I've been hearing anecdotally for years that sushi chefs reserve their best fish for favored customers. That's why whenever I go for sushi, I always sit at the bar, to watch the chef and scope out the seafood. I order from the board, if there is one. Or I ask the chef what he recommends. I almost never touch the menu.
I do get special treatment at my favorite sushi bars, places I've been showing up to once or twice a week for years. The chef will slide me the real grated wasabi root instead of the stuff made from powdered mix. Or he'll throw in an extra piece of something that's never seen the inside of a deep freezer: fresh grouper, snapper, triggerfish, wahoo, swordfish, tilefish. If he's hauled back a box of uni from the airport that afternoon, maybe he'll ask me to try it. I appreciate the gesture.
But I also know that if I call in an anonymous takeout order, these same restaurants will box up rolls and sashimi clearly inferior to what I get at the bar. Here's what happens to customers the chef doesn't know: They get yesterday's escolar. They get spicy tuna that's a mishmash of all the leftover tuna that was never quite first rate anyway, now doused in spices. Customers who drift in, fail to make eye contact, order a California roll or one of those deep-fried, cream cheese-stuffed, tempura battered monstrosities straight off the menu, the ones with cutesy names that real sushi chefs abhor — those customers are getting dissed.
I got a personal demo of this phenomenon the first time I ate at Masamune, a decade-old Japanese restaurant in Deerfield Beach. I sat at the bar and ordered, directly from sushi chef Mike, two pieces of everything on the board: mackerel and sweet shrimp sushi; escolar, wahoo, dolphin, and snapper sashimi; ikura (salmon roe) with a quail egg and uni (sea urchin) wrapped in seaweed. When our boat arrived, none of it was above average. To greater or lesser degrees, all the fish had a slightly bitter, metallic aftertaste instead of the incredibly sweet, oily finish of well-handled sashimi. Good sushi-grade seafood never tastes fishy, although some, like mackerel, can be intensely aromatic. It practically dissolves in your mouth and tastes clean. You can trust your senses. I've spit sashimi into my napkin on occasion. Believe me, your mouth will know.
I'm not saying the fish at Masamune was spoiled — it was certainly not spitting-out material. It just wasn't good, to the small degree that most diners wouldn't notice, especially if the morsel came wrapped in a roll with two other kinds of fish, imitation crab, panko crumbs, avocado, and spicy mayo. As to why it wasn't good, well, they might be sourcing cheaper seafood, stuff that had sat on the boat for a long time before it got to shore or wasn't properly frozen to begin with. Or maybe it spent too much time in the sushi case after it was thawed.
But as we finished our meal, a couple of guys sat down next to us and proved a point. They made a lot of noise, these hale and hearty young men. They called the chef "Mikey" and demanded their favorite hand roll, made with diced tuna, scallions, avocado, and shiso leaf, a special rice-free roll, I overheard, that they'd invented one night and that Mikey would make for nobody but them. Then they ordered a plate of sashimi: escolar, hamachi (yellowtail), and two servings of tuna. When that plate appeared, my mouth dropped open: Here were glistening slabs of fish so dewy that they radiated halos of light. Each piece was cut twice as thick as the sashimi we'd been served. The escolar was the color of driven snow, the yellowtail tinged with pale pink, the tuna blushing like a pair of pursed lips tuning up for a kiss. The contrast between their fish and ours was so stark that we started laughing. I turned to my neighbor and asked what he usually ordered. Here's what he said:
"I've been coming here for nine years. Now I'm a sushi expert. I started out eating rolls, and little by little, I kept raising the bar until now I just eat sashimi. Here's what I never eat: salmon. It's all farmed, and it's disgusting, unless you can get the wild, which is rare. Eel, it's dirty, filthy. The snapper's no good. What I always order is white tuna, which isn't really tuna — it's escolar — and I order the yellowtail and the real tuna. That's it. That's top-of-the-line fish, and it's all I'll eat."
OK, man, thanks for the tip!
We went back a couple of nights later and took his advice. I asked for a handroll just like Mike had made for the two guys, but he put spicy tuna in it instead of little cubes of fresh tuna (it was still really good). Then I asked what he'd recommend for sashimi: He said wahoo and dolphin. But I'd had both last time, and I wanted yellowtail. He had to go back in the kitchen to get it — too precious to hang around in the front sushi bin. The fish was perfect this time — sweet and pliant. But even as I savored it, I wondered what I'd get if I came back.
The whole ordeal at Masamune convinced me to formulate some rules for sushi eaters. So if you want to get serious about sushi, here's my advice:
1) Pick a restaurant and stick with it. Sit at the bar and order off the board. Greet the chef when you sit down. It's polite.
2) Don't eat anything before your sashimi — soup, rolls, fried dumplings. You're preserving your taste buds for the delicate flavors of good fish.
3) Eat sashimi first (plain slabs of raw fish), then sushi (with rice).
4) Don't make a mudbath of your soy-wasabi and slather it all over your sushi. On sushi, use soy only. Lightly dip sashimi in soy-wasabi. This is about tasting the fish.
5) You know those hot towels they give you? They're to disinfect your fingers so you can eat with them. Only sashimi is eaten with chopsticks. Pick up your sushi (that's the stuff with the rice) in your fingers and dunk fish-side-down in soy sauce. Then eat it in one bite, if possible. A good sushi chef will make each piece to fit your mouth.
6) Order a "Sexy-time Lady Dragon Jade Roll" and earn the undying condescension of the chef, who will never forgive you. Don't order rolls that mix lots of different fishes. How could you possibly taste what's going on in all that goo?
7) Don't ask, "What's fresh?" It's insulting. Instead, ask the chef for guidance. What does he recommend today?
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8) Use your eyes. If it looks dried out and flaccid in the case, it is.
9) Try new things. If they've got monkfish liver or sea eel or sweet shrimp with the heads on or scallops still alive in their shell, give it a whirl. The chef will know you're adventurous, his reserve will begin to crack, and he might even start to share his hard-earned wisdom with you.
10) The nicest compliment you can give a sushi chef is to tell him that you can "taste the relationship" between his fish and his rice. Maybe. Or maybe he'll just look at you like you're nuts.
Try your hand with Mikey at Masamune and see if he doesn't start treating you like sushi royalty. Remember that he's the master and you're the student. Study hard and you just may graduate into advanced coursework. Maybe sometime around the year 2020.