At times, the most minor difference can make a tremendous impact; something that may not seem obvious but leaves a tip of the tongue realization. A new restaurant has opened near me and has grown on me quite a bit, but it is easy to know why. It is a seemingly small difference, however it shows that the itamae has an understanding of sushi that is often lacking in many sushi-ya. A good sushi restaurant is made not just by the freshness or the fish, or the value of the offerings, but also the little things that illustrate the care and understanding of those who provide your meal.
Sushi has always been about more than how fresh the fish is, how it is presented, the attentiveness of the wait staff, etc. But often people miss out on the actual creation of the food items. I’m obsessed with food and tend to be nosy. I am not at all uncomfortable wandering over to the itamae to watch the food preparation and discuss technique. I stare, I study, and I ponder (and silently critique). But I’m friendly and at least so far, no one has shooed me away. One particular thing I have noticed is the preparation of maki (cut rolls). A smart restaurant will do it’s best to reduce waste without sacrificing quality. For this reason, it is a very common practice at Japanese restaurants to prepare blocks of maguro (tuna) for sushi and sashimi, and they scrape and chop the trimmings for use in certain rolls. No one really notices that this is the cast offs and remainders that are being used as they are often mixed with spicy mayonnaise or panko (crunchy Japanese bread crumbs) and rolled up. It makes sense to not waste the meat, and I do not begrudge anyone for doing this.
Here comes the “but.” For me, food is about more than taste and presentation. Food is also about texture. I enjoy the feel of different food items, and when I eat a roll, I enjoy the feel of the meat in the roll. I eat a fair quantity of hamachi (yellowtail). Hamachi maki finds its way onto my plate at almost every sushi meal, and more often that not, it has been macerated prior to inclusion in the roll. To me, it becomes one big mushy pile, no matter how nice it may taste. I greatly value the practice of cutting a piece of hamachi and leaving it intact in the roll, which provides definition and a sense of variety while I eat. There are times when I specifically ask the itamae to leave the fish whole in a roll, it is that important to me (ok, I’m more than just a wasabi snob). Without this contrast, I do not find maki nearly as interesting.
While I believe the practice of including the trimmings in rolls should continue, as it reduces waste, I appreciate the itamae who takes the extra step and realizes that the texture of the meal is as important as quality and presentation. With many sushi chefs having less and less formal training these days, I feel that this perspective is becoming lost. Sushi is more than food, it is art. It is not black and white photography; it is full color, vibrant and nuanced. I do not walk in to a Japanese restaurant and start issuing commands, I am a polite diner, and while I may make my wishes gently known, I can appreciate when a chef has the presence of mind to understand the importance of his work. It is a very small gesture, but one with great ramifications. At least, great ramifications for me.