Good sushi is something akin to an out-of-body experience. When high-quality fish and a highly trained and knowledgeable sushi chef come together, magic can happen. Couple that with ordering your sushi Omakase style (Omakase means chef’s choice, so you never know what you are going to get)
Take last night, for example. I rolled into one of my favorite sushi restaurants in the bay area, Michael Mina’s San Francisco’s Pabu for a 15-course Omakase feast with sake pairing. The stars aligned with a star female chef and some extraterrestrial high-grade fish. The chef’s ability to carve perfectly sized Nigiri over and over is where she really shined. Believe it or not, this is key to building a flawless consistent flavor profile. How many fucking times have I been to sushi restaurants and gotten monster 2″ x 4″ slabs of fish parked on top of 2″ x 4″ blocks of rice. It’s sloppy, horrible technique, plain and simple. If you have to bite your Nigiri in half, it’s too big. Perfect Nigiri is one bite and a few chews. So, if it looks like a large brick or a piece of construction material, the chef is fucking clueless – slam your sake – get up and walk out.
If you dont know what Sashimi or Nigiri is. Sashimi is raw pieces of fish you use chop sticks to eat. Nigiri is Sashimi on top of a finger sized piece of seasoned rice and you use your hands to eat. You can use chop sticks with Nigiri but the pros use fingers.
Here’s another insider’s tip for you: If you rate sushi restaurants based on the rolls, you’re lost. Sorry guys it’s the truth. (I know, I know – your favorite sushi place has the most insane Godzilla and Wet Dream Rolls) The truth is, rolls are where all the low-quality fish goes—and where the restaurant makes most of its profit. Think about it … why in the fuck else do you combine sinus-scorching wasabi with salty soy sauce and then soak the roll in it? No guess? Give up? So, you can’t taste or smell the stench of the week-old fish’s ass they cut up and put in your roll. After the chef cuts up a fish for its Nigiri and Sashimi, they then scrape the skin for the last bit of meat and that is what goes into most rolls. Spicy Tuna Roll – that’s pieces of Tuna scraped off the last bit of the fish mixed with mayonnaise and hot sauce. I’m not saying it cant be tasty but rolls are like low end sausage and good Nigiri/Sashimi is like ordering an aged Waygu steak with truffle oil and bone marrow at your local high end steak joint. (when done right)
With Sashimi or Nigiri, there’s nowhere for the fish to hide. It can’t disappear into a plethora of ingredients and flaws are obvious. Rolls hide the taste of the fish and there is a reason for it. Sashimi and Nigiri is pure nakedness and, when done perfectly, it’s divine. A good sushi chef when serving Nigiri will tell you if you need to dip it in soy, but the very best chef’s serve Nigiri already seasoned, so its ready to go when it hits your plate. I could go on and on, but I’ll save my extensive sushi lecture for another time. Just remember if the Sashimi or Nigirl isnt good, you might want to soak your rolls a little (a lot) longer than normal.
Now for the highlight of my night: sitting at the chef’s sushi bar enjoying my meal. Charles Phan (Chef and Owner of The Slanted Door– world renown Vietnamese restaurant) walks up to the bar, sits down next to me, and proceeds to order the same 15 course Omakase I did. Then he turns to me, smiles, and says, “I know you.” I smile back and say, “yes, and I know you. Been a customer of your restaurant, Slanted Door since its days in the Mission.” We raised our sakes and toasted our good fortune. Sometimes great minds really do think alike.
If you enjoyed this post about a restaurant, check out a story about visiting Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California.