Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Sushi: The Official Food of One Block West

I love sushi and sashimi to no end. I love the artistry and the contrast of textures. I love the interaction with the chef at the sushi bar. I love sitting all day and eating little by little. I love urging the chef to create something novel. I love the spontaneous conversations with strangers at the sushi bar.

And as it turns out, you can find a large percentage of the One Block West staff at our favorite sushi bar on Sunday afternoons, when our favorite chef is behind the counter. And for our company Christmas party we had—you guessed it—sushi and just a wee little bit of Cava. Have you ever noticed how well sparkling wine goes with sushi?

My staff have more time to make the sushi bar than do I, mainly because I have to negotiate the maze of food likes and dislikes of my kids and my younger daughter will not countenance sushi. Sunday afternoons are the only time I get to spend with my daughters during the week and I'm not going without my kids. Yeah, this restaurant business is terrible like that.

Long story short, thirteen-year old daughter number one will try just about any food while ten-year old daughter number two has a list of dislikes that dwarfs her list of likes. Sound familiar? Last Sunday, daughter number two and a friend took off to the coffee shop for stale sandwiches, so daughter number one and I hit the sushi bar. I was going to call some servers to join me, but it was just barely 1pm, and they mainly don't get moving by that time of day on Sunday.

Let me digress a bit to explain how I selected this sushi bar.

My approach to any new sushi bar is the same. I walk up to the bar and greet the chef, all the while looking at the quality of the fish and the neatness of his station. I handle fish all day long, every day, so I can tell at a glance how fresh the fish is. If the bar and the chef pass the 30-second visual test, I will sit down and order. Otherwise, I will sit at a table, order some soba and never return.

Once at the bar, I ask for a single order of maguro (tuna). This is a test of two things: the quality of the tuna, naturally, but more importantly, the quality of the rice. So many places slack on the rice, figuring that gaijin can't tell the difference. If the maguro and rice do not pass muster, I order a bowl of soba and a beer from the server and call it a day.

Once beyond the maguro test, I order the saba (mackerel). I am looking to see if the chef pickles his own mackerel or whether he buys it already pickled. If this is successful, I move on to ordering tamagoyaki or tamago, the acid test of a chef's skill.

Like making a western omelet, making a Japanese omelet takes skill and practice. Anyone can make an omelet, but it takes a lot of experience to make a perfect omelet. I'm looking first to see if the tamago is made in house and then how well cooked it is. It should be just set with no browning. The seasoning should be just so. Often tamago is too sweet. And the layers should be tightly rolled.

Once the tamago hurdle is passed, the sushi chef knows that I know exactly what I am doing and I know that he knows exactly what he is doing. We're at a point of mutual respect. Next, I invite the chef to serve me what he will, asking for omakase onegaishimasu, literally asking him for the favor of entrusting myself to him. I also tell him that when I am ready to stop eating, I will order uni (sea urchin roe) as my "dessert." That way, he does not have to guess when I am finished.

From that first visit on, I never order again. After greeting the chef, I sit down and the food starts coming until I ask for the uni. Which is precisely what happened this past Sunday when my daughter and I sat down.

The first dish we were served was a plate of beautiful hamachi (yellowtail or kingfish, but most commonly called hamachi). I noticed immediately that we were favored with four slices of loin and four slices of beautiful belly, the prime real estate on most fish, the so-called toro.

I managed to eat one slice of each before starting to look through a knife catalog with one of the other chefs. I'm considering purchasing a yanagi (a sashimi knife) and boning up on my sushi skills, mostly out of professional curiosity.

When I turned back around to get another slice of sashimi, I found that sushi monster daughter number one had struck. The plate was bare. Although I pretended to be mad that she ate all the toro hamachi, secretly I was very pleased because this is only her third experience and previously, she had limited herself primarily to tuna and various less palate challenging maki. We went on to enjoy a two and a half hour lunch.

Afterwards, she said, "Tuna is still my favorite, then comes hamachi." But after a second of pondering that she said, "No, hamachi collar is my second favorite, then hamachi." Hamachi collar is the deep fried neck of the fish, an outstanding treat.

Even though I love sushi and spending time with my kids, there is something more sinister at play here. Deep down in my meanest core, I'm just preparing my daughter to be the most expensive date that little SOB down the street ever had. Kid, if you want to take my daughter out, you'd better man up and eat some sashimi and you'd better bring a couple of C notes with you while you're at it! You don't think she's paying, do you?

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