- Tom Armitage
Of all the good sushi restaurants in the greater Los Angeles area, the two I frequent most are Tsukasa in the downtown Little Tokyo area and Tsukiji in Gardena. My meal last Friday night at Tsukiji was typically wonderful. Upon arrival, my wife and I were given small bowls of baby octopus and onion with sweetened rice vinegar. Simple, but delicious. The sushi chef serving us, Mitch, remembered from roughly a year ago that we like a seasonal vegetable called fuki no tou, the flower stalk of the fuki (butterbur) plant that grows only in the early spring in the mountains of Honshu, Shikoku, and Kyushu. These slightly bitter flowers are served as tempura, eaten only with a little coarse salt served on the side. A real treat--get them while you can. In response to a request for sashimi, Mich served some of the best albacore sashimi Ive ever had. He followed with some beautiful silvery Japanese anchovies. The rest of the meal included uni (sea urchin roe); otoro (the fattiest part of fatty tuna belly); aji (Spanish mackerel), which Mitch finely chopped and mixed with scallions and miso and served as little round balls; ika (squid); nigiri sushi with some huge scallops from Peru that were amazingly sweet and flavorful, seared lightly with a blowtorch (Im not usually fond of the results of efforts to provide seafood for sushi restaurants from South America; the uni from Chile is almost always to be avoided); ikura (salmon roe); kanamiso (crab brains) piled on top of crab meat and prettily surrounded by thinly sliced cucumbers, and norimake with cod roe and daikon radish. Although they are in season now, the restaurant did not have either shirako (cod sperm sacs) or ankimo (monkfish liver). But, given all the other wonderful stuff that Mitch provided, I didnt miss them at all.
Tsukiji isn't cheap, but it's not as expensive as other sushi restaurants. In my opinion, the cost is reasonable for the quality. Total cost for the dinner last Friday night (not including the premium sake, tax, or tip) was around $100 for the two of us. In my experience, this is the high end of the scale for a typical meal at Tsukiji. The usual range is from around $70 to $90 for two (again, this is just for the sushi). This is pretty much the ball park for the better sushi restaurants in town, including Tsukasa. Some of the more fancy-schmancy places, like Nishimura or Mori, cost $150 and up for two. Then, of course, there's Ginza Sushiko, at $300 plus for ONE person. A lot of sushi restaurants are getting premium prices for their omakase dinners, typically charging $70 to $100 per person. My ordering is typically what I'd call "quasi-omakase." Many of the sushi chefs at the restaurants I frequent know me well enough serve some dishes without request, to make suggestions as to other dishes, and I also make requests as well. Of course, the cost of a meal depends on what you order. Some things are more expensive than others.
You asked how I acquired my knowledge about sushi. Ive written about this previously on Chowhound, but it perhaps bears repeating for the benefit of new readers.
I acquired my knowledge in the Chowhound way. Asking. Talking. Listening. Giving full vent to my curiosity and my excitement at the prospect of exploring the unknown and unexperienced. Taking time to concentrate on the tastes and textures of what Im eating. Taking chances. Not expecting every eating experience to be a sure bet. Regarding the thrill of discovering something new and wonderful as more than adequate recompense for a whole bunch of boring or bad experiences. Being patient to develop an appreciation for new tastes and textures, and not rejecting them out of hand because they arent immediately pleasurable. Being polite, respectful, and appreciative to those who take the time and effort to help me learn about their food.
Many of the sushi restaurants I frequent have a predominantly Japanese clientele. It often takes time to build rapport with the staff of a restaurant that serves primarily Asian customers. That rapport increases with each repeat visit. At sushi restaurants, I always sit at the sushi bar where I can talk with the sushi chef. I ask questions about things I see him preparing and things in the display case. I tell him that Id appreciate learning about, and being served, things that he might think most Americans wouldnt like. Over time, I thank him for being my teacher and helping me to learn about his craft and his cuisine. A master sushi chef at a now defunct restaurant got to the point where he felt comfortable teaching me about details such as how much soy sauce to put in my dish (I was overfilling it), what types of sushi shouldn't be dipped in soy sauce, subtle differences in the quality of toro, etc. Unless I sense that my intrusion would be unwelcome, I almost always engage in conversation with my neighbors at the sushi bar. I ask them about what they are eating. They usually sense my genuine interest and are eager to share their knowledge with me. Often, they also share their food as well, giving me a sample to taste. I usually respond to their generosity by buying them a round of drinks, they often reciprocate, and we end up having a delightful conversation that extends far beyond food. The sushi chef keenly observes all of this, and it has a very positive effect in building a relationship with him. When Im served something new, I usually scribble the name on a napkin, and try to learn more about it afterwards. I also try to learn the Japanese names of things, as well as a few basic Japanese phrases. This kind of effort is appreciated and rewarded.
This approach isnt limited to sushi restaurants. Its the method I use in exploring all kinds of food. Its basically the same method we use to learn about anything. We seek information from those who know a lot more about the subject than we do. This can be accomplished by reading, and Ive learned quite a bit about sushi and other food by reading. But, when it comes to food, I find that the mixture of asking questions combined with the actual experience of eating is a much richer learning experience.
Like all learning experiences, knowledge grows over time. Ive still got a lot to learn about sushi (and other types of food), and Im still an eager and enthusiastic student.
Ive provided a link below to a previous Chowhound post of mine that addresses this same subject. In fact, I think youd enjoy reading the entire string of posts which that post was a part. Go back to beginning of the string and enjoy. Unfortunately, the sushi restaurant I refer to in this string, Shibucho, no longer exists.
Hope my response to your question is helpful.