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How to Find a Good Sushi Restaurant

I didn’t intend this blog to turn into a bunch of “how to” posts, and I think my next post may be on how many pieces of hamachi can I fit into my mouth at once, but I did nevertheless feel that a good follow-up to my “How to Eat Sushi” would be how to find a good sushi-ya and how to determine it’s quality. I’m sure all of you have no problems determining if you like a place or not, but the goal of this entry to point out the specific things to look for in terms of food quality that make a sushi-ya stand out relative to it’s peers.

There are many good and many bad sushi places. Many, many bad sushi places. I’ve walked out of places before I was even seated, and I’ve also left food on my plate that wasn’t up to par (how rude, I know). There are details that I have noted over the years that have helped me identify whether or not I want to dine in a particular sushi-ya where I’ve never been, and I thought to share them with both of you who still read my blog. When traveling and in an unfamiliar city, I often seek out sushi and here are my tips to find a good place, and determine the quality of its offerings.

What to Look For:
At the risk of sounding politically incorrect, I have found that some of the best sushi places have a large Japanese clientele. A lack of Japanese diners is not necessarily indicative of a sub-par sushi-ya, but when I notice a large number of Japanese diners, it’s a big “thumbs up.”

Look for a line or a long wait. It sounds annoying, but it’s true. A particular sushi-ya in New York City that I love develops a line around the block starting about 5:30 pm. I’m not kidding, and the sushi there is superb. Sushi can be worth the wait.

Smell the air when you walk in. If it smells fishy (and not fresh) you might want to go get pizza. A mix of interesting smells can be expected, but if anything smells off, either something may have gone bad or perhaps they may not clean the place frequently or well enough.

Look at the fish presented in the sushi bar. It should look clean, fresh, well wrapped, and not all thrown together. If anything looks dry, old, or crusty, run for the nearest exit. When your neta has a leathery edge all you want to do is spit it out.

Is the itamae Japanese? If he is not, the sushi-ya may still have very good sushi, but my personal opinion is that one stands a better chance of finding a good trained/experienced sushi chef if they are Japanese. And while many other Asian countries have their versions of sushi, what we have come to expect in North America seems to be the uniquely Japanese style and presentation. If not “made in Japan” I’ll take “made by Japan.”

Does the sushi look slapped together? There is a particular sushi-ya near me where the presentation is just not right and whether directly or indirectly related, the sushi is only so-so. If the itamae doesn’t respect his presentation enough I would question how much respect he has for the quality.

Does the restaurant focus on sushi? If the sushi bar is an add-on, I tend to avoid it. There are exceptions but if sushi is not their first priority, I would rather go to a place where it is. Remember, the quality of the sushi is very dependant on the individual who chooses the fish at the wholesaler, and if their expertise is at the hibachi, I don’t want them choosing the food I’m going to eat raw.

I avoid fast food sushi places. There’s quality food and there’s fast food, and never the two shall meet. sushi had better be quality. I’ve touched on this in a previous piece, and there is definitely some good pre-made stuff, but if it’s on a conveyor belt, I won’t go near it.

What to Look For When Dining:
One way that is used to determine the skill of the itamae is to try the tamago yaki (a slightly sweet omelet). This is a delicate item that takes great skill to perfect. In Japan, potential customers often ask to try the tamago yaki to determine if the itamae is skilled enough, in their opinion, to be preparing sushi.

How does the rice taste? How does it feel? The rice should not be too soft nor too firm, and the balance of seasonings should be just right. If it’s too sweet or tastes of vinegar, they don’t know how to prepare it and I would question how well they prepare anything else. The rice is the foundation upon which sushi is built (and I’m using the term colloquially since technically ‘sushi‘ refers to the rice).

Inspect your nigiri-zushi. In a quality establishment the itamae will know the proper balance of fish to rice, and huge hunks of fish, while fun and yummy, can upset the balance. Remember, sushi is as much science as art, and if you have an experienced itamae, he will know how to serve you best.

Look for fresh wasabi. That lump of green putty you got is, in all likelihood, American horseradish with food colouring. A good sushi-ya will have the real stuff available for the asking, and often for a price. But it’s worth it, in my opinion, and it’s a different animal (so to speak).

Look for interesting seasonal items. This indicates that they pay attention to the particulars of the foods they offer, and seek out something when it is available and fresh. Ankimo (monkfish liver) is a classic example of this. It is a seasonal item that can be found off-season, but does not have the same taste and texture when it has been sitting in a freezer for months. The itamae at my favourite sushi-ya near me won’t serve it unless it is fresh, and because of this I know he cares about the quality of his food.

OK, that’s it. There is absolutely nothing else you need to know. Really… Nothing at all. Well, obviously there is more, but those were my observations that have yet to lead me astray in my search for outstanding sushi-ya in strange places. If I’ve overlooked anything, feel free to chime in on the comment page. Sushi is a magnificent dish when done right. Good sushi is nice, but great sushi is something to tell your friends about. It’s worth the effort to find the best, and if you can, take me with you.

Warren
The sushi guy.

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15 Responses to “How to Find a Good Sushi Restaurant”

  • Great tips. I will use these next time I’m in an unfamiliar town to find a great resturant.

  • What is “real wasabi” if it’s not horseradish? Forgive my ignorance, but I thought that’s what wasbi WAS.

  • The Man says:

    Real wasabi comes from a plant called…the wasabi plant. What we usually get here is horseradish with food coloring added. Sometimes they even add corn oil and other things as preservatives.

  • What is “real wasabi” if not a horseradich?

    Like horseradish, it’s a member of the cabbage family, but there’s a big difference in taste. It’s akin to sweet, ripened (orange/yellow/red) bell peppers and habaneros — both are members of the capsicum genus of the pepper family, yet taste nothing alike.

    The best way to find out the difference for yourself is to specify that you’d like real wasabi the next time you go for sushi. Provided that it’s available, you’ll never want to go back to the colored horseradish paste.

    Lots of info about wasabi can be found here

  • Curt says:

    I know what you mean by a proper sushi-ya can make all the difference. I’ve had a couple of horrible examples of bad sushi experiences of my own.

    It’s nice to get a proper meal every now and then.

  • Lyne says:

    where in NYC would you recommend going for great sushi? we are planning a trip there this summer and are looking for great ideas, unusual tastes. price is of no matter.

  • brian says:

    A couple other tips you may wish to include:
    1) Above all else – freshness of fish –> Ask how often and where their fish is flown in from. If the answer is daily from Japan you’re probably in good hands, if not or if they’re not forthright about their answer you could be in trouble.
    2) The Sake – Finer Japanese Sushi bars will tend to have finer sakes from various regions of Japan, my personal favorite is Hakkaisan and I find that only 1 in 15 sushi bars will have Hakkaisan and their food is always superb (could be coincidence but I doubt it) –> Here is a ranking of top sakes and their regions in parenthesis: Hakkaisan (Niigata), Juyondai (Yamagata), Kubota (Niigata), Shimeharitsuru (Niigata), Denshu (Aomori), Dewazakura (Yamagata), Kokuryu (Fukui), Masumi (Nagano), Tengumai (Ishikawa) and Shinkame (Saitama).
    3) Specials – as you briefly touched on – if diners are immediately asking for the specials or chefs are willingly offering the information this is a good sign, there should be a blackboard-like Special board in plain view that people instinctively look to upon walking in the door.
    4) A few key items to look for: Ume (sweet japanese plum) maki – this is a very traditional japanese item that I have found many japanese diners will finish off their dining experience with (as a type of dessert). Otoro – Toro is becoming more and more popular but it is seasonal and I’ve found that availability of Toro is not a foolproof indicator of a good sushi bar – as it may have been frozen toro flown in all the way from tahiti a day or two ago – if they don’t have Toro they should willingly tell you it’s because the available Toro right now is not good quality. Live shrimp – although many sushi bars have amaebi (sweet shrimp) and ebi (cooked shrimp) – few offer live shrimp (still moving on the plate) – this is clearly an indicator of FRESH ingredients.
    4) The menu itself – although there are exceptions – a very “traditional” menu is always a good sign – the more “volcano rolls” and “dragon-type rolls” usually the worse off you’re going to be.

  • brian says:

    P.S. If you are ever in the San Diego Area, a while back I started a “sushi review blog” of ratings on san diego area sushi bars (that I’ll expand one of these days when I get some time to add some more entries). Here is the link:
    http://sushireview.blogspot.com/

  • Adam says:

    Is it possible to find good sushi in the middle of nowhere (Upstate NY)?

    I know of a place called “Sushi Blues,” a small place right near an upscale college. I also know of two places in the dingy downtown area of a mid-sized city.

    I wonder if any of these are worth my time? I’m kind of a sushi newbie, and haven’t had good luck with the taste of raw-fish sushi so far.

  • Fred Farkle says:

    It’s really sad that you can’t mention that Italians go where the best pasta is without disclaiming imaginary bigotry. OF COURSE the natives hang out at the best, the authentic, ethnic restaurants. Observing that is just smart.

    That’s why, if you want good BBQ down south, you follow me when I go to GIT some. Heheheh

  • war3rd says:

    Lyne,
    For sushi in Manhattan I would recommend a few different places, depending on your interest. If price is no object then I would suggest:
    For ‘traditional’ sushi, Sushi Yasuda on 43rd is the place, hands down. Very high quality food and even unusual items that you won’t find on other places. The waitstaff know their stuff and will help guide you to the interesting items if you ask them. But call ahead for a reservation, it’s a popular place.
    Sushisay on 51st is also quite good and traditional. Not as clean and simple as Sushi Yasuda, but excellent food nonetheless.
    For ‘interesting’ and non-traditional, try Nobu on Hudson St. His stuff is ‘fusion’ but still tied to the sushi base and excellent quality. It’s a real experience to eat there, the items are fun and tasty, but you pay for it.
    for ‘big’ sushi, try either Monster Sushi (I’ve only been to the one on 23rd st) or Tomoe Sushi on Thompson St. They both offer large servings (each piece is large) but I actually prefer Tomoe as while the nigiri-zushi is sometimes too big to eat in one bite, it tends to be less ‘busy’ if that makes sense. However the decor in Tomoe is a bit… rustic. It’s not fancy (and is exceptionally busy) and I was turned off the first time I went, but once I tried it I had to go back.
    Hatsuhana on 48th is pretty darn good too, but for the price I would go to Sushisay instead, they are somewhat on par but I prefer Sushisay just a bit.
    I’m not sure if I gave you too many or too few suggestions. Basically, though, if it were up to me, I would choose either Sushi Yasuda or Tomoe. I’m not sure where you are staying, but Sushi Yasuda is in mid-town and Tomoe is downtown, so you can take that into account. And if you want to email me privately I’d be happy to give you more info (or here in the comment section if you would like). It’s to bad the Fulton Fish Market moved because that is a fun place to check out if you are so inclined, but you don’t want to go to the Bronx now to see it as a tourist, IMHO.

    BTW, you can Google any of these names for reviews and addresses. And feel free to ask anything else you would like, I’m here to serve 🙂 And there are plenty of other excellent places that I have left out, I just figured I’d give you a few of my favourites and keep the list down.

    Take care and have fun in NYC.

    Warren
    The sushi guy.

  • war3rd says:

    Brian,
    Excellent points, thank you for that contribution. I’ve always been a sake fan and have my favourites (in fact my local liquor store has started getting me the stuff I get in the restaurants, a nice feat as the two different markets are often sold to separately), but I’m unfamiliar with some that you mentioned. It looks like I have a new task ahead of me 🙂

    Thanks for the comments, though, I appreciate it.

    Warren
    The sushi guy.

  • Lady Cooper says:

    There was an exception to the ethnicity of itamae, there’s a wickedly good sushi house in Calgary, Canada, that has Chinese itamaes, and they do a bloody good job. I discovered it after being told NOT to go there by a little old Japanese lady (“you don’t want that, it’s made by Chinese!”).

    I’ve noticed with sake that they serve in most sushi bars to white people is hot cheap stuff, although if you show a bit of knowledge, you can get some better tasting stuff. I’m going to be looking into some types of sake in my Liquor Log soon.

  • war3rd says:

    I couldn’t agree more about the exception, Lady Cooper. I once had an incredibly well presented and flavourful meal made by a presumably American woman, so obviously skills are determined by the individual’s hard work, certainly not by gender or ethnicity. A Korean friend of mine back in university would often tell me that the Koreans invented sushi and that I shouldn’t eat ‘inferior’ Japanese sushi. It’s all in the eye of the beholder, eh?

    And as for sake, I have found that the common misconception is that all sake is served hot and it is ignorance (and I don’t mean that in the pejorative sense) that keeps many from enjoying good sake. People just don’t know what is available and don’t think to ask, which ties in with what you said. Try to be knowledgeable and you will find the good stuff.

    Thanks for the insight!

    Cheers,
    Warren
    The sushi guy.

  • kank8n says:

    Thanks Sushi Guy for the info. I am currently eating my way through the sushi houses in the Kansas City area, since I moved about an hour away from my favorite local sushi fix place. As I eat at the new places, others at the sushi bar will give me tips about other places they have been to or a new one that I missed.

    And yes, I agree, I’ve walked out of places that I didn’t think looked clean and I absolutely won’t eat sushi if I cannot see the chef prepare the dishes or in the supermarket.

    I’ve started making the vegetable/shrimp/crabmeat rolls at home, but have always been afraid of touching the sashimi, but became really excited when my local grocery store started carrying sashimi grade tuna, which I prepared for the first time last night and am still alive to tell about it! It was delicious, but I realize that I have a lot to learn still since when I started hacking into it, I didn’t cut against the grain at first.

    Looking forward to reading the rest of the articles.!

    ~Heather

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