"You can feel [the heat of] the wasabi more on less fatty fish — shrimp, squid, octopus," he explained, therefore you need less. "For toro, yellowtail, you put more wasabi." You then pick up the sashimi with your chopsticks and dab it into the bowl with the soy sauce. Not too much; otherwise, he says, you taste the soy sauce, not the fish.
And therein lies the essence of appreciating good sushi (or sashimi) — it's all in the details.
To that end, some sushi bars offer freshly grated wasabi, though usually you have to ask for it. It's expensive, though, and you'll usually be told that you'll be charged extra for it. Agree, if you can afford it — its pointed heat and slight sweetness are wonderful.
Rapport with the chef
At Kiriko, my newly learned tricks were paying off. After starting us off with an octopus salad, Namba served us a two-hour stream of dishes, including sashimi of toro (fatty tuna belly), zuke (shoyu-marinated tuna), uni (sea urchin) served in its shell, halibut topped with shaved truffle, and Japanese red snapper dressed with grated yuzu and sea salt.
But the richness of the experience involved more than the expanded repertoire and amazing quality of fish we were served; it was also in the interaction with Namba. When I asked if the glasses the waitress was serving our sake in was kiriko, a traditional type of Japanese glassware I'd been introduced to at Urasawa, Namba said no.
"Kiriko is so delicate and it breaks so easily, I don't use it much in the restaurant anymore." And then, who knows why, he asked the waitress to get two kiriko glasses for our sake. "From my personal collection."
We left fulfilled, sated, very happy and inspired.
When your knowledge of sushi is limited to three or four kinds of fish and rolls that include fake crab and avocado, omakase is a great way to push yourself to the next level.
But if you're ordering on your own, it's worth thinking a little about what you're ordering, rather than reflexively asking for tuna or yellowtail. Observe proper etiquette as much as you can, and then ask questions. What's particularly good for sashimi tonight? (If you're having both sashimi and sushi, start with sashimi.) Asking for specific types of fish will mark you as someone who's serious: toro, abalone, uni, red clam, herring roe, Spanish mackerel.
Having expanded my repertoire of fish and having learned to really appreciate many of them, I wanted to go somewhere and order for myself. And so I returned to Takao, where my aficionado friend and I had experienced our unmemorable omakase dinner.
I went with the same friend; we took seats at the sushi bar. This is not just the best way to eat sushi, it's the only serious way, since the point is to establish a rapport with the chef. This time, from the outset, we positioned ourselves as two women who were there to appreciate sushi, not just talk to each other.
After introducing ourselves to the sushi chef, we started by asking him what he recommended that night. Then we pushed, asking what he had special from Japan, whether he was serving ankimo (monkfish liver) and how was the uni that night? We asked not for the sake of proving what we knew, but to convey that we wanted to try new things.
Generally, sushi chefs don't just pour out the information the minute you sit down. Instead, they sense your enthusiasm, and if you seem to enjoy what you are eating, they might mention one more thing for you to try. At Mori Sushi, for instance, if Onodera sees you enjoying his house-made pickled ginger, he might offer you something even more special: house-made pickled young ginger.
Asking questions and noticing what looks good in the case and what others are eating are just as important as knowing what to ask for. We wouldn't have known there was fresh wasabi at Takao had we not spotted the knobby, green, fresh wasabi root.
This time, our dinner at Takao included a much more interesting array than the first — gorgeous sea urchin from Santa Barbara, chewy red clam from Japan, buttery toro, Spanish mackerel. It was exponentially richer than the first time, because we didn't slack off.
We continued to ask questions, to pay attention to what we saw being served around us, and to ask after things like hikari mono (shiny fish) that we hadn't been offered. It was a million times better than any combo platter could have been because we were ordering and eating the fish one piece at a time, just after it left the chef's hand.