I eat at two different types of sushi restaurant, the “quick fix” kind and the higher quality places where I linger and enjoy my sushi meal to its utmost. I am somewhat of a sushi snob, which I’ll freely admit, and the “quick fix” places I go to are still decent restaurants, but there is a series of methods I use to determine which stand above the rest. To some, this may be a waste of time because a good sushi restaurant is a good sushi restaurant, but to me, the distinction is important. When I find a new place, there are three basic things that I try which tell me if this new place is a sit down or a take out. And this determination is not made right away. I’ll share my methodology and you decide if it is worth it to you. A great deal of the quality of a particular restaurant is determined by the skills of the Itamae (sushi chef), so what this really means is that my criteria focuses on him (or her). This also requires at least three visits to the restaurant. This is how I test a new restaurant:
Try the sushi. This may sound pretty dumb, but I mean exactly what I say. I try sushi, maki, temaki, and anything non-sashimi. This gives me a feeling for the way that the Itamae makes the most basic kinds of sushi. It is actually not easy to make the perfect bed of rice for your sushi. Or to roll a perfect maki or temaki. The balance of ingredients is key, as well as presentation and selection. The ability to craft a perfect piece of sushi is an easy way to determine the basic skills of the Itamae.
Try the sashimi. This is my second test. I order all sashimi or chirashi. Again, this may sound silly, but this will highlight something very special about the Itamae. Cutting the fish and presenting the sashimi properly displays the Itamae’s understanding of the fish. For sashimi, the fish must be cut the right size, the right way to be eaten easily (across the grain at the proper angle), and presented in an appealing fashion. The Itamae must be aware what part of the fish he is serving, which will determine how he cuts it, as well as how to plate it. Proper understanding of the type of fish and the part he cuts is what separates the so-so Itamae from the great ones.
Order Omakase. For those who may not know what omakase is, it is essentially “chef’s choice.” When you sit down and order omakase, you are giving the Itamae the freedom to serve you whatever he wants to serve, and he is expected to highlight what he thinks are the best picks at that time. Without a great understanding of the food he serves, this will be only an average meal. But a good Itamae will find the best selections, the right seasonal items, the proper presentation (which should be more impressive than you average order), and be attentive to your guidance should you have any. He should understand the order in which to serve the particular fish so one does not overpower the one following piece. The skill, knowledge, intuition, and sophistication are truly displayed when the Itamae is preparing an omakase meal.
This is not necessarily a suggestion for everyone to go out and use this methodology. This is what I do and has helped me find some great places to eat sushi (in my seemingly obsessive-compulsive way). Generally if you like a place enough, you will know it is right for you, but for me, I like to study and learn what is out there. I usually get to know the Itamae at the sushi restaurants that I favor, and a great ice-breaker is to tell them how much you appreciate their skills. It’s not the only way, but an individual who understands his craft that well will be pleased to hear such comments. And I’m sure they appreciate the beer I buy them in thanks. I know I would.
The sushi guy