I didn’t intend this journal of helpful insights from an expert 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” post on Blogspot 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 site. 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 dependent 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 coloring. 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 favorite 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.