Karmic style. And even though Goliarding hasn't been paying all that well lately, we figured that ascertaining who the owner of the items was and doing what ever we had to to get their belongings back to them was our fate for the morning. Almost reluctantly, as if it was a Pandora's box that couldn't be subsequently closed, we opened the wallet and scanned the driver's license to see who it was that we were about to try our hand at tracking down.

Now we should say that since the wallet was of the type that could have belonged to either a man or a woman, for some reason, we were expecting the former. Given the implied circumstances of the scene, it seemed likely that some guy had gotten lucky, as they say, and perpetrated some sort of a sexual conquest. The magnitude of this feat had apparently caused him to abandon all pocket accoutrements and forget his beer in the process. The rendezvous ended quickly, we imagined, as such episodes often do, with our mystery gentleman likely either stumbling off all asnuggle with his new friend or skulking further into the shrubbery to make his getaway. When we opened the wallet to find out who the lothario was however, we found a smiling and decidedly female face looking up at us. It came with an Irish name attached.

The cell phone rang just then and we snapped it open to find confirmation that the two items belonged to the same person when we saw the same name displayed across the little screen on the phone that was typed next to the picture in the wallet. We thought about taking the call but figured we'd have explaining to do if we did and it was probably best to just let it ring. Coffee sippers at adjoining tables looked over in confused annoyance as the ring tone continued to play while we just sat there reading the paper. When it finished the idea occurred to us to call the phone ourselves from our own phones not only to annoy the Starbuckers all over again but also to leave a message just in case our girl was stressing out about it's location and was checking her voice mail. Next we considered calling some of the folks on her contacts list and letting them know that we had their friend's phone and would hold it until somebody could meet us to fetch it for her. We didn't really know what else to do. The address on the license was somewhere in Squaw Valley but since we didn't know our way around, that information didn't do us much good. There was a hotel key of some sort and a few other cards and such which didn't help us out any either. Then we pulled a business card that had the woman's own name on it. It was for a place called Mamasake which, according to the address, was located right there in the Olympic village.

We looked at the picture on the license again and supposed that the girl smiling sort of sideways through the plastic at us could have easily been a waitress. We hadn't looked at the age before but did then and found that she fell a little beyond the typical waitressing age window even though the pictured person didn't appear so. If California is anything like Arizona however, where drivers license photos can be used for up to 25 years, the photo might or might not look anything like the person in her current form. And one could be a waitress into her forties or longer we supposed. It just didn't seem likely in a place like Squaw Valley. It seemed even less likely that waitresses in Squaw Valley would have business cards made up with their names on them. Nope, we figured then that what we had was the wallet and phone of an owner or proprietor of an eating establishment of some kind. The puzzler was that Mamasake sounded like it probably served Asian cuisine and the name on the license was decidedly Irish. The plot thickened. We went back inside the Starbucks to see if the counter girl knew where Mamasake was. "Right down the way" she said pointing. "Awesome sushi," she added as we turned to leave.

We weren't sure how we'd missed it the night before since we would have been interested in eating some awesome sushi if we had known there was any available but we realized once we walked down to where Mamasake stood that we had in fact seen the place. A large screen had been playing some sort of rock concert that was being piped onto the patio and the people inside seemed to be drinking not eating so we'd assumed it was some mutation of a night club and hadn't paid any attention to the name of the place or the menu. Looking one over later, we could see that this was definitely an eatery we would be checking out during our stay. All sorts of creative sushi rolls with names like "The stop, drop and roll" and the "Hot creamy mama roll". Plenty of nigiri and sashimi choices. A full bar. That's it then. We'll hit the river, grab a siesta, and return to Mamasake to reunite the owner with her identity and stuff ourselves with raw fish. Raw at Squaw was their motto after all.

Except for one flaw in the plan of course which was that, while we were floating along sipping cervesa on the Truckee River, it was likely that our late night reveler would be spending her time canceling credit cards, calling the DMV, reporting her cell phone lost, fretting about the whereabouts of her numerous ID's, and generally having a miserable time. We didn't know the woman of course but any form of an Irish lass owning a sushi restaurant in a playground like Squaw Valley was likely to be alright with us. We were just turning away from the darkened doors, still without a clue what to do, when we noticed some movement inside the establishment. We walked around the corner and saw that there was a side door which was ajar. Leaning inside, we found a guy busy cleaning or prepping. He looked up as we walked in.

"Would you know this woman by any chance?" we inquired. We said the name on the license.

"Sure I would." he replied as if the question wasn't much of a surprise. "She owns this place. Why? Got a delivery or something."

"Well sort of. We found her wallet and cell phone." We held them out to show him. He wiped his hands.

"Really?" Again there wasn't much surprise in his voice as if people often showed up with her personal effects. "She left the keys in the door too. Forgot to lock up," he made the universal sign for drinking by extending his thumb and pinkie and simulated the act of tipping one back. "Must have been a good night."

"Guess so," we said, not mentioning the other items found near the scene. We set the phone and wallet on top of the glass encasement which assumedly held raw fish. "So you'll see her today then? Could you call her some time soon and tell her they've been returned so she won't worry?"

"Sure," the guy said. "Not a problem. Where'd you say you found the stuff?"

"Over in the grass by that place Zenbu."

"Interesting," the guy said returning to his chopping block or whatever it was he was doing. "Like I said, must have been a good night."

The rest of the day proceeded as planned and after a relaxing float, a welcome siesta, and a stop at a happy hour, we returned again to Mamasake just as the sun was setting excited to experience Squaw in the Raw. We took a seat on the patio where we could view both the passers by and the goings on within the restaurant and begin the game of trying to figure out who the owner was. There were several attractive women milling about in hostess type fashion but none of them quite matched the features in the picture we had seen. We did a couple walk throughs but didn't see anyone else working inside who fit the bill and decided after a while that the owner didn't necessarily have to be there at all. We had accepted menu's and cold beers from a waitress who explained that our waiter would be right with us. It took him awhile and when he did arrive he was something of a cocky swaggering ass. We didn't catch his name but it was clear that he thought he was too cool for this gig even though he didn't seem particularly cool at all. He wasn't athletic or attractive in any way either but rather a gangly and soft looking fitch so it was hard to fathom how he came to the conclusion that he was all that. Anyway, we ordered some deep fried tofu and seaweed salad to get started and continued to sip our drinks and monitor the goings on inside to see if anyone resembling the lass in the picture would make an appearance. 

Now we've had many different restaurant experiences over the years that varied from waiting tables in tuxedos at a five star house to washing dishes in pubs to bartending at resorts to cooking eggs for minimum wage. We've received and prepped fish in Hawaii, baristed and worked fine dining in Seattle, served banquets in Ann Arbor, worked room service in Telluride, cooked pizzas in Tucson, and sous cheffed in Breckenridge. And through it all, most of the restaurant owners we've encountered have fallen into two categories. They were either absent or corporate or they were hands on at the hostess station, greeting and seating and working the room. On very rare occasions, we've seen some of them get sweaty and grab a sauté pan or beer tap and help out when things are busy but for the most part they either feel that they've graduated from such menial tasks or don't know how to perform them in the first place. A few might help out trying to bus tables now and then but generally owners tend to stay up front out of the way and, when the place gets slammed, they are more likely to stand around wringing their hands, apologizing to customers and trying to direct traffic then rolling up their sleeves and getting dirty.

Well this woman wasn't like that. We finally figured out who she was when someone who looked vaguely like the picture on the license, appeared out of the back to deliver part of our order that the waiter had either forgotten or that hadn't been ready when he trayed up the rest. It was easy to understand later why we'd missed ID'ing her since she resembled a scullery maid more than the owner of a restaurant in a fancy mountain town. She was wearing what appeared to be black nurses scrubs and had her hair in a messy bun. Sweat dripped off her nose. She put the plate down sort of grumpily announcing what it was and attempted a thin smile and we didn't say anything except thanks since we weren't even considering her as a candidate at that point. As she turned to shuffle away however, a couple at the next table addressed her in a way that made it clear that she was in charge of the whole operation. Once we witnessed that exchange, her status became obvious and we marveled at the fact that she'd been working behind the sushi bar in plain sight all night but we hadn't given her a second look because of her bedraggled, worker bee appearance. She had also been expediting which is one of the least glamorous jobs in the house. It made sense now that we thought about it though given that expediting is typically one of the lowest paying but most necessary functions on busy nights and a spot any good owner or manager should offer to fill but few ever do.

So what to make of Mamasake and its owner from a review standpoint? The sushi was good, especially a few of the aforementioned creative rolls. The nigiri seemed fresh and amply portioned and the Uni (sea urchin), which we sample anytime and everywhere we can, was excellent. The bill for two came to around a hundred dollars which isn't cheap but certainly not unreasonable given the setting. The service was slow and inattentive but that was obviously due to the one jackass since, when we dealt with the bartender and the other waitress, they both seemed pleasant and competent and it was obvious that the boss was doing her part. It was nice to be able to sit outside with the big screen playing a Stones concert inside since one could enjoy the cool breeze and passing scenery and glance in once in awhile to see what Mick and the boys were up to without having them be completely interruptive. Overall, Mamasake would have been a pretty good experience even without the side story involving the mysterious owner and her lost belongings.

And our new friend herself? Before we left Mamasake, one of us went up and talked to her briefly just to make sure the joker who worked for her had actually returned the wallet instead of quitting on the spot and going on some bender with his bosses cash and credit. She said she had gotten the stuff and wasn't particularly pleasant about it but she was busy at the time, and possibly still hung over, possibly embarrassed, possibly just not interested in discussing it? Maybe just a complicated or unhappy person at a spot in life where losing her wallet and phone are the least of her worries. Maybe a completely satisfied person who didn't like the looks of us. Who knows? We're just a couple of stooges stumbling through town and are not about to judge a woman based on a twenty four hour period of her life when we're not even sure what transpired and it's none of our business anyway. We certainly have lived through enough similar episodes ourselves, especially when we worked in mountain towns, and we wouldn't think of casting dispersions on a person we don't even know just because she left her effects laying around and didn't jump for joy when someone returned them. We'd be lying if we said we weren't hoping she turned out to be cooler or at least more interested in chatting about the whole episode but that's just because a Goliard can't have too many encounters or acquaintances in the Irish lass/sushi bar owner category and not because it was a big deal either way. 

In any event, we appreciate the minor intrigue she added to our visit to the Reno/Tahoe area and wish her well in her business. Just the prospect of an Irish woman owning a sushi bar is pretty cool and if we ever make it back to Squaw, we'll definitely make a return to the raw side of the hill.


(530) 584.0110

The Village at Squaw
1850 Village South Rd.
Suite 52
Elsa Corrigan - Owner
PO Box 3342
Olympic Valley, CA

Note - We snagged all the above pictures except the top one off the internet when we searched it for Mamasake. In one of them we believe you can even see the subject herself. The top picture was taken from the Gondola coming down the hill and roughly shows the area where the wallet and phone were discovered although the actual spot is a bit out of the shot to the right. In the top floor of the red building pictured is where Zenbu is located. 

Copyright 2006. All Rights Reserved.