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May 3, 2010 10:43 AM

Authentic Japanese Sushi?

After trying various sushi/Japanese places with high recommendations from friends and CH'ers, I am slowly but surely arriving at the conclusion that "Japanese" or "sushi" in the Boston area is more likely a re-interpretation of the original through the hands of people who have transformed it into their own experience/cultural backgrounds. Akin to "chow mein" or "pizza", it seems that such items as "Agedashi Dofu" retains its Japanese name but little else (one server actually pronounced it as in "your age" (instead of a hard g). And another restaurant had no idea what I meant when i asked for togarashi, bringing out sriracha instead. There seem to be so few authentic places (possibly the sushi counter in chestnut hill .... been a while since I was there but have extremely fond mempries of the place). Have the "other ethnic" owners completely redefined ja[anese cuisine (perhaps in search of better profits) - or is there a truly outstanding Japanese restaurant in Boston? The little row of food-court shops in the Leslie college building on Mass Ave may be another hold-out but on my last visit I noted that some of them may be changing hands too.

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  1. I don't know much about Japanese cuisine, but am a firm believer that a traditional sushi experience involves sitting at the bar and interacting with the itamae. For this reason, my favorites are Oishii Chestnut Hill and Toraya in Arlington, though only the latter is actually Japanese. I have heard positive things from folks I trust about Shiki, Oga, and Sushi Island.

    Toraya Restaurant
    890 Massachusetts Ave, Arlington, MA 02476

    9 Babcock Street, Brookline, MA 02446

    5 Replies
    1. re: MC Slim JB

      sushi island is probably the most auth. bar around. the chef is *looks* very conservative but there are a couple of unusual things about him. when i went for omakase he served two pieces at a time. his product is on the small side so you might think that is fine but it's not really the way it's done in japan. whatever.

      second he has one or two hispanic women as apprentices! of course they is nothing wrong but unusual. japanese are discerning but not racist (these days). in fact there are a lot of bulgarian and eastern european sumo wrestlers these days. inconceivable 5-7 years ago.

      shiki is probably ok, i have not tried it yet. they used to own roka, which was not bad. i think the izakaya claim is a bit disingenuous right off the bat, Myong Dong 1st Av is actually not too far off from an izakaya like experience, even though it's student-y and korean.

      toraya is a personal little fav of mine, the sushi is a bit idiosyncratic, but i like, the ktichen rocks.

      oga's sushi is pretty good, the kitchen is just ok.

      if you want an adventure and a treat, try inaho or mac's

      i'm sorry to say i haven't been back to sakurabana in years since oga left.

      1. re: tatsu

        Inaho's-- is this down in Yarmouth Port? And where is Mac's?

        Been wanting to get to Shiki for kaiseki for a while now. New motivation!

        9 Babcock Street, Brookline, MA 02446

        1. re: globalgourmand

          Inaho is on 6a just down the road from Anthony's Cumaquid.

          I've had some great plates of sushi, sashimi, teriakis, gyoza, tempura, maki and hand rolls. I'm not an expert and haven't been to Japan so I can't vouch for authenticity but FWIW the chef/owner is Yuji Watanabe, he's Japanese, and the food was very good. Located in a typical main street cape converted to a sushi bar with shoji screens separating a tea room looking dining area. Large selection of Sake.

      2. re: MC Slim JB

        MC, I went to Toraya about a month ago, and while I found the sushi to be fresh and above average for the boston area, I was very disappointed since we sat at the bar but the waitress insisted we order from her rather than the sushi chef. Did we we do something wrong, or has their system changed since you last went?

        Toraya Restaurant
        890 Massachusetts Ave, Arlington, MA 02476

        1. re: bza

          this gets me going too at some of the places i frequent up north. when i question the practice the most often given answer is that they want to make sure taht everything you get makes it your final bill.

      3. My wife is from Japan and she really like the sushi from Ebisuya in Medford. Not a restaurant but very delicious and inexpensive sushi.

        2 Replies
        1. re: debidokun

          Ebisuya sushi is so-so sushi. It's authentic but just not very good. Toraya, Sushi Island, Oya, Shiki, Masa's, Bluefin et al are much better. Toki was good but I'm not sure if they are just remodeling or closed.

          Toraya Restaurant
          890 Massachusetts Ave, Arlington, MA 02476

          9 Babcock Street, Brookline, MA 02446

          1. re: robertlf

            I like Torayo the best. Seems to be very similar to when I was overseas.

        2. I share a similar desire for truly authentic Japanese food and sushi. Part of me is fine to take the interpretations for better or worse, and part of me clings to those traditional flavors and purist presentations.

          I like Oga's. Interested in the others.

          6 Replies
            1. re: scotty27

              most unagi is pre-made in china, vacuum sealed, frozen and shipped to the US. it's very very different from the real thing. in japan we have unagi restaurants, everything from the nitsume (a variation of tare, the soy sweet sauce) to the skinning and preparation of the eel is done in-house. there used to be one in NYC in the 90's but it's long gone, i can't even find records on the net about it.

              some of the finest NYC sushi places do japanese anago/unagi. sasabune on the UES does a wonderful one.

              the texture for one is completely different, it's pillowy and light, imagine a chilean sea bass that's been molecularly expanded to twice it's size. the color is white, with the broiling sauce brushed on, not impregnated in the flesh.

              if it seems like a specialty, there is a kind of restaurant associated with it in japan.

              1. re: tatsu

                The only good memory i have of narita is getting stuck with a long enough lay-over to head out of the airport and go to the eel restaurants in Narita town. And they were eel restaurants, that was the only thing on the menu.

                  1. re: tatsu

                    I have fond memories of an unagi restaurant in Yokohama but my all time best unagi experience is an unagi stand on the streets outside tsukiji fish market. The eel was freshly skinned and broiled on a charcoal brazier. mmmmmm.

                1. re: tatsu

                  Oga in Natick used to do anago tempura as a special, haven't been there lately though after some of their chefs moved on to other shops

            2. Might I suggest you read 'The Sushi Economy" by Sasha Issenberg. Because, with all due respect, I'm not sure if you really know the definition of authentic sushi you seem to seek out. It is a great read and will be very enlightening to anyone who enjoys tuna, sushi, air travel history, overfishing, farming of fish and how tuna was a throwaway fish in Japan not too long ago

              6 Replies
              1. re: gyppielou

                Thanks for the suggestion. Just ordered it from Amazon.

                1. re: Frank Enbean

                  That's great! I suggested it because how does one really define authentic or traditional sushi? I hope you enjoy it. I look forward to revisiting it in the coming months. So much to take it is is worthy of a second read. Enjoy!

                2. re: gyppielou

                  A ten page Vanity Fair article on Tsukiji and sushi mentions that very book in 2007. You can read it online here:

                  If You Knew Sushi
                  by Nick Tosches
                  June 2007


                  I stopped eating bluefin tuna after reading that. (Have not tried Kindai.)

                  1. re: gyppielou

                    Another good read is "The Zen of Fish" by Trevor Corson. Came out about the same time as Issenberg's....not contradictory but complementary for anyone who wants to learn about the cuisine.

                    1. re: gyppielou

                      Can't wait to read it. Marine sustainability is the stongest factor that keeps me from eating fish and sushi as frequently as I'd really like to. Thanks for sharing.

                    2. I'm sorry, but I don't quite get why there are such passions on this board about sushi being made by Japanese people. I find it more than a little disturbing, in fact.

                      I do not disagree that what O Ya or Uni or Oishii Boston serves, in toto, is not exactly traditional sushi or sashimi. Although, if that's all you want, you can get it there. I would consider them "authentic" in the sense that there are many places in modern Japan that use the variety of techniques and ingredients that those restaurants use. I concede that one significant difference is that there are more rare ingredients, especially Kobe/Wagyu beef, on the menu at these restaurants than at most similar "modern" sushi restaurants in Japan. But I would caution everyone not to be confused by the difference between "the menu" and "the food." If you like X and the restaurant also has Y and Z on the menu, and you don't like them, who cares? Order X and be happy. No matter what, comparing what Uni, O Ya or Oishii Boston do to "chow mein" is not apt at all.

                      However, if you are looking for places that do only traditional Japanese sushi, I would look no further than Toraya. Oga's is quite similar, if a little more expensive with a more extensive menu. Shiki shines with various cooked dishes (and I don't think the Izakaya label is at all inappropriate), but also has a selection of traditional sushi.

                      But I'd worry more about the food than the ethnicity of the chefs!

                      18 Replies
                      1. re: lipoff

                        I could tell you stories but don't think you'll get it.

                        1. re: lipoff

                          Let me respond obliquely. Ethiopian food, although delicious, is not quite as expensive as Japanese sushi. You would be hard pressed to find anyone other than Ethiopians (or close neighbors) preparing Injera, Tej, Kitfo, etc. Basically - there is no money in it - just mostly love. Japanese food is income producing. So everyone who wants to make money can be "inventive" and charge a ton to make something "approximate" (is that actually called fusion, or is it confusion?)
                          I am just considering the food and what it would truly be if cooked in Japan today - even if the person cooking it in Japan was Venezuelan. I once had an experience taking a close friend of mine (who is orthodox Jewish) to a restaurant which touted that its offerings were kosher. To my horror, when the menu was presented, the offerings were nowhere close to being kosher! We questioned the waiter - who made up a story about the menu being "kosher style"!!!! Only in America, i guess.

                          1. re: cornFusion

                            I don't get it.

                            Is there bad sushi around? Absolutely. But is there also some excellent Japanese food being prepared by non-Japanese as a labor of love? Absolutely. If you think that what Ting San of Oishii, or Ken Originer and Chris Chung of Uni, or Tim Cushman of O Ya do is not a labor of love but merely "income producing", I think you need to go taste their food again.

                            While I'm sure there are people who have fantasies of an Italian chef singing like Pavarotti while making pasta, or a French chef with a waxed mustache and an impossible accent striding around the kitchen, people don't seem too upset about Italian and French restaurants that have American-born or Guatemalan-born chefs, as long as the food is good. But there's some kind of fantasy that many people seem to harbor --- and not just Japanese people --- about authentic Japanese food needing to come from Japanese hands, as if the Samurai Spirit were directly involved. I've never seen this degree of fetishization with other kinds of food.

                            1. re: lipoff

                              I wonder what motivates all those chefs to cook faux-japanese if it isn't the almighty dollar. I have gone to some authentically good japanese sushi places (in America) with absolutely fresh fish and unique dishes and yet without the feeling that I had been ripped off - and by the way - I often leave those establishments feeling that I have had a nice meal (dinner) for the price and not paid a fortune for an "experience". I really do believe that when you go out for dinner, you should not have to go somewhere else to "fill up" as so many others have noted. Oh the way, why not have an american-sounding name for the restaurant instead of some japanese-y sounding name if the intent is to highlight the genius of American chefs?

                              1. re: lipoff

                                To be honest lipoff it's mostly a matter of provenance more than being actually Japanese. Japanese don't believe you can just start learning their food in isolation or without the tutelage of a teacher before you make food, especially sushi. Training is fairly intense and while jokes about being an apprentice for four years, the first year just sharpening knives are funny, it's not too far off from the truth.

                                Chung I know for sure studied in Hawaii. Cushman I don't know, San I don't know. Even the best Japanese ones around here, I am not exactly convinced they were trained in the traditional ways. Oga for example says he studied kaiseki, not sushi exclusively, in Japan. The man who owns Inaho? I have no idea but he doesn't claim anything. Same for Toroya and Sushi Island, although to be honest, the guy there looks like serious sushi man business. Perhaps you can consider San, Chung et al as the Julia Child's of sushi, I don't know. (Of course, that is a supremely high honor to just throw around.)

                                I think the fetishization is largely carried on by non-Japanese these days, which sort of reflects badly on us, makes us seem xenophobic. But it's not true at all. The chef at Sushi Island, I forget his name, it's online at their website, has a few apprentices now, and they are Latinas. As long as you are dedicated, you will be accepted.

                                Sort of taking it further, in the world of Sumo wrestling, many of the top fighters are from Bulgaria and Eastern Europe. It's a bit weird to see these skinny hairy dudes get up there and do the dance, but hey, they are treated exactly the same as Japanese fighters. It's rather unimaginable 10 years ago, but there you go.

                                All that being said, I'm most comfortable in NYC, trading stories with my favorite sushi chefs there, because I enjoy learning about what I'm eating from trained chefs back from home. Whether the food is actually better or my imagination, well I suppose that is my own tastes and who can argue about taste?

                                1. re: tatsu

                                  I'm not sure if this will give you any insights but here is all the cultural dirty laundry regarding foreigners and sumo.


                                  1. re: tatsu

                                    also worth keeping in mind that so called faux Japanese (i prefer to use the term Japanese fusion) was pioneered by Japanese chefs such as Nobu, Morimoto, Gari, Tojo, etc. so is not really faux, or in any sense "inferior" to more traditional styles, at least not from an "ethnic purity" point of view. Even the humble California roll was supposedly invented by Tojo, a Japanese. it's about the food, not the chef.

                                    1. re: joebloe

                                      do you have a price range? perhaps you could look at sushi-ann, hatsuhana, takesushi for some mid-level choices. also the grey lady sushiden. most of these are in mid-town. there are plenty of options so don't worry!

                                      1. re: joebloe

                                        not sure whether you would consider this ripoff or not but the sushi is outstanding and the place (either Midtown West or Upper East Side location) is very low key

                                        1. re: barleywino

                                          it is good but not extremely traditional, lots of garnishes, sometimes i think he got a little of his flair by way of nobu matsuhisa, but i can't say as a fact. not a bad choice at all however. sushi seki is sort of similar, here's a video

                                          1. re: barleywino

                                            sushi yasuda
                                            sushi gari
                                            15 east

                                            any of the 3 will be good choices. good sushi costs $$$. I'm not sure what price expectations you have. halal cart, bbq cart & korean bbq won't be in the same price range as good, filling sushi.

                                            1. re: mgcmonkey

                                              phew very pricey. i go to 15 east a lot tho.

                                              i think i would recommend this finally: Naka Naka. It's not a sushi place it's home cooking, but sushi is part of the deal, and it's a very good value. off the beaten path, and it's a cute homey place.


                                              1. re: tatsu

                                                sorry to blabber but it's worth pointing out naka naka is very anti-megu/bond st, which are glizty almost club-like j restaurants nearby. i enjoyed it but be prepared to sit on the floor!

                                                1. re: tatsu

                                                  Naka Naka looks very homey; I'll give it a try this time. Too many places I'll try other places next month. Thank you all.

                                                  1. re: joebloe

                                                    sure np let us know what you think, that's the ch way

                                              2. re: barleywino

                                                I agree the sushi at Sushi of Gari is very good. But I've gotta think it'd be considered pricey by any standard.

                                              3. re: tatsu

                                                Ditto on the provenance reasoning. There are tons of faux-Japanese restaurants (Etsogo in Lowell for example) around because of the $$$. The owner does not need to be Japanese but they do need to have the passion and be skilled in the art of sushi. A great example being Dynamite Sushi in Hudson, NH. Ho is Korean but is a master of sushi and Asian food for that matter.

                                                1. re: tatsu

                                                  In a sense, I guess that the Japanese appear very avant-garde with morimoto and company. In fact, Morimoto is an accomplished traditional chef (who just happened to appear on Iron Chef - and IMHO, the pressure on him to improvise got him where he is now). Again, I believe my premise still holds, namely that asian (including Japanese) food is relegated to a "lower" position than, for example French food. No one even attempts to equate Per-se with French. Joel Robuchon's food (didn't he appear on Iron Chef also?) doesn't appear on "fusion" menus (not that I know of anyway). If the restaurant labeled itself as "Japanese fusion", I would absolutely have no issue with its offerings. But if it clearly states "Japanese", I expect Japanese sensibilities to prevail. So ..... I agree with tatsu - any person can be chef in a Japanese restaurant's kitchen - provided - that they have actually trained exactly like their Japanese counterparts. But not until then.