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Sushi in a nutshell: the 5 things you look for in a quality sushi bar

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Sushi's been covered ad nauseam on the boards, but it often leads to extremely erudite (albeit fascinating) digressions, so I wanted to bring it back to the basics.

It doesn't have to be 5—just the key things, simply put. What should the rice be like? What should the fish be like? Is there a particular type of fish that serves as a litmus test for you, and if so, how so?

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  1. First and foremost and I do not mean this in any way to be discrimanatory. if there aren't Asian customers dining, it probably isn't very good. Second, the rice has to be sticky, but not mushy. Third, I want to see the colors of the sushi, especially tuna jump out at me. I realize this can actually be obtained in some sketchy ways, but if I see those bright colors, I'm gonna give them the benefit of the doubt. Fourth, I don't want to be rushed. Usually, in the course of the meal it's relatively smaller than usual American fare, so the time between dishes is imperative. Finally, and this is only a personal item. I went into a place and explained that I had tried certain things and asked what other things I might like and the chef was very accomadating. Now I'm not saying I expect thjis ever again, but he handed me a plate, with three differnt pieces of sashmi and told me to try the. I ended up ordered three sushi rolls that contained the items.

    4 Replies
    1. re: jhopp217

      "irst and foremost and I do not mean this in any way to be discrimanatory. if there aren't Asian customers dining, it probably isn't very good."

      it isn't discriminatory - it just doesnt make any sense. unless ALL asians (w/out going into how meaningless the word asian is in this context, when what you probably mean is japanese) are expert in sushi, and no non-asians are.

      i assure you, at least in any city w/ a sizable "asian" population, there are asians eating in mediocre places. In any popular place with limited seating, in a country where "asians" are a small % of the population, that no "asians" will be there sometime.

      1. re: thew

        If you've ever been to Chinatown in NY or SF, the places that are touristy are packed with Americans who do not know anything about Chinese food. If you find the little hole in the wall where everyone is Chinese, chances are it's quality. I said Asian, because many places now are fusion restaurants that serve Japanese and Chinese (and sometimes Korean dishes) thus in that context they are Asian not Japanese, so I pretty much meant Asian. If you were in France would you not ask someone who was French where to eat?

        1. re: jhopp217

          I believe by "Americans" you mean "white people" or "black people" or "brown people" or, essentially, "non-Chinese people". I'm Asian. I'm also American. Remember that "American" does not mean "white".

          1. re: jhopp217

            i live in NYC. i know plenty of chinese americans who eat crap chinese food. I think pretty much every restaurant in chinatown i've ever been to has chinese people in it. even the crappy tourist ones.

            fusion restaurants have notoriously bad sushi overall, so your whole asian spiel falls flat. It also argues against your point - why would a vietnamese or burmese person know sushi better than an american? because they have physical features that resemble japanese in your eyes? If any Asian person can know sushi, regardless of country of origin, then any person from anyplace can know good sushi equally well. mongolians and tibetans have as much chance of knowing sushi an tony the 6th generation italian american

            There are plenty of mediocre restaurants in france - guess what? they are full of french people. if i was in france i wanted good vietnamese food, or good north african food, i would also ask someone who was french. WHen i want good chinese food in chinatown i usually ask someone who knows the neighborhood and the restaurants. I have had more than a few friends who lived in and around chinatown who were not chinese, don;t you think they might know the restaurants better than some random "asian" from secaucus?

            for that matter people ask me, a life-long NYC jewish boy, where to get good chinese, japanese, and vietnamese food. is that because i'm asian or because i know food in NYC? hint: i'm not asian, nor of asian descent.

            finally - there are plenty of "americans" of asian descent.

      2. Let's see if I can come up with 5 key things....

        I'd say the most important thing is the freshness and quality of the fish, which I guess is kinda obvious. I'm not a lover of 'regular' tuna, as I find even the freshest tastes about as interesting as licking a window pane, but o toro or any kind of fatty tuna is a good litmus test. Some people pass off tuna belly that is stringy, with the silver membranes in there, which is bad.

        Uni would be another good benchmark - is it fresh, sweet, creamy?

        I've had the best rice at Yasuda -- light, slightly acidic, holding together well, and not a freaking golfball-size amount, either.

        The care with which the fish is sliced. The attentiveness or interest of the sushi chef in my personal preferences, and the eagerness to introduce me to new things.

        Lastly, I don't like to be rushed. I've experienced all these at Sushi Yasuda in NYC, and it has become my benchmark for a quality sushi bar.

        Hey - I think that made it 5!

        4 Replies
        1. re: linguafood

          Nice job, you two.

          These may sound like dumb questions, but here goes:

          People always talk about the importance of the slicing technique. But I'm not sure exactly what we're talking about. I get that it shouldn't be giant slabs, but beyond that, what do people look for? Are we talking particular dimensions? Is there conversely such a thing as too thin? Should the fish be cut in a certain way (horizontal, vertical)?

          Same goes for the rice: your comment suggests there's a preferred dimension?

          And: what about fish selection? Are there items that should always be on the menu? What do you look for in specials? Does their place of origin matter to you?

          1. re: tatamagouche

            The care to the knives and the technique to use in the knife cut. It should go across the grain in a single stroke. You don't want to see back-and-forth motion like a saw on the fish.

            1. re: tatamagouche

              I had sushi recently that tasted very fresh and high quality and nicely portioned but it looked like it had been cut by a five year old using a butter knife. It shouldn't be hacked and ragged like that.

              1. re: tatamagouche

                Chem is correct about the slicing technique and it should be thin, but not too thin. It also shouldn't be wider than two fingers, although from what I've heard it used to be only one fingers width. The larger strips are probably to appease Americans.

            2. I would highly recommend anyone who has the time and interest, to watch the 1995(?) era Japanese TV soap "Shota No Sushi", based on a comic book series and made into television, the story of young Shota Sekiguchi who worked his way to the top. You can watch the whole series, English subtitled, although rather grainy at

              http://www.mysoju.com/japanese-drama/...

              Ignore the pseudo comedy and at times not so great acting, but you end up learning a lot about sushi (nigiri sushi) and things normally not discussed anywhere else. Of course some things are exaggerated, but a lot of the information you can get from the series is quite invaluable.

              1. #1: Tuna. Tuna is the most expensive product a sushi bar has to buy. You can usually find out 90% of what you need to know by finding our what kind of tuna they sell.

                #2: Freshness of fish. Go right to fish like yellowtail and snapper that have bloodlines and red stripes, and make sure they're red. If they have a brownish tint or are mysteriously cut away, order a cucumber roll and take the check.

                #3: Types of fish available. Survey the showcase to see what they have. If it's albacore, escolar, shrimp, salmon, and every other fish that is usually kept in a freezer, I leave before sitting down.

                #4: House made products: Look a the tamago, shrimp, anago, and anything else that should be made in house. If it's out of a package you're in trouble.

                #5: Cleanliness and quality of tools in workstation: I've never seen a good chef who left their workstation in disarray or used junky tools to make sushi.

                If all of the above tests are passed I'm reasonably confident that I'm in a place worth spending my money in before I even eat.

                1 Reply
                1. re: la2tokyo

                  Agree 200%, although one can get hosed if a single order of kappa maki does not meet the minimum order, or if there is none, whether a bowl of miso soup or a side of salad is cheaper.

                  When I think of freshness, it is literally "instantly killed" (e.g. ike jime, live prawns from a tank, or geoduck like at Cantonese seafood restaurants in California from the tank) or handling time is kept to a minimum, and on top of that the seafood item in question is in season, and very good quality. Seasonality also falls under #3.

                  In the USA, most places if they claim "fresh fish from JPN", is going through a wholesale distributor. X days pass with fish on ice in a styrofoam type chest, add a day to three of processing/arriving at the hub/delivering to the warehouse then to the destination (more if in a landlocked city), which is not going to taste the same freshness wise as a sushi bar in Taipei ordering from JPN and getting it delivered within 5 hours of the flight, or chefs driving 40+ mins to NE Taipei county to the port of Keelung and have instant access to fresh swordfish, salmon, prawns, and a myriad of local seafood cheaper than importing. I've heard horror stories of fish suffering freeze burns or chef not properly defrosting product and serving the fish over warm rice (cough cough) and calling it Edo style.

                  There are some overrated and popular places that don't meet any of the criteria, yet thrive for other reasons (ego stroking, false sense of exclusiveness, or investing in unique exotic fish to mask weaknesses in other areas).

                  With the advent of blogs, review and picture sites, it is a lot easier these days to scope out a place online for those minimal criteria, form your own opinion, even before you decide to get near the door.

                2. I happen to dig big slabs of fish draping the pads of rice for nigiri, but that might be me.

                  I have a few key criteria:

                  Rice - properly cooked and seasoned. I can let the seasoning slide a little bit, but bad rice is inexcusable.

                  Fish - goes without saying. When trying a place for the first time, I usually start with namasake, hamachi, and some form of tuna. If all of those are great, then I'll go for uni and saba. If the saba is pristine, then I'm ready to drop some bucks and pig out. If the saba or uni is subpar, then I'll stick to safer options - more tuna, sake, hamachi, unagi, a spicy tuna roll. Saba is one of my big litmus tests. Pristinely fresh mackerel is delectable and smooth, and buttery. Saba one minute past its prime is rubbery and stinky. If the uni or saba is not up to snuff, then, depending on price, it just goes on the heap of other sushi bars around town as "ok."

                  Another thing I really enjoy is engaging the sushi chef. I have no problem going to cheaper spots if the chef can steer me in the right direction of what their best offerings are for that day. Sometimes, the cheap spots are every bit as good as the fancy spots - if you know what's good that day.

                  Also, in the real cheap spots around my town, the chefs will cut jagged pieces of fish up, and serve up wierd looking slabs that are rough around the edges. These places are what they are. If they are super cheap, and some of the offerings are good, then somtimes, the value might be there. I'm currently debating the value of an ayce sushi bar. It's 14.95 for lunch. I've gone twice, and each time, at least one of the fishes was a little off, but some were pretty decent. The chefs are obviously instructed to use extra rice for everything, but I've decided, that if you go, and figure out what's good that day, you can load up on that, and be pretty happy for the price.

                  1. I always sit at the bar. In Tata's 'hood, Sushi Tazu is my fav...
                    1) A steamed towel without having to ask
                    2) perfectly fresh well trimmed fish and well prepared rice should be automatic
                    3) timing. If I order 5 nigiri items, I like them to keep arriving seamlessly with no long pauses but not rushed. Sweet shrimp heads don't get lost.
                    4) Suggestions when I ask what is especially good
                    5) A nice overflow in the saucer of my box of sake
                    6) yes, they have giant clam today, and salmon egg with quail egg for (my) dessert
                    ----that's enough to make me a happy camper

                    3 Replies
                    1. re: Veggo

                      "Sweet shrimp heads don't get lost."

                      AMEN! I remember a time when you'd order ama ebi, and the heads would appear a few minutes later without even asking. Veggo, I may just take wife 1.0 out for some shi this wknd and have some shrimp heads in your honor. Good one!

                      mmmmm...CRUNCH!!!

                      1. re: Veggo

                        mmmmmmmyes. awesome.

                        1. re: linguafood

                          1-Must be 100% Japanese owned/operated-no others need apply.

                          2-Quality rice done right.

                          3-Fresh slabs of fish on display as well as Shrimp and whatever else they offer no hiding goods away.

                          4-Welcoming personable Staff.

                          5-Clean organised Sushi bar.

                          5-

                      2. I agree with all the respondents here. In addition, I pay close attention to the hot green tea being served. High quality green tea can be costly; also, it can be time consuming to properly prepare and have available for refills when the customer is ready.

                        Yes, I have had good green tea with mediocre sushi, but I rarely have had mediocre green tea in a fine sushi bar. Perhaps this is because I think the green tea being served is part of the sushi experience. If the green tea is not good, then the sushi experience for me is greatly diminished. Some people judge the sushi restaurant by the toro or the tamago (sweet egg omelet); I do that, but I also judge by the quality of their green tea.

                        This brings me to another point. For me, eating sushi is not a matter of individual elements; it is, rather, a combination of the various elements coming together. It is the entire experience. Part of that experience is the attention provided by the servers standing behind the bar. If their timing is "right," then the dishes are cleared at the proper pace and the tea cups are replenished when the tea is too cool. I don't like to have to work when I am enjoying the sushi experience. Having to ask for a fresh napkin or more hot tea should not be necessary.

                        I think the attention to detail is what separates the good from the very good. In addition to everything that has already been mentioned, the lighting, the sounds, the fish presentation in the cases, the cleanliness of the chef...all of these things contribute to the entire experience.

                        1. many great points made here. i'm surprised no one has mentioned nori! i've had some really unpleasant experiences with tough, chewy nori that was basically impossible to chew. not acceptable.

                          other things i *like* to see but don't always:
                          - fresh anago. everyone has unagi on the menu, but i prefer the leaner sea eel...straight up, WITHOUT BBQ sauce slathered all over it.
                          - fresh wasabi. 'nuff said.

                          5 Replies
                          1. re: goodhealthgourmet

                            Hi, goodhealthgourmet!

                            I'm with you on the fresh wasabi...I want to see it grated before me from the fresh root. The ubiquitous green horseradish is a poor imitator.

                            There is also a huge difference in quality in the various ginger slices (gari) that are served. If it is florescent pink, I'm suspicious.

                            Also, I don't want to smell chlorine or Clorox, bleach or any other type of cleaning solution. If I can taste it in the water glasses or the tea cup, something is wrong with their rinsing procedure.

                            1. re: liu

                              Are there many places in the US that pickle their own ginger? Outside of the super high-end temples?

                              1. re: tatamagouche

                                I think this is a very good question.

                                I do remember having been told, rarely, that a chef is very proud of his home-pickled ginger, but this does not happen very often. I really don't know how usual this practice is.

                                I have also been to sushi bars who make their own soy sauce; I'm sure this is quite unusual.

                                But if you encounter a sushi bar that puts such effort into these amenities, you can be pretty sure that you have found a very special place.

                                1. re: tatamagouche

                                  It's not very hard to make pickled ginger, I don't see why it is assumed to be store-bought.

                                2. re: liu

                                  yes! i meant to mention ginger as well. that bright pink stuff scares me :)

                              2. 1. Consistency - Important in all restaurants, most important with sushi restaurants.

                                2. Quality Fish - Looking, smelling and tasting will let you know.

                                3. Quality Rice - I didn't think it was a big deal until I had bad sushi rice. Wow. Should be sticky, firm and a little sweet.

                                4. Open Kitchen - Shows confidence in the chefs, it's fun to watch and adds to the dining experience. Once saw a chef drop an entire tray of salmon on the floor. Had to throw it out. Would he have done so if there weren't 50 diners watching him? Maybe, maybe not.

                                5. Can't really think of a fifth... my litmus would be salmon because you can instantly tell if it's wild or farmed by the fat lines in it. If they're using farmed fish, I don't usually go back.

                                2 Replies
                                1. re: piano boy

                                  IMO, your #5 should be Service.

                                  A good sushi joint will have good service at the bar, as well as experienced service at the tables.

                                  There's nothing worse than walking into a sushi bar, asking your server what they would suggest, and getting a response of "I don't know", or "I don't eat sushi".

                                  If the server can't tell me what the chef is good at making, or what it is that they enjoy eating there, or what the daily special is; my impression of the restaurant will drop, and my opinion will likely be a combination of these three options:

                                  1. The restaurant owners are wasting my time by saddling me with a ditzy server.
                                  2. If the servers don't care to ask and remember what the specials are, why should they care about getting my order right?
                                  3. If the service doesn't eat there, there's probably something wrong with the restaurant.

                                  1. re: deet13

                                    Yeah service is certainly important... I was thinking of my fav sushi place when I wrote the list though and the front staff have always been excellent so I put them into the "consistent" category without elaborating on it.

                                2. I'm so delighted with these responses! Clean, clear—thanks guys! Why I love Chowhound reason #19,384.