IT was a life-changing moment: The sushi chef presented my friend and me with wine glasses filled partway with sake; tiny live crabs crawled up the sides. Back into the kitchen the glasses went, and soon the crabs returned as very crisp, tiny, perfectly crab-shaped snacks. Then came barely cooked Japanese lobster that had been chopped, drizzled with shoyu and returned to its shell; a small pile of tiny sweet-tasting shrimp; sashimi and sushi cut from pristine Spanish mackerel, squid and halibut fin, each carefully dressed with combinations of pickled radish, scallions, shiso leaf, yuzu, pickled radish, shoyu and sea salt.
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.
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.
Next challenge: the soy sauce and wasabi issue. Contrary to popular belief, you're only supposed to put a few drops of soy sauce in the bowl, and no wasabi. I learned this that first night at Ta-ke when Shishido whisked away the full bowl and handed me another one to try again. The idea, he explained, is to dab a bit of wasabi onto each piece of sashimi; that way you can control the amount you put on each piece.
"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.
As for sushi, whether you're using chopsticks or your fingers, it should be dipped, fish side, into the soy sauce, anointing only the fish, not the rice. But in better sushi restaurants, the chef will brush just the amount of soy he feels is appropriate on each piece of sushi. "Take it from me and eat it," chef-owner Morihiro Onodero tells his customers at Mori Sushi. "I cook the perfect dish for you. You don't have to cook anything at the table."
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 Onodero 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.
In that way, as in all relationships, having the best sushi experience is a matter of getting out of it what you put in.
But I still had one nagging question: to bite in half or not to bite in half? I knew sushi was meant to be eaten in one bite, but many sushi lovers find it too big to eat all at once. That wasn't my problem; I preferred to eat it in two, to double the pleasure. Was this a terrible faux pas?
It was answered finally at Mori Sushi, where the hostess, Sandra Choh, spotted me biting my sushi in half. She came to me mid-meal and explained that I should eat it in one bite. "If it's too big," she said, "you can ask Mori-san to cut it smaller."
No, it wasn't too big. I explained my thinking.
But the fish would taste different, she explained, if I didn't eat it exactly as Onodero had cut it. Biting it in half was like salting my food in a fine French restaurant. I was messing with Mori-san's cooking.
I turned to Mori and asked him if he thought that the fish would not taste as good if I bit it in half.
"Hai!" he said. He was smiling in a way that said, I'm having fun with you, but I'm serious. Yes. One piece, one bite.
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Where to seek the special stuff
Here is a by-no-means- exhaustive list of sushi bars where you might find unusual fish prepared with extraordinary care. Reservations are required at many; others don't take reservations. Caution: Great fish tends to be pricey. Call to inquire about reservation policies and hours.
Hamakawa, 209 S. Central Ave., Los Angeles; (213) 625-8125.
The Hump, Santa Monica Airport, 3221 Donald Douglas Loop South, Santa Monica; (310) 313-0977.
Kiriko, 11301 W. Olympic Blvd., West Los Angeles; (310) 478-7769.
Matsuhisa, 129 N. La Cienega Blvd., Beverly Hills; (310) 659-9639.
Mori Sushi, 11500 W. Pico Blvd., West Los Angeles; (310) 479-3939.
Sushi Gen, 422 E. 2nd St., Los Angeles; (213) 617-0552.
Takao, 11656 San Vicente Blvd., Los Angeles; (310) 207-8636.
Ta-ke, 8866 W. Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood; (310) 659-6580.
Tama Sushi, 11920 Ventura Blvd., Studio City; (818) 760-4585.
Urasawa, 218 N. Rodeo Drive, Beverly Hills; (310) 247-8939.
-- Carolynn Carreno
Cheat sheet for aspiring aficionados
Requesting certain items in a sushi bar will mark you as an adventurous, knowledgeable diner. Here's a sampling of sophisticated items to order:
Uni (sea urchin). Look at it in the case. If it is rough-looking like a cat's tongue, it's likely to be of excellent quality.
Toro (fatty tuna belly). This cut of tuna is so marbled, it can be more than 25% fat. Some people think it's best eaten as sushi, so the warmth of the rice and the sushi chef's hand warm the fish slightly, imperceptibly melting the fat. Others prefer it as a cut roll (negi toro) with scallions, which help cut the fattiness.
Awabi (abalone). Hard and chewy, with a lovely, delicate flavor, either as sashimi or sushi.
Shira evi (tiny shrimp). These tiny worm-like shrimp from Toyama prefecture in northern Japan are a rare delicacy, and very expensive. Slightly sweet, they're served either as sashimi or sushi.
Chu-toro (between toro and tuna) the meat between the back and the belly, it is less known than maguro or toro.
Iwashi (sardines). Must be very fresh to be good.
Engawa (halibut fin). The four pieces of muscle on either side of the halibut fin are prized for their oiliness and assertive flavor.
Sawa gani (fried tiny crabs). Available year-round, but at only a few sushi bars.
Anago (saltwater eel). More likely to be cooked to order than unagi (freshwater eel), which is generally shipped from Japan precooked.
Shima aji (baby yellowtail). Tender and delicate, usually wild.
Ikura (salmon eggs). Salmon eggs have a very short season, so the majority of those served here are shipped frozen, packed in salt and then rinsed with a reduced sake mixture. Ask for fresh eggs. If you happen to hit upon the season, you're in for a popping little treat.
Kazunoko (herring roe). Tightly packed roe with a crunchy texture and slightly bitter flavor.
Hikari mono ("shiny fish"). Some kind of "shiny fish" is traditionally served at some point. It could be Spanish mackerel, kohada (a Japanese fish in the same family as herring and sardines) or saba (Pacific or American mackerel). Ask the chef what kind of hikari mono he has in season.
Ankimo (monkfish liver). Steamed and served warm or room temperature, as sashimi or sushi, it's like a cross between foie gras and poached salmon.
Zuke (tuna marinated in shoyu). In Japan, omakase always begins with red tuna, and often with zuke specifically.
Mirugai (giant clam), akagai (red clam) or hokkigai (surf clam). These clams are delicately flavored and wonderfully crunchy.
-- Carolynn Carreno
A guide to sushi etiquette
Getting a sushi chef to give you the best possible experience is largely a matter of letting him know that you're serious, curious and respectful of tradition. So how to do this? Here are some clues:
DO call ahead of time to make a reservation, or at least to tell the sushi chef you're coming. Mention you'd like omakase or you'd like to try some traditional fish or Japanese dishes.
DON'T go to a sushi bar on Sundays; the fish market is closed and the fish won't be as fresh.
DO keep the towel you washed your hands on, if you eat sushi with your fingers. Generally you will receive a wooden "rest" for your towel. Fold the towel neatly and use that to wipe your hands on throughout the meal. Return the towel to the server if you eat sushi with chopsticks.
DO introduce yourself to the sushi chef. Tell him what you're looking for in your meal (i.e., to try something you've never tried before).
DO tell the sushi chef what you like rather than emphasizing what you don't like.
DO mention if someone referred you, especially if they're a restaurant regular.
DO say you'd like to try something authentic. If you say "unusual," you may get something with cream cheese.
DO look around and ask about dishes or fish that interest you.
DON'T fill the shoyu bowl with soy sauce. Pour in about a dime's worth.
DON'T put wasabi in the bowl with the shoyu. A good sushi chef will put the amount of wasabi on each piece of sushi that he believes is appropriate for that fish. For sashimi, put a dab of wasabi directly on the fish. Use more wasabi for fattier fish, such as toro or yellowtail, less wasabi on lean cuts, such as clam or squid.
DO order sashimi first, then sushi.
DON'T pick up sashimi with your fingers; use chopsticks.
DO eat sushi with your hands or your chopsticks, whichever you prefer.
DON'T dip your sashimi in shoyu if the sushi chef has already sauced it. If in doubt, ask.
DON'T dip the rice part of the sushi in shoyu, just a corner of the fish.
DO eat a piece of sushi or sashimi in one bite. If it's too big, ask the sushi chef to cut it for you, or to make the next pieces smaller.
DON'T put pickled ginger on a piece of fish.
DO offer to buy the sushi chef a beer or sake. "It makes a good bribe," says Nao Saba, general manager of Mori Sushi.
DON'T ask for a California Roll. It's a dead giveaway that you're a neophyte.
DO ask questions about the fish -- where is it from, what part of the fish is that cut from, etc.
DO use Japanese words for fish if you know them.
DON'T order all the sushi you want at once. Sushi should be eaten right after it leaves the palm of the chef's hand.
DO finish your meal with tamago (egg custard), vegetable maki (cut rolls), such as cucumber roll or oshinko roll (sour plum with cucumber and shiso).
DO eat around. You may need to try a few places before you find a sushi bar and chef you like.
DO go back once you find a sushi bar you like. The experiences that follow promise to be even better than the first.
-- Carolynn Carreno