WALKING INTO A SUSHI BAR can be like stepping onto the red carpet. You don’t have to be a celebrity or spend a fortune to get special treatment. Just learn the ins and outs of how to get the best sushi bars have to offer.
In Sushi for Dummies, a book I co-authored with Tokyo native Mineko Takane Moreno, we demystify the sushi bar experience by breaking it into three parts: where to sit, how to order what you’d like and how to eat what’s ordered politely—with fingers or chopsticks. From the moment you sit down at the sushi counter until you pay the bill, the following insider tips will have you traveling the sticky rice road from one sushi bar adventure to another, receiving that special treatment. Each sushi bar is different, but the bare-bones experience in a good sushi bar should be similar no matter where you go—from more traditional establishments, like Sushi Ota in Pacific Beach or Taka in the Gaslamp Quarter downtown, to trendier, Americanized sushi bars, like Japengo in the Golden Triangle or Sushi on the Rock in Carlsbad and La Jolla.
Getting the Best Seats in the House
* Not all sushi bars take reservations, but if they do, ask for one of the prized posts at the sushi counter in front of the refrigerated glass case, where you can see the raw and cooked seafood offerings of the day.
* The very best seats at the counter are the five or six seats in front of the itamae, or head sushi chef. Sushi chefs’ clothing doesn’t necessarily reflect who’s the head honcho, but he or she will probably be standing behind the most impressive display of seafood in the cold case, in the most prominent place along the counter, giving orders to the other chefs. At the high temple to traditional sushi in our city, Sushi Ota, Yukito Ota stands in the elbow of his L-shaped sushi bar. So does Toshiyuki Tsutsumi at Toshi-san in La Jolla. Japengo’s James Holder stands in the front of his U-shaped counter, while Tsuyoshi Maruyama of Taka faces the front door.
* Some of the freshest, best sushi (and tastiest miso soup) I’ve had came not from a sushi bar but from the kitchen of tiny Japanese café Wakei, on a rustic stretch of old Highway 101 in Leucadia. Itamae Hirokazu Ninomiya comes out of the kitchen to discuss with you, as you would with a sushi chef at a counter, what you like.
* Sit at a table if you want to order off the restaurant’s standard menu. The sushi counter is designed for guests to order dish by dish, discussing what they’d prefer directly with the sushi chef. You can order the same sushi (vinegared rice dishes) and sashimi (raw slices of seafood) at a table. Ask the wait staff about prices if they’re not posted; it’s impolite to ask the sushi chef in front of other counter guests.
* Be aware that the sushi counter is for socializing while you eat, not for socializing over drinks after you’re through eating if others are waiting for a seat. The sushi chef is just that —a chef—waiting to create beautiful sushi for others.
Getting the Best Meal Possible
* Decoding a sushi bar menu can be a real challenge. The sushi chef is there to help, so tell him or her your likes and dislikes, and he or she will make recommendations. Or follow sushi tradition and ask, “What’s good today?” to find out what’s in season. If you’re feeling flush, ask for omakase, meaning chef’s choice.The chef will create special dishes just for you, composed of the very best— often most expensive—sushi and sashimi.
* A waiter will take your orders for drinks (and any side dishes that come out of the kitchen, like seaweed salads or soups). You don’t want the lingering taste of one sushi dish affecting the taste of another, so your drink should refresh as well as cleanse your palate. Sake with sashimi is a traditional opening to a sushi meal. Switch to beer, green tea, crisp white wines or even champagne when the sushi dishes start arriving. Or dive into the sakitinis and other spirited drinks that taste great with bolder, fusion-style sushi.
* A sushi meal is composed of many small dishes that add up to one satisfying meal. You may want as few as three or as many as six.
Minding Your Sushi Manners
* Split the disposable wooden chopsticks apart, but don’t rub them together. Doing so implies they’re cheap. If the chopsticks really do splinter, rub them together discreetly, but don’t make a performance out of it.
* Always lay your chopsticks down tightly together, preferably parallel with the edge of the counter in front of you. If no chopstick rest is provided, use the wrapper the chopsticks came in. Never cross your chopsticks, and don’t leave the chopsticks stuck in food—especially a bowl of rice. This is traditionally done only at a funeral.
* Dip the fish or other finger sushi topping into soy sauce or other dipping sauce, not the sushi rice ball. The rice ball gets too wet and falls apart, and the rice absorbs too much sauce, drowning out the delicate tastes of the sushi.
* Finger sushi started out 200 years ago as a street snack meant to be eaten with the fingers, so go ahead and use yours. Finger sushi is best enjoyed in one bite, but some-times they’re too big to do so. Ask the sushi chef to make them smaller if it’s a problem.
* Do eat sushi with your fingers, but chopsticks should be used to pick up sashimi because it is not considered finger food. You can ask for a fork, but give chopsticks a try first. The best, and most obvious, insider’s tip of all is to keep going back to your favorite sushi bar. Soon you could be receiving special items—such as true wasabi root to grate as you eat your sushi—usually reserved for the best customers.
Adapted from Sushi for Dummies by Judi Strada and Mineko Takane Moreno, Wiley Publishing, 2004.
Stops on the San Diego Sushi Road
Japengo 8960 University Center Lane Golden Triangle | 858-450-3355
Sushi on the Rock 7734 Girard Avenue La Jolla | 858-456-1138
1923 Calle Barcelona Carlsbad | 760-436-6261
Sushi Ota 4529 Mission Bay Drive Pacific Beach | 858-270-5670
Taka 555 Fifth Avenue Gaslamp Quarter | 619-338-0555
Toshi-san Restaurant 7614 Fay Avenue La Jolla | 858-456-4545
Wakei 1246 North Coast Highway 101 Encinitas | 760-635-3959