A Pregnant Opinion

Chef Lee is not a doctor, nor does he play one on TV, but he is a great sushi chef
Sherri Cohen

A few weeks ago, the proprietors of a restaurant that I had negatively reviewed published their displeasure in our Letters to the Editor section. That's fine with me -- everyone should be able to express his opinion, not just me, and besides, I had the chance to respond formally to their allegations. End of story, I thought. But as it turns out, I'm writing an epilogue, simply because I can't stop thinking about the last lines of the letter: "The next time you can't get a sitter and are having a bad day of morning-evening sickness, stay home and stay away from us. Everything seems bad to pregnant women; perhaps you should take your taste buds and attitude on maternity leave!"

It's true that I am pregnant. It's also true that for many women, working during pregnancy can be a very tiring affair. Some days just getting out of bed is a struggle, because making another human being is particularly demanding on the body. And let's face it: Morning sickness sucks. As do aversions to certain foods and irrepressible cravings for others. (Watermelon, anyone?) But these symptoms are temporary; within months they all go away. So despite fatigue and nausea -- the same symptoms you might experience with a mild flu -- pregnancy does not render a woman incapable of doing her job the same way she did sans fetus. It just makes it harder on her.

I mention this for two reasons. On behalf of pregnant women everywhere, I'm offended by the implication that we aren't professional enough to handle being preggers and forging ahead careerwise at the same time. But I'm more surprised that the female owner of the aforementioned restaurant is willing to perpetuate the Victorian myth that a pregnant woman must be neither seen nor heard.

Fortunately, to counteract such backward thinking, there are men out there like Chef Lee, the chef-owner of four-month-old Kyoto Sushi and Sake Lounge in Delray Beach. Chef Lee, as he likes to be called and as he is known to his customers, became particularly enlightened a couple of years ago when he and his wife were awaiting their first child. Chef Lee had specialized in fish and sushi since 1987, when a Vietnamese chef mentored him, and had honed his skills at Aqua and Hiro Sushi in Miami and Yama in Delray Beach. "I couldn't believe all these doctors were telling pregnant women not to eat raw fish because of parasites," he says. "It's a fallacy. All the salmon these days is farm-raised, so they have no parasites. Tuna is so clean the health inspectors don't even check it." In fact, Chef Lee told me, what most people consider parasites in wild fish are worms that, while you wouldn't want to eat them, wouldn't cause much damage if you did. So Chef Lee went to his wife's Lamaze class and actually gave lectures on safe sushi-eating to a bunch of eternally grateful women, who immediately rushed out, he avers, to enjoy the food they'd been denied for months.

Another pregnancy myth dispelled.

Left to my own bun-in-oven devices, I won't eat much of anything raw, though I'm more afraid of contracting a food-borne illness like salmonella than I am of ingesting a worm. But when I'm reviewing, anything goes; I'll taste a piece or two of sushi, as I did at Kyoto. I didn't know then that Chef Lee had a personal mission regarding pregnant women, or I might have scarfed down a whole platter of glistening, thick-cut chirashi -- mixed sashimi placed decoratively over vinegared sushi rice. I also would've eaten more if I'd been aware that Chef Lee had personally designed the sushi bar of his mod, clean-lined restaurant so that even items on display are under refrigeration. (Some sushi bars leave fish and shellfish out on the counters for hours, which is why diners get sick.) Now that I am alert to his practices, though, I'll consider Chef Lee the same way his other patrons think of him: like their hairdresser. "I know what they want, and they trust me," he says simply. It's reassuring, I admit, to watch him grab a whole fish out of an iced-down, stainless-steel tub and fillet it in microseconds. You can even observe him on Lee TV -- he broadcasts himself on one of the recessed sets that are posed over the long cherry-wood bar.

Still, it's not only pregnant women who disdain raw fish. For those nonreplicating diners who cringe at the idea of it, Chef Lee and his partners Doug and Mike (as casual about their identities as the chef) offer a separate menu advertising 40 different kinds of sushi rolls. More than half of these feature only cooked food items. The Volcano Roll, for example, a California roll covered with a mass of tender broiled conch that had been mixed with mayonnaise, can be a filling starter or, paired with another roll, a main course. Likewise, the ultralarge Tokyo Rock & Roll, another inside-out roll, had been stuffed with crisp fried eel and tempura eggplant. Eel lovers take note: Kyoto has nearly ten rolls that contain eel, including the Nuts About Eel (eel and roasted almonds) and the Delray Roll (eel, roasted garlic, steamed spinach, and grilled shiitake mushrooms).

As with the sushi rolls, the menu items range from the traditional, such as chicken katsu (breaded, deep-fried chicken breast) to the innovative, such as bonzai chicken. The latter, a main course, was a chicken breast layered with Gruyère cheese, asparagus, and spinach, then rolled up and dipped into a light batter. After being deep-fried, the roll was cut into slices and served with a rich creamy sauce that tasted just a bit like Thousand Island dressing. Both the presentation and the preparation were faultless.

Cooked fish entrées also were beautifully done. Sesame-crusted salmon, wrapped like a present with a thin strip of nori, was crisp on the edges and moist in the middle. A pile of flash-fried fresh spinach leaves was meltingly good. Our only arguments were with the sesame seeds, which had been browned a little too long and had a bitter cast, and the accompanying wasabi-mashed potatoes, which were watery. The "Kyoto teka don" main course was a bit more masterful -- hunks of ruby-hued tuna steak seared and laid over sushi rice. A rich plum sauce, informed by roasted garlic, napped the fish and rice, and steamed bok choy added some fresh greenness.

Though the menu says that entrées come with both soup and salad, we received only the bowls of warm miso soup, flavored with seaweed and cubes of tofu. No matter, since we had a couple of appetizers to contend with: the cucumber "pasta" salad and the Shanghai rolls -- thin, deep-fried tubes stuffed with chopped shrimp and chicken and complemented by a tangy banana ketchup. The pasta salad actually consisted of cucumber cut to resemble angel hair, tossed with tiny pieces of crab, thin-sliced conch, and masago (fish roe). The creamy mayonnaise dressing that united the ingredients contained a rather surprising but refreshing little bite of pepper. Wash everything down with a glass of wine from the extensive and well-chosen list, which Chef Lee worked on for the length of a pregnancy. If you don't know what to choose, read the menu for helpful hints; side notes recommend which wines and sakes go with each dish.

Our server, along with other members of the staff, was both willing and able to make recommendations, even though she was not perfectly in tune yet with the finer points of Japanese cuisine. Still, she was on the mark when she lauded the banana-walnut spring rolls for dessert -- the crunchy rolls oozed warm bananas and sturdy walnuts and were enhanced by the caramel dipping sauce that came with them. We thought a dessert special, tempura cheesecake, was a little too hot, as the cheesecake had melted in places. Freezing the cheesecake before dunking it in the deep-fryer would help it retain its integrity.

Speaking of integrity, is it really fair of me to review restaurants while I'm in the family way? To put it simply, yes. While my personal tastes might change -- this week I crave oranges -- my professional tastes don't. I've worked at my job under the influence of flu, food poisoning, meningitis, knee surgery, and countless other mishaps and illnesses. Just as you have. But thanks to Chef Lee and Kyoto Sushi, now I can do my job just a little better while I bake this babe to perfection: I can eat raw fish.

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