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Oct 16, 2007 10:36 AM

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 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.