I'd never seen — or tasted — anything like this. When I went home that evening, I wondered what I had been doing with respect to sushi all these years.
FOR THE RECORD:
Sushi —An article on sushi in the Feb. 9 Food section contained translation and spelling errors. Omakase was translated as "today's delicious one; I leave it to you," but it literally means "entrusting" and if written on a menu means "putting your trust in the chef." Tiny shrimp from Toyama are shira ebi, not shira evi; sawakani, not sawa gani, are fried tiny crabs; and "Irasshai mase!" not "Irasahi masai!" is the greeting one receives upon arrival.
Not long after, I went to another well regarded neighborhood sushi bar, Takao in Brentwood, with a friend who considers herself an aficionado. We ordered omakase, which translates roughly as "today's delicious one; I leave it to you," the idea being that the sushi chef chooses what you will eat. My friend and I, focused on catching up, left it to the chef, and blabbed away. That day's "delicious one," sad to say, was mediocre. So what went wrong?
I started investigating, asking dedicated sushi diners how to get the best experience at a sushi bar, and I kept hearing the same thing from everyone: It's all about your relationship with the sushi chef. Become a regular customer, and you'll get the best experience. Although it hadn't occurred to me before, it suddenly seemed pretty obvious. But patience is not my virtue: I didn't want to invest the time necessary to build a relationship. I wanted that experience now. And I wanted it in different places. I wanted to eat around!
After dozens of interviews with sushi chefs and sushi bar devotees — the kind who know to ask for fresh wasabi and what kind of shiny fish is in season — and an obscene amount of raw fish consumed around the city, I'm happy to report that it is possible to enter a sushi bar for the first time, and just by knowing how to behave and what to order, to get something very close to the best experience the sushi bar is capable of providing. Goodbye, California rolls; hello, shima aji (baby yellowtail).
Building even the fastest relationship with a sushi chef is largely a matter of respect — for the culture and the cuisine. So don't be a know-it-all. Assume an air of humble curiosity, and with that, let the chef know you're deeply interested in Japanese cuisine, and that you truly appreciate his specialty.
You don't have to wait until you walk in and the chef yells out "Irashai masai!"(Welcome!) to put a plan into action. It starts when you pick up the phone to make a reservation — a good idea (and sometimes required) in the kind of sushi bar in which you're likely to get a rarified experience.
I chose Kiriko, just off Sawtelle Boulevard, because it had been recommended to me by a few reliable sources. Chef-owner Ken Namba happened to answer the phone. Was it necessary to tell him in advance if I planned to order omakase?
"It's always a good idea," he said. "That way, somewhere in the back of my mind, I know that I am doing omakase, and I might pick up something special or make something extraordinary for you."
Before I hung up, I mentioned the name of the friends who had recommended I go there. If you aren't friends with the chef's regular customers, you might just say that you read about the place. The point is the same: to let him know you didn't just wander in off the street, that you're there to get the best that he, specifically, has to offer.
After my phone conversation with Namba, I already felt like I was well on my way to an elevated sushi experience. I wasn't disappointed. After greeting my friend and me, Namba asked us all those first date questions, starting with what we like. "Everything," we said. Even if this isn't true, you might want to give the chef full rein your first time, for two reasons. "If a customer says, 'I like everything. But not this and not that,' " Namba tells me later, "then I am very careful with what I give them." But you also might be surprised by what you turn out to like.
In fact, on my first "date" with Ta-ke, the chef-owner Nobu Shishido had, unbeknownst to me, asked my friend (in Japanese) what he should feed me. "She likes to try new things," my friend had said. "Give her whatever you give me." Many of the fish the chef gave me that evening — including all the chewy ones (octopus, squid), fishy ones (mackerel) and slimy ones (sea urchin) — were things I had previously shied away from. But eaten one at a time in the order the chef intended, together they created a symphonic experience that I never could have anticipated.
When ordering omakase, you may be given options. Some places, like Takao, give you a price tier to choose from, the difference being the price of the fish, not the number of dishes served. At other sushi bars, the chef will simply ask, as Namba did now, if you want hot and cold dishes, sashimi and sushi, or just sushi. We wanted it all.
At this point, the server will bring over a hot towel. After you wipe your hands with it, fold the towel neatly and put it in front of you, just above the hand you eat with (though chopsticks are also acceptable for eating sushi). If you do eat sushi with your fingers, explains Nao Baba, general manager of Mori Sushi in West Los Angeles, then between bites and without lifting the towel, wipe your three sushi-eating fingers (thumb, forefinger and middle finger) on the towel. If you pick up sushi with chopsticks, return the towel to the server.
The server will place a set of chopsticks before you, with the tips to the left on their rest. Throughout the meal, keep the rest where it is, and replace the sticks facing left. If there's no rest, return the sticks with the points to the left directly on the counter.