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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...

          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?"

                2. Y'know....every now and then I do have a bad trip on sushi and think 'wait a second, it's just fish and rice'. Never been to a really high end sushi bar, but even in moderate places occasionally it seems silly but I still love it. Love miso soup, love agedashi tofu, love it when they have something I've never tried before or have clever little garnishes. I guess variety and presentation are the main reasons for me to pay more (freshness and quality are givens of course).

                  Sam, are you giving us permission to go to the conveyor belt places where Mexican cocineros put pre-sliced fish on the little balls of rice that the machine spits out? Some of them are not that bad, and hey, its just fish and rice, who needs some smug scary sushi chef?

                  PS can you FedEx a big platter of sushi to Paro, Bhutan?

                  3 Replies
                  1. re: babette feasts

                    Yes, I'd prefer the Mexican cocineros $20 worth of sushi over the smug scary sushi chef with attitude $150 plate anytime. Better converstation with the Mexicans as well.

                    Have you gotten any of the Japonica / Japanese style rices from Wangdi - Punika? You could make sushi with a bit of suitable rice.

                    1. re: Sam Fujisaka

                      It's the suitable fish that I'm missing : )

                      1. re: babette feasts

                        My traditional sushi (makizushi, inarizushi) does not require fish. Cucumber, pickled daikon, egg, tsukemono, blanched green bean & carrot, and various non-fish Japanese ingredients are what we had growing up and what I make today. At lunch I made some quick maki rolls with seasoned canned tuna and home pickled ginger. I can't get good sashimi here either.

                  2. Sticking with the baseball theme, I have to say that I haven't been to Fenway Park in a couple of years. The last trip cost me about $150 for 2 seats, parking, a couple of fenway franks, etc. What I've really come to enjoy is the Lowell Spinners - the Sox's A league farm team, with a new riverfront stadium on the Merrimack. The seats are $18, and the beer is every bit as cold. Parking is free. It is a genuinely fun afternoon to sit in that park and watch the game. Fenway is raising their prices again this year - as they've done every year for quite a while. They spent a lot of money building the franchise into an organization and team that really competes at the highest levels consistently - they have to charge what they can so they can afford the Matsuzakas, Bays and Ortizes.

                    So I think it's ok to enjoy the minor league games, even with the understanding that there's this whole big world out there, where the best of the best are playing, where you'll get to see great plays made a lot more, if not necessarily every night.

                    So - there's $50 sushi, and there's $300 sushi. They can coexist. But, I don't know of any $50 sushi place that gives you everything that you can get at the $300 sushi place - the ingredients, the experienced itamaes (and I don't mean just the age - I mean experience in serving the most demanding clientele). I know that people will keep posting about their wonderful local guy that does it all for $50. I doubt that, very much.

                    I started going to Izakayas and specialty Sushi places, no-sign places, strictly for Japanese salarymen, in NYC in the 80's and early 90's. This was the heyday of big money Japanese, when Americans were afraid that the Japanese owned everything, rather than the Chinese. By Japanese business custom, all the eating expenses were written off. Every new incredible expensive ingredient, every new technique, imported straight from Tokyo, was praised and ordered in great quantity - cost was never a concern. No wonder, then, that this rift between "standard sushi" and the "big leagues" grew. When the Japanese bubble burst, a lot of these places dried up. But as the Japanese clientele shrunk, Americans caught up with the best of the best, and the continuous improvements in the big league. Today, there's the bigs - and then there's the farm leagues. It's just the way it is.

                    I have no doubt that there is plenty of rip-off stuff going on at some of these super-sushiyas. But not every one. Some of the teams are paying real money for real talent, and the best ingredients. I have had stuff in some of them that I have never been able to have in even the best "standard" sushi places. It's not worth it to me any more - I have no money left. But I used to think it was worth it when I had money - so who's to say it's all a scam? If I had the dough, I'd have season tickets.

                    1. This thread can also arguably be a spinoff of the Wall Street Journal Sushi Bullies article from the Food and Media News section of CH


                      Bottom line, know what your $ is getting you at what restaurant. Still it is your $ and whatever you choose to do with it.

                      1. so funny you bring this up b/c my mom and i were just discussing this. there's a place in LA called sushi Zo and it is like the golden temple on the LA board. people swear by it and praise their way of serving. one piece by piece served to you even at the tables (as opposed to your entire order on a plate). then the server announces "no soy sauce" when they serve a piece doused with dashi or ponzu. or better yet, "no wasabi". I took my mom and her friend visiting from japan there (mom and i are japanese expats living here on green cards). we ended up sitting at the table and served one order at a time. the announcement got pretty ridiculous "no soy sauce" "no wasabi". c'mon! like we don't know how to eat sushi and why would we drown our already doused with ponzu piece with more soy? sheesh! after the tenth or so serving the announcements became almost condescending.

                        anyway, my point is that mom and friend kept saying "this is such a gimmick" "this is to trick these Americans" -referring to their style of serving sushi at the tables. the fish and rice that they serve at Zo is pretty decent but mom and friend still joke about the good but gimmicky sushi restaurant in LA that trick the Americans!

                        10 Replies
                        1. re: trolley

                          My goodness! Exactly. Happy New Year, trolley.

                          1. re: trolley

                            You can blame places like Sushi Sasabune and Sushi Nozawa for revolutionizing this style of "trust me" dining and whatever rules they dictate that also influenced Sushi Zo. I didn't realise the Americanization of sushi was so bad in Southern California that folks like them and Zo had to re-invent and re-introduce traditional style nigiri sushi for the market in such a manner.

                            I suppose rather than singling a particular group out that they may not know how to eat nigiri properly and to be fair (and ahem, consistent) they tell everyone the no soy sauce no wasabi or YES to soy sauce (I've been told to dip nigiri in soy sauce for a few of my pieces). I even ate Zo's nigiri with my fingers directly in front of him, asked him a few questions like whether a particular piece of fish in his counter was kinmedai (rather than asking "is that golden eye snapper"). And STILL got the re-education prior to eating.

                            But you did say the fish and rice were good. That is what primarily people come back for. Just like most hole in the wall or non upscale type Asian restaurants, if your service sucks but food is supreme, people will still come and line up and out the door.

                            1. re: K K

                              yes, it's really bad in LA. I went to Zo with a few people after going there with mom and on the way to the restaurant they spoke of the way the sushi is served as though it was this century old japanese tradition that i wasn't aware of.

                              the fish is good and the rice is ok ( I've had better) but then again i've eating sushi all over japan so it's no comparison. but to me sushi was pretty casual growing up and the only rule we had was don't eat with a fork and ketchup ;) really we had no rules but no one in their right mind would think of putting mayo on it.

                              as far as the "sushi nazi" thing...people who shun bad service at an American restaurant lovingly accept the whole nazi thing when it comes to sushi and i don't know what their thinking is. sometimes i think it's cultural behavior differences. i think many japanese people aren't as gregarious with gaijin then the average Americans so that can be interpreted as "cold" which perhaps is interpreted as "nazi"? i don't know.

                              whatever the case attitude to me is bad service whether it be at Per Se or at a burger joint or a sushi restaurant and shouldn't be tolerated.

                            2. re: trolley

                              It's so funny that I relate to this in another way. We came here in the 60's and I remember my Japanese mom also referring to the gimmicks she saw in the Japanese restaurants over the years - like California Rolls, like encouraging people to dip their sushi in shoyu and powdered wasabi paste, all to make sushi attractive to western tastes. I'm not saying that the sushi nazi movement is a good thing, and nobody needs constant condescending announcements - but I think that these things are lashbacks to what has become a gaijin sushi environment gone awry. Would you take your Japanese visitors to a Chinese restaurant sushi joint? I'd be embarrassed and mortified. At least at Sushi Zo, the basic quality is traditional and reportedly outstanding.

                              I kind of disagree with KK's assertion that this thread is an offshoot of the Sushi Nazi thread - although we got into many different aspects there. I think that it's important, for clarity's sake, to distinguish between what happened to top end, extreme sushi, in Japan and the US in the 80's through now, and what the entire traditionalist movement (including the Nazi's) represents. Is the traditionalist movement a reaction to this extreme sushi development, or is it a reaction to the Gaijin (Americanized) sushi, which has lowered quality and brought in non-traditional ingredients and processes (avocado, cream cheese, Yoda Mud Bath)?

                              I think it's the latter, but I may be wrong. Sam brought up a different tangent - one that was explained by bulavinaka and ricepad, in terms of the nisei experience. Something that was otherwise lost in this milieu of sushi - good, bad, and omakase. It's almost like a militant reaction to all these changes - from Americanization to Extreme to Traditionalist. Let's go back to the 60's - catch our mercury-free fish on a line (or buy it off the truck from the guy that did) - bring it home, cook some rice, toast some nori, reach under the sink for the stinky narazuke - have at it. No gimmicks.

                              1. re: applehome

                                I'm not sure if Nozawa, Sasabune, and Zo necessarily represent some sort of traditionalist movement necessarily (as many aspects of what they do are not traditional at all but attempt to mimick them in their own way, like cold near frozen fish over warm or hot rice pads), but if we take Japanese food as a whole, in the big cities, there is a growing demand for regional authentic cuisine in order to be unique and compete in a market of generic mediocrity (aka places that offer bento, tempura, teriyaki, udon etc). This can be nigiri sushi (importing exotic fish from Japan, making dashi shoyu for nigiri brushing), ramen (importing Japanese flour for noodles and offering secret hybrid broths instead of just plain shoyu, shio, miso), kaiseki and kappo dining, yakitori (importing bincho tan charcoal from Japan, finding a good local source of organic range chicken, finding a talented grill master who knows what he's doing) etc etc. I'm all for replicating authenticity and tradition, but it seems that in order for many US places to do so, requires a lot more work, specific skilled labor/talent, effort, investment, and that does not come cheap (where many of these resources are scarce, unlike in Asia or Japan where it may be easier to find someone, but to sponsor them to come to work in the US is quite the task indeed).

                                1. re: K K

                                  hi. KK I'm amased of your knowledge. I don't know what you do for living but your knowledge about Japanese food and other related stuff is way greater than others. Hats off again. BT

                              2. re: trolley

                                Hi trolley:

                                There are "golden temples" on the NYC Board as well. The last time I use the same phrase "gimmicky" as you did on the promotional method of a top sushi house (the golden temple) in NYC at its target audience-Americans, I was blasted as being snotty. You have to understand, this is an American website, some here considered such gimmicks as "normal" and part of American culture.

                                1. re: FourSeasons

                                  >>some here considered such gimmicks as "normal" and part of American culture.

                                  FourSeasons, what do you think of the current gimmick of tiny bits of food arranged artfully on a plate for which exorbitant amounts of money are charged?

                                  If chefs are getting away with charging hundreds of dollars for gimmicky sushi, shouldn't they be applauded for doing so?

                                  1. re: dolores

                                    Hi dolores:

                                    Just to clarify, I do not think that it is gimmicky to charge "exorbitant amounts of money for tiny artfully bits of food" or "charging hundreds of dollars for gimmicky sushi". If that is your interpretation of what I meant, I think you misunderstood. What I wrote is that certain practice in America can be considered "gimmicky" for tourists or expats who visit or live there but considered "normal" by Americans. I was writing in response to trolley's "gimmick" statement and not to Sam Fijisaka's headline post.

                                    Now, back to your two questions, since I am a businessman by background, if the owner chef can charge expensive amount and the business remain viable and profitable, yes, I would applaud them. But as a consumer, if I were being overcharged for what I think was below my expectation, I would certainly not return again.

                              3. Hmmm...scammers? I agree that most folks pay a lot for sushi, but I would fall short of calling itamae scammers....