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Are you sushi & omakase fans being scammed?

In response to an LA thread, I posted something along the lines of:

These sushi / omakase "masters" and your willingness to pay exhorbitant (sp?) prices is just a huge scam! These guys are NOT traditional Japanese; and their attitudes are Japanese only in the sense of those who took us into WWII. They are just people (who look kind of like me) who have figured out what you in the US are willing to pay for OK stuff at 20 times what its worth! It is hype! But many of you keep these operations in buisiness; and the mis-guided hakujin "knowledge" about sushi just helps to keep the prices high and the hakujin rubes and the nihonjin crooks happy! You are all being scammed!

As you can see, I'm frustrated by people in the US paying way to much for sushi based on a symbiosis of haute cuisine consumers in the US and talented Japanese scammers.

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  1. If a person goes to a restaurant and has an enjoyable meal, and pays what they think is a fair price, then it's not a scam, no matter how inauthentic some Internet pundit claims it to be. I also fail to see a connection between profit-minded restauranteurs and militaristic Japanese invaders.

    1 Reply
    1. re: Vladimir Estragon

      I think when this subject is from a Nisei-centric view, one can understand Sam's rant. Fish on rice - what's the big deal? Coastal Japanese Americans were always used to getting most of their seafood for "free," by catching their own, or being fortunate enough to be part of a circle of friends who shared their catch immediately after returning home with the bounty. When paying for it, one only had to wait for the sakanaya-san to drive up in his big green stepvan, or go to the local grocery store that specialized in Japanese goods.

      What has changed in my eyes are the knife skills, the number of types of tare on the lists, and the general levels of to which this particular cuisine has been elevated to. The degree of specialization makes the better itamae a "specialized resource," which in economic terms, justifies a premium for the person's end-products or services. There's no way that I could duplicate at home what these guys do behind their counters, but for the average person of Japanese extraction who has lived in California for at least the past 40+ years, the kind of money that many sushi fanatics are willing to spend on a sushi meal, omakase or otherwise, is almost fiction. In fact, I would venture to say that even Japanese expats would have almost as hard of a time justifying this kind of spending over here as well. The most expensive sushi bars in LA are typically in areas with little or no Japanese population density. This is not a rule but a general observation. I think it's because of the perception of many Japanese that sushi for the most part is pretty basic, and most are completely satisfied with the most basic of sushi most of the time. Many male expats live with their wives and kids while working here. They usually enjoy the benefit of a wife who is able and willing to prepare sushi for them - no big deal. The technology is basic and the resources can be easily had and prepared. So except on special occasions, why go nutso on $$$$ omakase where swallowing goldleaf-flecked tai flown in from Japan this morning? To the avid sushi-ist who may or may not have a connection to Japan, it's lust, it's paradiso. To many with more humble roots, we're standing around scratching our heads muttering, "WTF?" So there is a lot of truth in your position, but at the same time, try to understand where Sam is coming from.

      Oh yes, the reference to the WWII attitude probably has to do with a fair share of itamae who have developed a reputation as Sushi Nazis. Again, growing up around Japanese men who had the quasi-Bushido mentality programmed into their psyches, one can easily relate to the Sushi Nazi metaphor.

    2. I feel your pain, my brotha, and I don't have any words of wisdom to make you feel any better. It's been nearly 25 years since I stepped out from behind the sushi bar, and that world has changed quite a bit. Back in the late '70s and early '80s, there was no mystique about sushi, no aura, no hype. The sushi bar experience was new to the general population, and I and my fellow itamae simply tried to educate diners and spread the gospel just to survive in a tough business. Who knew it'd become the cult d' jour?

      1. How about $100/item tempura in Ginza? They throw out the oil after each customer... I'm waiting for that to be the next big fad here. We'll most certainly be able to discern the zaku-zaku scale - the thing that really differentiates the $110/item place from the $100/item place.

        Unfortunately, it's not just a factor of great Japanese marketing and silly American gullibility.

        1) There's no more bluefin. It had better cost $500/maguro toro nigiri - that's what it's going to take to replenish them.

        2) There's always been a piece of the Japanese groupthink that's pushed for the next step - for the best - it's cultural. They bring in all kinds of food and improve it. There's always been the exceptional, the stuff for the lords - Meiji made it available to businessmen, they just had to pay for it. American capitalism after WWII hit that mark like stink on shit. Are you kidding? You don't think we deserve this? We made them use our electronics, cars, baisuboru, name it... now they're selling it back to us, and it's the best stuff ever. And you know what, I have no problem paying Daisuke what he wants. Just beat the Yankees and keep those upstarts from Florida in their place!

        1 Reply
        1. re: applehome

          And if you could only get Americans to pronounce "Daisuke" properly.

        2. I would agree you in most cases. Currently I pay around $50 per person at one of the best little sushi bars around in my opinion. Usually a sashimi , something cooked, and several nigiri. And I am not talking about salmon or albacore, the itamae has never served us that. It's always seasonal and I am lucky enough to get rare items like hoya and fresh anago on occasion. Right now it's hon-amaebi from the east coast. Of course if I am going to go crazy on the Adriatic toro or special request live kegani, I am looking at a far higher price. Next time you are in San Diego Sam...
          http://www.flickr.com/photos/sushiman...

          By contrast last time I went to Urasawa in LA when he was still $250 per person, he served approximately 30+ different items which is just over $8 a plate/piece. I don't think that's too much of a scam considering quality of the tane and the impeccable service.

          Now pizza on the other-hand - that's a scam....

          7 Replies
          1. re: Pablo

            The photos and food - fantastic! I would happily pay $50 as long as I didn't get an attitude from the person putting the stuff together. Thanks!

            1. re: Sam Fujisaka

              Thanks Sam. My itamae in San Diego is just an old fisherman from Japan, no attitude unless you want some! The attitude in LA is beyond belief from what I have read on the boards, however Urasawa-san is one of the most humble and gracious itamaes, an experience I will never forget. Maybe the slowing economy will tame some of these other guys?

              1. re: Pablo

                Clearly not a scam; and I'm glad to hear of Urasawa - san. You'll have to introduce us if I ever get to San Diego - and my treat!!!

                1. re: Sam Fujisaka

                  Wow Sam! Your treat at Urasawa? Just kidding... Urasawa is in LA, my favorite place in San Diego is Kaito, the head itamae there is Morita-san. Sorry for the confusion, I'll bring the sake no matter which place!

              2. re: Sam Fujisaka

                About the same here in Westchester, Sam, at a phenomenal (imo) sushi restaurant, Sushi Namase in White Plains, NY. Their omakase is $85., I believe, which I haven't yet tried.

                But the sushi experience included a full pour of saki, constant table service without intrusiveness, amazingly delicious sushi, and an overall two dining hours that are unmatched in Westchester by few other cuisines.

                Since a steak, and only steak, for two in this area is priced at $88., I will gladly pay $50. or even $85. for a phenomenal sushi experience.

                1. re: dolores

                  Well, I would try Sushi Namase! Thanks.

            2. I haven't had sushi in quite a while (cue rendition of "don't get around much any more"), but it seems to me that there's a more general trend reflected here: small bites of food, exquisitely presented, by a chef with a cult-like following. Fetish and theater. Mind you, I enjoy this sort of thing once in a while -- for my most recent birthday dinner we went to a "modern French" restaurant and ordered the tasting menu with wine pairings, which meant that we sat there for a couple of hours drinking wine and enjoying a parade of beautiful little morsels. A tasting menu or omakase means ceding a certain amount of control, which can be relaxing (because it relieves you of the need to make decisions) but requires trust. Part of the idea is that you're being taken care of, that you're receiving individual attention. I think this is why people feel so betrayed when they are disappointed. Well, that and the price -- so it's not surprising that complaints are surfacing as the recession deepens and even people who haven't taken a direct economic hit are feeling more cautious about money.

              3 Replies
              1. re: jlafler

                Sam, again you are soooo right. In Maine we call sushi "bait" and it is very cheap!

                1. re: jlafler

                  The comparison to modern French is a good one. A tasting menu plus wine pairings is somethinig I appreciate. But I wouldn't if there were an arrogant French Chef standing over me getting irritated if I did not know him and if I did something wrong - and who would charge based on his mood.

                  1. re: Sam Fujisaka

                    For some reason that reminds me from a story I heard about two young American women who were visiting Paris. After dinner one of them ordered a cafe au lait, and the waiter snarled "Avec croissant?"