Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Sushi Rules

I've slacked off on my Sushi Enforcement Task Force duties and failed to post much about sushi etiquette and traditions, which were part of the original raison d'etre for this blog.

I was reminded of this over the weekend, when I met up with some new friends for brunch and met one of their friends, a funny, smart (white) gal named Brooke who had lived in Japan for several years.
I'm always impressed by Caucasians who live in Japan and adapt to a language and culture that can be so 180 degrees different from the American way of thinking and living.

Anyway, Brooke shared some entertaining tales of living in Tokyo, and how she did observe chefs at some Japanese eateries publicly scold hakujin (foreigner) diners who "ruined" their food by doing things like:
* Ordering udon to go.
This is a HUGE no-no among purists: Noodle soups are meant to be consumed when the broth is hot and the noodles fresh; any time spent in transport causes the noodles to stretch and even disintegrate, and the broth flavor can be affected.
* Dousing katsu (breaded pork cutlet) with tonkatsu sauce, a yummy condiment that blends ketchup and Worcestershire Sauce.
You're supposed to put the sauce on the side and dip bites of tonkatsu in it.
* Drowning your nigiri sushi in soy sauce, rice-side down.
First of all, you're not supposed to doctor a piece of sushi handed to you from a sushi chef at all; you're supposed to trust that the chef carefully crafted this morsel and seasoned it perfectly - the concept of "omakase."
Of course, most places, even in Japan, will offer up the little plates for pouring a bit of soy sauce and maybe an extra dab of wasabi for you to lightly dip your nigiri - but FISH-SIDE DOWN.
The vinegar-ed sushi rice doesn't need to be further overwhelmed with soy sauce, and of course, this also causes the perfect little bundle of food to crumble.

To be honest, I've slacked off a bit on sharing "The Rules" like this because I've found some other excellent "sushi guides" on the web that do a good job:

* Sushifaq.com: This is an awesome site, with all sorts of credible info, covering everything from tips for beginners to this "etiquette" page, which covers a lot, including the aforementioned dipping nigiri in shoyu.

* Orange County Register Food Editor Cathy Thomas' well-researched and articulated guide to enjoying sushi.
Cathy is one of my idols, a true food expert who has traveled the world and tried all sorts of cuisine; knows the best markets in Asia and how to cook authentic dishes; loves to teach others; and is simply charming, warm, embracing and still curious - not at all a snobby, know-it-all gourmand.

* Eatsushi.com. There's an interesting article on sushi history (though I'm not sure about its source and can't tell how credible the information is), and this site boasts a sushi bar locator that is robust (lists places across the country, and is quite thorough in its Orange County listing), though not necessarily discriminating. It's a Yellow Pages-style directory with location info on each place, but no reviews or details.

Meanwhile, I learned there's a longtime authentic sushi bar right near my home that is so good that sushi chefs go there in their off hours! I'll be checking out Echizen in the coming week with my new dining friends mentioned above.
You'll see from Yelpers' reports that Echizen was recommended by the owner-chef of my new favorite south-county place, Wazen, and I was especially tickled by Florabelle's review that confirmed this is the type of place where Japanese Food Rules are enforced.
Needless to say, I'm very excited about visiting Echizen. Stay tuned for my report, and/or if you've been already, let me know your thoughts.


Monday, May 26, 2008

Sushi in a Can(nery)

Went to The Cannery in Newport Beach recently, and actually enjoyed some good raw fishies there!

Back in the day (i.e. some 15-20 years ago), The Cannery wasn't known for great food; the restaurant in a former fish cannery building served up standard seafood in a cool, historic harbor location and was better known as a great nightlife spot, with an upstairs bar where sun-kissed young folk went to dance to a live band that played fun, Top-40s music.
Spent many a glorious, drunken Saturday night there ...

But in recent years, new ownership has changed The Cannery into a lovely dining spot with excellent seafood and wine list, and the upstairs bar has become a sushi bar and lounge.

Of course, I was skeptical of the sushi bar part. Knowing its location and its history, I figured the restaurant was serving up overpriced, average-quality raw fish for a wealthy, non-discriminating crowd. So I hadn't patronized "The Can" for a long time, still having the "average quality" idea stuck in my head.

Once again, I shouldn't have assumed.

I met some friends there for dinner recently in the downstairs dining room. The menu was nicely diverse (Pistachio Baked Brie Salad; aged, bone-in ribeye; an Angus beef cheesburger), without trying to do too much, and offered some out-of-the-ordinary fresh fish choices (including Pike Place Fish Market Wild Salmon, flown in daily) and options for its preparation.
There was also some raw fish offered as appetizers: oysters and sashimi from the sushi bar.

The prices, as expected, were on the high side. But the quality was also high enough that I felt I got my money's worth.

The Blackened Spice Albacore Tataki (pictured above) was a big portion for $12, with 7-8 meaty slices that had a just-right amount of spice that didn't overwhelm the natural fish flavor. The papaya relish and yuzu dressing was refreshing, too.

The yellowtail nigiri, for $5.75 an order, was definitely overpriced, but the cuts of fish were superb, buttery and flavorful, and served as nigiri should, with a generous piece of fish blanketing the rice, rather than topping it.

My friend Courtney ordered a roll - but this Ultimate Albacore roll ($14) was one I could endorse 100%, chock full of good fish, as you can see, both inside and outside. Delicious, refreshing and worth the price.
(Apologies for the imperfect quality of the photos; I was using someone else's camera so didn't know how to adjust for the low lighting ...)

The upstairs sushi bar and lounge, by the way, is really pretty, with some cool, jellyfish-shaped colored-glass hanging lamps, a firepit and comfy couches and chairs that encourage lingering over drinks and good conversation. Definitely a sophisticated makeover from the former beer hall-esque dance floor that used to occupy the upstairs.

The Cannery isn't a destination sushi place for me, but it's a nice place to keep in mind for meeting up with friends with diverse food tastes. Everyone from the Rawfishionado to non-seafood eaters will find something to satisfy them.


Tuesday, May 13, 2008

What's in a name? Part 2: Sushi Saurus rocks!

**UPDATE (April 2009): Sushi Saurus was closed for several months as it underwent new ownership and remodeling. It's now open again. To read a new review, click here. **
I'm willing to admit when I made a mistake. And in this case, I was definitely wrong in judging by the name.

I checked out Sushi Saurus, and it was VERY good - much better than Sushi Island in quality. Just look at the seabass sashimi in the photo above - beautiful, isn't it? And the flavor and cut were sublime.

As Yelpers indicated, Sushi Saurus is an authentic place and more focused on the traditional basics than I thought. Yes, there's a long list of rolls, too (including a couple with strange names like Dr. Seuss, and Stinky Roll, which utilizes a gelato-sized scoop of garlic butter - yikes!), but the sushi chefs are Japanese and the nigiri and sashimi I enjoyed confirm the quality of the fish.
It's a basic sushi place, still not on the same level as the exquisite places I've raved about in earlier posts, but the quality is very good for the reasonable prices (about $4 for a typical nigiri order).

Exhibit B: The lovely, buttery yellowtail:

And compare the unagi with the eel nuggets we got at overpriced 242 in Laguna:
Plus, the small place in busy Belmont Shore is fairly quiet, not a "rock 'n' roll sushi" kinda place, and the sake menu is good, too.

To top it off, here's what the sushi chef told us about the name: The owner's young son (elementary-school age, according to our chef), commented on how the sloped shape of nigiri sushi looks like a dinosaur's back.

How cute is that?

So I'm literally eating my words - and enjoying it, happy to have found a reasonable, quality, comfortable place near home.

Sushi Saurus is proof, once again, that I should never assume - a motto I try to live by, but occasionally slip on - and judge anything or anyone by the name.

Thanks, Dan, for the additional encouragement to give Sushi Saurus a chance!

And Lisa, I'm even willing to try Sushi Plantation ... though I'm not as encouraged by the Yelp reviews; all the 5-star raves remind me of those for Tuna Town (which I still have no desire - or need! - to try) and for Sushi Studio, praising the rolls and not commenting knowledgably about the fish itself.

Stay tuned ...

Sushi Saurus, 5260 E. 2nd St., Long Beach, CA 90803. (562) 439-1950


Wednesday, May 7, 2008

What's in a name?

Bad sushi bar names:

  • Sushi Saurus (In Belmont Shore, Long Beach)

  • Tuna Town (In downtown Huntington Beach)

  • View-shi (now-defunct sushi bar that was in the View Lounge atop the Marriott Hotel across from Fashion Island in Newport Beach)
The awful names actually kept me from even entering the premises. I refuse to step into a place called Tuna Town, especially, and besides, it was opened by a rock musician, clearly to cater to the party crowd, not RawFishionados.

But then, there's Sushi Island in Costa Mesa.
I never would have stepped into this place myself, but friends who live near by and have good taste took me there a couple of years ago, and I was pleasantly surprised at the decent quality of the fish, and the very affordable prices.
Sure, there's the gimmicky tropical/surfer theme, there are plenty of rolls to keep sushi novices satisfied, and some of the "fusion" efforts don't quite work. But the prices make it palatable.
The place reminds me of Wahoo's Fish Tacos in numerous ways, from the decor and laid-back vibe to the reliably good - though not exceptional - food.

Sushi Island is not in the same realm as Murasaki, Koi and Wazen, but it's a comfortable place with Japanese chefs - a good drive-by, fast-food-sushi kind of place, which is why I stopped in the other night. I was hungry, craving some sushi, but didn't want to go through the whole leisurely experience. It was already half past 8 p.m. after all, and I just wanted a basic tuna roll (tekka maki) for comfort-food takeout, to purely satisfy my hunger.
Adorable sushi chefs Shogo and Hiro were behind the bar, starting to clean and clear things up with closing time just minutes away. But they smilingly crafted my order of tekka maki plus 3 orders of nigiri sushi, one each of yellowtail, Spanish mackerel and unagi.
The fish was all decently tasty, what you'd expect for about $3 an order.
This is not where I think of going when I really want to treat myself to some melt-in-your mouth raw fish and traditional favorites done right. But it's made me think perhaps I need to give Sushi Saurus a try; at the very least, it could become a reliable spot, close to home, for a quick, light meal after a long work day.

In fact, I just checked Yelp for Sushi Island and comparatively, Sushi Saurus seems to rate better! I'll definitely give the jurassic sushi spot a try and report back.


Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Gourmet seaweed

My mom, sister and niece recently went on a week visit to Japan, and returned with all sorts of gourmet foodstuffs as souvenirs. Among my favorite souvenirs is high-quality dried, seasoned seaweed, or nori.

This is the same type of seaweed used to wrap hand and cut rolls at sushi bars. It's dried and subtly seasoned with flavors like plum or fish, or simply salted, and can come in sheets of different sizes. The "gourmet" version I got as a souvenir gift from friends comes in convenient individual packets stored in lovely tin canisters like this.

In a typical Japanese home, you eat this individual-sized seaweed at all meals with rice, creating mini-rolls by using the nori to wrap rice and pieces of fish, pickled plum, vegetables or other types of seaweed, like salted kobu. Here's a photo 1-2-3:

You can also shred or cut the seasoned seaweed into confetti-like pieces that you can sprinkle over rice and other food, or to flavor soups like the ochazuke I blogged about earlier.
This type of premium seaweed is sold in little specialty shops in Japan, just as high-grade teas, pickled plums, pastries and other delicacies are sold.

My family has never had to buy Japanese tea, seaweed or other specialty food items here in California because our friends and family always send, or bring on visits, these beautifully packaged, premium-quality foodstuffs.

We've indeed been lucky and spoiled with the highest-grade green tea leaves from specialty tea boutiques, gourmet seaweed of all varieties and premium sake.