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Help me order sushi without looking like a moron

I like sushi. I have a friend who I will go with occasionally for sushi and I end up ordering spicy tuna rolls and Alaskan rolls because I can pronounce them and I get very intimidated by the whole sushi process. Several new sushi places have opened near my office and all I have tried are the tuna and other things that I don't have to worry about mucking it up or pronouncing Japanese words and offending the staff. All of the places have lunch specials which will include a set number of pieces of sushi, but give no indication if I can choose the ingredient (such as tuna, salmon or eel) or if the chef chooses it. I often end up getting sushi from the grocery store because I don't have to "face" anybody. I can just read the boxes and "see" the sushi. Also many place have "cute" names for various rolls and no indication of what they are made of...is it okay for me to ask or with they think I am a sushi idiot (which I am but just don't want to look like one).

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  1. I think its perfectly reasonable to ask questions and to get information about what you are interested in. I'm sure someone with a knowledgable sushi background will end up answering this more specifically, but I feel I'm a bit more in your situation. I don't know a lot about sushi but I am interested in trying new types. Don't be intimiated just by the fact you are encountering something new. Perhaps the best way to go about it would be to pick a place based on reviews that should have good quality sushi and walk by it to see if the ambience would make it comfortable you (like a more casual v. formal setting). Then, go during an off period and sit at the sushi bar and ask questions. If the sushi chef is not busy, he or she is likely to want to show you not only sushi as food but as art. You can try some different things and see what you like.

    Another approach would be to get the speical with the set number and just go for it. Typically, these are chef's choice, but if its a lunch special and affordable, just trying it may be worth it!

    Good luck! I'm sure you'll learn more as you start trying. Oh - as to the cute name- DEFINATELY ask. If they made up the name, there is no reason you should know what is in it, and its the same as if some other restaurant renamed their grilled chicken "Super Star Special" -- it tells you nothing.

    1. For the most part, restaurants where people have been berated by sushi chefs or servers are quite few and far between. If the menu doesn't have the English names for the fish you should just point to the menu and ask what it is and/or how to pronounce it. I've never had anyone at a sushi bar who didn't respond positively to someone who wants to learn how to pronounce the names of the fish properly.

      You should definitely ask what's in a roll if you don't already know. And even if the roll is named the same as at some other restaurant you might still ask since many places make them differently (ie, cucumber or no, avocado or no, real crab vs. imitation, and so on).

      Most of the places I've seen that have lunch specials, the chef decides (though it's almost always a set list anyway).

      Ultimately, just be nice, smile, ask questions when you don't know and you'll be just fine.

      1. Here's a site I refer to when I don't want to sound like a sushi idiot when I order....See, you're not alone.

        2 Replies
        1. re: Gio

          That site is a great site for sushi lovers and I think is exactly what Janet is looking for.

          If you are able to do so, sit at the sushi bar a few times, then all you need to do is point. Certainly inquire what th chef thinks is really nice that day. I have always found the sushi chefs to be quite proud of their work and happy t share with someone who honestly wants to know.

          Another way to start out, is to share a "assortment" plate with a friend. Try the new stuff, heck it's only one bite and if you like it great! If not, just be glad it was not the whole dish.

          1. re: Quine

            Thanks Quine. One other very important thing I do is make sure I go to a sushi restaurant with friends who know what to order.....which happens to be most of my family. Thank goodness. Makes life so easy, and enjoyable.

        2. Janet from Richmond- I have seen you post on the DC board before don't know if you are close by...

          Some sushi places will offer a chef's tasting menu or omakase(sp?) which will give you a good selection of new things and you can ask for the names easily as it is a tasting menu. I know Sushi ko and kaz do this.

          But yeah just ask, it won't make you look dumb but discriminating. I eat a lot of sushi boxed lunches and they have set things because it is their lunch special but you can also make your own bento box with your selection (but this cost a little more than their premade specials at many places). I get the set boxed lunch at cafe asia which you can't choose but they will make you a box of your own choosing.

          Also I like going with friends sometimes to get sushi as I can order more than I would eat and we can all share and try new things. If I am eating it alone or with the bf I like to sit at the bar so I can point to things going out, ask what they are and talk to the people. When I do this I try to go on a weeknight so I don't bother them being inquisitive. I think some of the smaller places are better for this. Oh and Wegman's if there is one near you will normally make bento boxes of sushi with your choosing and some have sushi bars that you can sit at and talk with the person making the sushi it might be a good way to learn.

          Another suggestion might be to try to find a place that teaches a sushi making class, you could learn about sushi and have fun learning to make it?

          But I am clueless about sushi and they seem to be pretty nice about answering my questions so just ask, you won't be worse than I normally am!

          1 Reply
          1. re: ktmoomau

            An omakase experience can be very good, depending on the restaurant and the way they do it. But, I'd caution that if you have any hangups or dislikes but aren't sure how to articulate them...wait a bit before you dive into the omakase thing. You may end up with several things you don't like or can't stomach. Once you've learned a bit about what you do like, you can talk with the chef and say "I really like X, what else is similar to that?" As you go, you'll figure it out and so will the chef and then you can just sit down and say "serve it up" (which is English slang for omakase which means "leave it to me" or "leave it to you" I can never remember).

          2. You're not an idiot, you're a beginner...and there's nothing wrong with being a beginner. Nobody was born with their knowledge of sushi fully intact, so don't be intimidated. Also remember that most sushi bars have a vested interest in cultivating clientele, and very few can afford to have the reputation of having sushi Nazis behind the bar.

            DCLindsey had some great advice: pick a slow day/time at a sushi bar. Midweek right at 5 PM (or whenever they open for dinner) is pretty good at most places. Tell the itamae (sushi chef) that you're a novice, what you've tried, what you've liked, and what you haven't liked. Also tell him (itamae are almost always men...) if you have any food allergies, and any profound dislikes. You may also want to tell him what your budget is, or else you may end up with a bill for a hundred bucks or more. When he gives you something, let him know whether you liked it or not. This feedback is important, and the more information you give him, the better, because it will allow him to select your next course, guided by your palate.

            Ask questions. Ask what the Japanese names for the various types of sushi are, as well as the English translations. Ask how things are prepared. Ask if there's anything special, or new, or particularly interesting. Ask the itamae what HIS favorite is.

            If you've searched the boards, you've probably also read threads about the 'proper' use of wasabi, soy sauce, and ginger. I don't want to start a flame war, but if you're trying something new, don't slather it with a lot of wasabi, nor cover it with ginger. A small dip in some soy sauce is usually all you need to get the most out of a great piece of fish. Yeah, you'll see guys (again, almost always guys) mixing their wasabi and soy sauce into a greenish brown slurry and repeatedly dunking their sushi into it, but honestly, they're covering up some really delicate flavors by doing that. The ginger is traditionally used as a palate cleanser between kinds of sushi. If you do the "He Man" wasabi thing, you're telling the itamae that you're not interested in delicate flavors, you're interested in burning your nostril hairs, and you may end up getting yesterday's fish at today's prices.

            To sum up: Be confident, be adventurous, and have fun.

            1. sushi experiences tend to be one of the great positive feedback loops in the food world.

              i've had no problems with asking what the fresh fish of the day was, what that cute yet cryptic name of the roll really means (the names are whims btw and don't necessarily mean the same at each resto), and that that particular fish doesn't do it for me... but what else would?

              i may run into a few issues with the back and forth between english and japanese but they'll find a way to communicate what i need to know.

              for the most part the bento boxes are chef's choice unless you pay a little extra as someone else has mentioned. while rolls are fun, do try new fish in nigiri or sashimi form because you will get a better feel for the texture and flavour rather than masking it with many other ingredients. this will also help you identify the fish later for future ordering.

              at the better japanese places in toronto that i frequent, they make a point of telling me what exactly is on my plate when i order a sushi platter chosen by the chef. regardless of busy-ness.

              there's the basic sushi vocab, but beyond nigiri, maki roll, hand roll and sashimi.... no one will scoff at you if you call it ginger instead of gari.... it's a very welcoming cuisine.

              1 Reply
              1. re: pinstripeprincess

                Further to the general question-welcoming nature of sushi bars in the US, I have a question.

                Do sushi joints in Japan tend to have the same atmosphere? In the US I imagine it would be a big problem not to accept newbies with open arms, as the cuisine is so foreign to most Americans. Can a westerner walk into a sushi bar in Japan and be treated as graciously?

              2. All good advice so far. I would be very surprised if a sushi chef treated you poorly for asking questions. Around here they love to make conversation and discuss their fish! We almost always eat at the sushi bar and ask the chef for recommendations. if something in the case looks interesting we'll inquire about it. Order 1 piece, then more if we like it.
                My only word of caution, if you decide to sit at the bar, don't ask the chef "what is good" or What is fresh" as this implies not everything is. it is better to ask, "What do you recommend?"
                Lately we are on a clam quest and trying various types, still I am learning so much even though I've been eating sushi for years!

                1. I don't know, I'm a regular at a very traditional izakaya and I never try to say anything in Japanese except "hai!" I either point, or ask for things in English, or more often just tell the chef to have at it. At a new place this works best if you can sit at a bar when it's not really busy and get some one-on-one attention. A good chef will try to figure out what you like and help you make your selections. It helps to be especially effusive about your favorites. We always ask questions, because they pretty much assume we don't know what we're doing and get a kick out of the things we get right (this place is VERY Japanese and cute rolls are verboten). If you're going to places with all the floofy rolls with made-up names, then pretty much every different restaurant means something different by the names and no one is an expert, unless they've just been to that particular restaurant a lot.

                  1. Great advice so far. The first thing I thought of is to enlist a friend who knows about sushi, if you have one. The first few times I went out for sushi, it was with a knowledgable friend, and that really helped.

                    1. Thank you all for the information and insight and especially for letting me know I am not the odd man ::ahem::: woman out here. To Gio: thank you for that link...lots of good info. Ktmoomau, I am in Richmond, VA but get up to DC and NOVA occasionally. Ricepad, thanks for clarifying I am a beginner, not an idiot :-) The good news is I am adventerous about trying things as long as they don't involve cottage cheese or boiled eggs, so I should be fine with sushi.

                      1. JR

                        everyone has faced that question. think about the first time you went to a french resto, did you know everything and if jfood thinks about resto over the last few weeks, mrs jfood has asked him what things were and he has replied often "I don;t know" so we ask the server.

                        Likewise jfood sometimes goes to a sushi bar at sits in front of the chef and asks while he is preparing other people's dishes. And in each and every case they have been overly friendly and gracious in describing what the fish was and helping jfood learn. They were wonderful.

                        So ask your companions or go on your own, sit at the bar and ask the chef. Just enjoy.

                        2 Replies
                        1. re: jfood

                          Going alone is a great idea - I've learned a lot dining alone at the sushi bar, during off hours. The sushi chef slips me treats and has lots of time to answer my questions. Before 6:30 on Tues - Wednesday seems to be a really good time, at least on my side of Richmond (Chesterfield).

                          1. re: jeanmarieok

                            I will be going alone or with friends as Dh does not do sushi (I have it for lunch very often). I usually order from Soya....where do you recommend jeanmarie? I work near Brandermill.

                        2. maybe this will make you feel a bit better...

                          i worked in a steak restaurant that had a large asian clientelle. most of the asians who ordered honey BBQ ribs would point to the menu and actually say "honey bee bee cue ribs". i thought it was the cutest thing!

                          point is asian and english are such different languages, it's really difficult to pronounce properly on either side of the board. the server is going to be SO used to non-native speaking customers mispronouncing things he/she will not get offended, or think you're dumb. i've never thought ill of an asian customer asking for "hotta watel wiffa remon" (hot water with lemon) . the most incapeable (of speaking english) of them will just point to the menu. in my experience being served by asians- i just point to the menu and say how do you say this? and if i'm not brave enough to try to pronounce it i'll just say "yes, please!"