Sushi Newbie Needs Advice
February 8, 2005 11:08 AM   Subscribe

SushiFilter: I wanna go to a sushi restaurant for my birthday. Never had "real" sushi before, just the stuff you get at the supermarket (..i know, i know). Any suggestions on what to get/avoid for a first-timer? I am not crazy about the idea of raw, but will be willing to try. Also any locals have any suggestions on where? Domo arigato.
posted by ShawnString to Food & Drink (53 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
What city/state/country are you in?
posted by haqspan at 11:13 AM on February 8, 2005

Response by poster: near baltimore, maryland, us
posted by ShawnString at 11:14 AM on February 8, 2005

I was always told to start with California Rolls, but they're really an American invention, not Japanese, and the taste of seaweed made me gag.

I started with salmon and whitefish myself - I think they have a lovely but not over-strong flavor. They're still my favorites.

If you find you're not hip to the sticky vinegar rice that comes as part of sushi, you might try sashimi, which is bite sized pieces of just fish.

As far as helping you with local recommendations, that's where I'm out. Sorry!
posted by angeline at 11:16 AM on February 8, 2005

First, don't try to go on the cheap. Go to a really, really good sushi restaurant in your area. Sushi is one food that it is worth it to pay for.

Make sure that you go on a night when the fish will be fresh. This varies somewhat depending on area, but in general Sundays are not a good day to go, since few places get deliveries on Sundays.

Start with some rolls, which will give you the flavor but not the intensity of sushi. Tuna and salmon rolls are good to start with.

You probably want to stick to well-known and popular fish, such as salmon, tuna, and hamachi (yellowtail) whose taste is familiar. You may want to avoid things like Mackerel, which has a stronger and "fishier" taste. Also, in general, fish with shite meat have a more delicate flavor, so they may be worth trying first.

While you're at it, order some Unagi (sea eel), which is actually cooked and bathed in a sweet glaze. Yum!
posted by googly at 11:18 AM on February 8, 2005

Um, that would be white meat.

Worst typo ever?
posted by googly at 11:20 AM on February 8, 2005 [1 favorite]

You're in Glen Burnie? How far are you planning to travel? I'm near Baltimore -- my favorite sushi is at The Orient, which has two locations (one in Towson, and one in a suburb I can't recall. Close to Parkville?) and isn't fancy or expansive (or expensive!), but is always really good and the California rolls are absolutely the best in the universe. You might want to have a look at the Baltimore City Paper "Best of Baltimore" editions for some ideas... they have a "Best Sushi" category every year with little reviews that might give you some ideas. It's never steered us wrong!

And actually, googly, that was the best typo ever. Ha!
posted by kittyb at 11:25 AM on February 8, 2005

I like soft shell crab and salmon rolls. I think sushi is the world's most perfect food.
posted by trbrts at 11:27 AM on February 8, 2005

hahahaha. nice one, googly!

I would go for a few simple individual pieces of sushi, hold the wasabi: salmon, eel, tuna. None of those flavors is too strong and none of the textures is too weird. Then move on to rolls where two or more ingredients are together: California rolls (nice, simple, safe), and such. Don't hop right into those rolls where they throw eight kinds of fish and vegetables together, it's probably too much for a first time. Unless you're feeling adventuresome, in which case chow down!

And do not under any circumstances eat uni.

And enjoy! I love sushi.
posted by Asparagirl at 11:27 AM on February 8, 2005

Good sushi can be ruined by eating it incorrectly. There is a "proper" technique to eating sushi, though most people will forgive small errors or differences in preferred technique, especially with wasabi. However, I've seen some bizarre attempts at eating sushi by people who clearly don't know what they're doing (such as putting ginger on each piece) that would ruin the taste and the experience. Read through the SoYouWanna guide to enjoying sushi to get an overview of the process, though there are other guides out there as well.

Then, as mentioned above, find a good sushi place near you by asking for recommendations, checking local "best of" magazines or websites (like Baltimore's CityPaper), or the Chowhound message boards. The best sushi place isn't necessarily the most expensive, but expect to pay money for good sushi.
posted by arco at 11:33 AM on February 8, 2005

This sushi-eating How-To should have almost everything you need to know.
posted by driveler at 11:34 AM on February 8, 2005

Just to offer a contrary opinion, stay away from the rolls and do try the wasabi.

Actually, since it's a birthday treat, you should probably try some of everything.

I'm not a big fan of the rolls. Too much going on, too much texture even in the simple ones. Fresh maguro, though, that's a treat. It's a very fatty tuna that's almost the color and texture of raw meat. If you like your steaks rare, this is the way to go.

As for the wasabi, just mix it with shoyu and don't overdo it. Sushi without wasabi and shoyu is like popcorn without butter and salt.
posted by zanni at 11:38 AM on February 8, 2005

Some good sushi in Baltimore (scroll down to the Sushi heading). I have been to Shogun - don't be fooled by the all-you-can-eat offer, it's not divey at all.

If you are trying to get your feet wet without freaking out over the raw, I would start with some fish rolls and then if you find a fish you are liking, get some nigiri (the pieces on the bed of rice).

If you like scallops, get some of them.

I love sushi, and I really dislike eel. The texture is incredibly offputting to me.
posted by mzurer at 11:47 AM on February 8, 2005

I'm a fan of San Sushi Too (conveniently cohabitating with Thai One On) in Towson. It's pretty good sushi for a decent price (can be spendy, though). I do reccommend their spicy tuna rolls as well as their eel. I know some dislike the texture of the eel, but I find it less toothy than the octopus.

Also, you might try the local variants they offer (different treatments of crab, including a softshell roll in season). Not authentic at all, but very tasty.

The best part however, is that you can order off the Thai Menu and get Mango Sticky Rice for dessert.
posted by Verdant at 11:52 AM on February 8, 2005

I disagree with googly's assertion that mackerel is too strong or fishy. It's one of my favorites. Yellowtail and Unagi are also exquisite.

Definitely stay away from natto (fermented soybean) if they even have it. To western palates, it basically tastes like 3-day-old garbage.

Order a few decanters of warm sake all the way around, and you'll be up for anything.
posted by matildaben at 11:52 AM on February 8, 2005

The first few times I went out for sushi, I would get whatever combo platter looked appropriately priced, and then sometimes augment it with individual orders of other things that I wanted more of. That can be a good way of getting a decent sampling of various things, and it takes away some of the pressure of "What do I order, and what do all these terms mean???".
posted by occhiblu at 11:58 AM on February 8, 2005

Matildaben: Mackerel is actually my favorite sushi. But its been my experience that people who are not very familiar with sushi tend to dislike it in the extreme. And since Shawnstring asked what to get/avoid as a first timer, I figure that this is something to stay away from.

Of course, YMMV...

And please, please stay away from the shite meat
posted by googly at 12:04 PM on February 8, 2005

I'm also one the rolls-are-overrated side of things -- I don't actively dislike them (and will certainly eat them if my dining companion wants to order them), but given my druthers I'll take sashimi or nigiri any day. I agree that tuna, salmon, and white fish are good starting points, but I think mackerel is pretty damn tasty too -- if you already like fish, you might take to it as well. (As opposed to shite meat, which really is an acquired taste.)

As for wasabi, I use it quite sparingly, and sometimes skip it if the fish is particularly delectable. This may have a little something to do with the fact that the very first time I ever had wasabi, I actually thought it was a bit of avocado on the side -- and so popped the whole thing into my mouth at once! Heh.

the single most subtle and delicious dish I've ever had are ultra-fresh, just killed raw scallops on the half-shell.

God, I am so hungry right now.
posted by scody at 12:09 PM on February 8, 2005

Sit at the sushi bar and then order off the picture menu. You just point at what you want for the chef. Also if they place the fish on a rice patty, save room by leaving the rice behind. As far as wasabi, mix a scoop with some soy sauce in a bowl and then dip your meat into it. Remember the ginger root is to be eaten when you change to eat a different type of fish.
posted by thomcatspike at 12:12 PM on February 8, 2005

I love shrimp tempura rolls if you can find them. Fried shrimp in a roll, usually with mayonaise - eat it with ginger and soy sauce and a hint of wasabi. Crunchy, warm, weird and amazing.
posted by mai at 12:13 PM on February 8, 2005

Is it true the ginger root cleanses the palate, taste buds, of the mouth?
posted by thomcatspike at 12:21 PM on February 8, 2005

I have tried both varieties of eel, I think cooked only, the only thing I can come close to liking is tempura-fried unagi. Which just tasted like the best fish sticks I can imagine.

And I think maguro is one kind of tuna (pinkish), hamachi is yellow-tail tuna (whitiesh), and toro is the super-fatty belly meat (grey-white) that people have been talking about.
posted by mzurer at 12:46 PM on February 8, 2005

Best answer: Well, you certainly seem to have enough suggestions, so I'll try to be original.

It's nice to get to know your itamae (sushi craftsman? :), especially if you plan to come back. If the restaurant offers a combo platter that is the chef's choice, it's always a nice adventure. Perhaps a quick note to the itamae that you're a beginner, and let him plan your meal?

Careful of rolls - you have the maki sushi, which is the roll that is usually cut in six small pieces, but you also have temaki sushi, which is a hand roll. It's more like a cone of seaweed filled with rice and sushi goodies. Usually, for salmon hand rolls and such, you'll have mayonnaise in there. Some places put in a hell of a lot of mayonnaise, to the point where it's basically rice and mayo with a bit of salmon. I don't like them too much, but crispy salmon skin roll - yum!

My personal favorites are unagi, california rolls (not Japanese, but hey), negihamachi maki (yellowtail and onions roll) and some good tuna nigiri. Salmon is quite nice, too. Eating raw fish definitely is different and most people think it's strange, but there's no accounting for taste. I tells ya, raw salmon tastes just great.
posted by splice at 1:10 PM on February 8, 2005 [1 favorite]

I've recently become completely addicted to sushi after trying it for the first time just about three months ago. I went with a trusted friend and explained that it was my first time and I wasn't okay with anything too wild. She did me up right with a Shrimp Tempura Roll, California Roll, Spider Roll and a couple of individual pieces to augment.

Since then I've tried just about everything that my favorite sushi place offers. Locally, we've been flooded with all-u-can-eat places that make everything fresh, which is a great way to try a little bit of everything, but I readily admit that it just isn't the same and i don't enjoy it quite as much.

My favorites for Nigiri are: crab, shrimp, tuna, yellowtail, fresh salmon and scallop. I enjoy the Rainbow Roll and Spider Roll.
posted by FlamingBore at 1:12 PM on February 8, 2005

If you want to try Sashimi, I would say try a light, white tuna like a Toro-Toro first. This is what hooked me on sushi like the crack rock. If you can get up to NYC, Ruby Foo's is so, so good.
posted by Medieval Maven at 1:15 PM on February 8, 2005

Minor hijack, but...

If you're allergic to shellfish, which types can you eat without fear of shellfish being mixed in?
posted by FunkyHelix at 1:16 PM on February 8, 2005

Many sushi places will serve miso soup while your sushi is being prepared. Miso soup is delicious, but I've found that having a bowl of soup reduces one's ability to eat lots of sushi.
posted by hsoltz at 1:20 PM on February 8, 2005

If you're hoping to get over your aversion to raw fish -- which I hope you do, it's delicious -- I'd recommend starting with salmon. Many places will offer smoked salmon, which is essentially lox. I'd also try "toro," which is fatty tuna. It's very rich, and may remind you of a rare steak.

Keep in mind that most shellfish, including octopus ("tako") will usually be served cooked (usually steamed) unless otherwise specified. The exception is squid ("ika"). One of my favorites is "hokigai," surf clam -- slightly sweet with a nice texture.

I would avoid "uni," sea urchin. It may not even be on the menu at all, but it's sort of like a sea-flavored custard. Some people are wild for it, but it's definitely something to work up to.

(FunkyHelix, sushi places almost always list the ingredients of their maki on the menu, and you are extremely unlikely to come across something that has an unexpected ingredient in it, especially another fish or shellfish. But if you're concerned, just make sure to tell your server about your allergy and ask him/her to warn you if there's any shellfish in what you're ordering. )
posted by me3dia at 1:42 PM on February 8, 2005

I'm in Baltimore and just getting into Sushi.... brownpau went with me the first time... I'd recommend not getting sashimi the first time around... as I did. Kawasaki, in Fells Point, was the most recent place I enjoyed sushi. I hear that they get their fish on Tuesdays and Thursdays. I've found that I like the spicy tuna rolls, and the unagi.

Some friends and I ended up at a place way out the west side of 40, past enchanted village, and had some not-so-fresh sushi.... but the guy making it, was happy to have us, and made us 5 or 6 rolls for free.. the rolls were spicy, and had roe on the outside, and was kind of warm in the middle and crunchy. They were the best sushi rolls I've ever had. We really couldn't understand any of the employees, so we're all unsure of what it was. I'm disappointed I'll never know how to get it again. Even if I go to that place.
posted by TuxHeDoh at 1:48 PM on February 8, 2005

If you really want to learn to appreciate sushi, get nigiri -- the individual pieces of fish on a slab of rice. It's much easier to pay attention to the taste and texture of the fish. In the short run, that means you're more likely to run into some things you don't like. In the long run, you'll figure out what you do like, and maybe even acquire a taste for the weirder stuff.

But, yeah, if you're only going once and you want to order something you know you'll like, go for rolls. They're often pretty westernized (California rolls etc.) and even the traditional ones are easy to like. There's no need to act like a connoisseur if you just want some tasty food.
posted by nebulawindphone at 1:52 PM on February 8, 2005

I'm a total sushi snob, so just to clarify: regular tuna (the red stuff) is maguro, and fatty tuna (pinkish, color becomes lighter depending on how fat it is) is toro. Toro can be further divided into chu-toro (medium fatty) and o-toro (extra fatty - the holy grail of sushi), but it is very unlikely that you'll see this distinction here in the US.

I went to Tojo in Vancouver, which must be one of the very finest sushi restaurants in the world - and I include all of Japan in the world

Tojo is wonderful indeed, but there is much better in Japan.

Not much to add in terms of tips that hasn't been covered yet. For a sushi rookie who wants to explore raw fish, stick to the basics: tuna, salmon, and hamachi nigiri are the safest bets. When you start liking those, you can start to branch out. I'd suggest a first timer stay away from saba or mackerel (not because it's bad, but it is indeed "fishy") and amaebi or raw shrimp - I think both are overwhelming for someone who's never had raw fish. Maki are good for a first timer, as many rolls tend to mask the "raw fish"-ness of sushi. Baby steps.

I don't have any suggestions for Baltimore. My site has many pictures of all kinds of sushi if you want to get an actual look at what these Japanese words mean.
posted by swank6 at 1:58 PM on February 8, 2005

Sushi restaurants offer more than raw fish and seafood, if you're "not crazy about the idea of raw". There are plenty of vegetarian options that are delicious and unusual, whether you're vegetarian or not; it's a great starting point for people that are shy of sushi because they think it's only raw fish.

There's kappa maki (cucumber roll), oshinko (pickled cabbage), daikon (pickled Japanese radish), kampyo (pickled gourd), futomaki (a fat roll with cooked egg and veggies), inari/aburage (fried sweet tofu pouches filled with rice).... Not to mention the other vegetables they use: mushrooms, asparagus, carrots, avocado, sprouts, etc. Many places will have a "chef's choice" vegetarian combo that will include rolls and pieces. I've never gone wrong ordering that.

I usually get a bowl of miso soup, a seaweed salad of some kind, veggie rolls and pieces, and round it off with green tea ice cream. Mmmm. Oh, and a bottle of Kirin Ichiban to drink with the meal, since I'm not that fond of sake. Japanese beers go very well with sushi.
posted by Melinika at 1:59 PM on February 8, 2005

Another note about tuna - depending on your region, you may get served albacore tuna which is white, and thus none of the cuts will exhibit the red/pink associated with most tuna in Japan and in many parts of the U.S. I know Vancouver for one tends to serve a lot of albacore. No idea about Baltimore though.
posted by swank6 at 1:59 PM on February 8, 2005

Ok, I'm going to be a bit contrary here and suggest that while luriete's initial suggestion will make you a sushi-god in no time, as a first-timer you may find tuna belly, raw shrimp, and maybe unagi a bit distasteful (and you probably wouldn't catch the elements of rattlesnake and alligator anyway). Maybe not on the unagi, it's cooked after all. I'm a huge mackerel fan, but it can be weird too. White tuna is amazing, but can freak people out. Under no circumstances get salmon roe, but don't be afraid of the little bitty eggs, which are quite tasty.

Cooked/cooled shrimp (ebi) will probably have a very familiar taste. A good general rule is that if you get a kind of fish in a roll, also get at least one piece of it sushi style (with rice underneath, also called nigiri). But don't be afraid of rolls -- most people like them and they're a good gateway drug. If you're at a good place, try the egg custard (tamago) too.

If you really want to enjoy it, though, don't drown it in soy sauce.

This is Sushi Yasuda, one of my (cheaper) favorites in NYC. It has some pretty good tips about eating sushi and some goals to aim for. I think the best advice I got from there is, if you're going to use soy sauce, just dip the very tip of the fish in. It gives plenty of flavor with plenty of fish to taste.
posted by ontic at 2:04 PM on February 8, 2005

You know, I had had other dinner plans for tonight, but reading this thread, I'm going to have to go for sushi now. You're all making me hungry!

I am not crazy about the idea of raw

Put that thought aside, and do your best to replace it with "I don't know if I like it unless I've tried it." Before I had sushi, I too was in the "Raw fish? Doesn't sound so good" category. Once I tried it, though, I was solidly in the "This is incredible! I can't believe I missed out on this for so long" camp. (And yes, as others have noted, not all sushi involves raw seafood, but the raw seafood is the best part, IMO.)

And I'll second the recommendation of the scallops. Wow. Just, wow.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 2:10 PM on February 8, 2005

note: uni and unagi look all-too-similar, especially when you're quickly marking your choices while socializing at the bar... a careless tick-mark will lead to quite a surprise. this is an error you will only make once, however.
posted by RockyChrysler at 2:24 PM on February 8, 2005

BBQ eel. Everybody likes it.
posted by fixedgear at 2:34 PM on February 8, 2005

You're in for a treat. Try everything.
posted by xammerboy at 2:57 PM on February 8, 2005

I'll eat damn near anything and love sushi, but my personal recommendation would be to stay away from raw squid ("ika" in Japanese). Must be onomatopoeia for what you say when you bite into it and start to chew: Ick! Uuuuhh...
posted by bradhill at 3:01 PM on February 8, 2005

luriete had the right take on wasabi. Most of the places you go to will have cut the wasabi with horseradish (if there is any actually wasabi in the green mix at all). Real wasabi is great but the subsitute is better avoided.
posted by Mitheral at 3:04 PM on February 8, 2005

Everyone has got their own preferences. What I have found to work the best for me is to find a good place, sit at the sushi bar and talk to the sushi chef. They are usually very accomodating.
posted by szg8 at 3:58 PM on February 8, 2005

szg8 - best advice, and what I was about to offer. Make it interactive. Sit at the bar, hopefully at a time when it's not too crowder and talk to the sushi chef. "This is the first time I've ever had sushi. Can you help guide me through it?" Try, if you can, only two pieces of any kind at once. If you like it, tell the chef and ask for something s/he thinks you might like that is similar. If you don't like it, say so and ask for something different. Get things that are cooked and raw. Get things that are spicy and mild. Tip well.
posted by plinth at 4:23 PM on February 8, 2005

By the way, as far as raw is concerned, I personally got over that really quick. The mouthfeel, texture and flavor won me over. It's way more gentle and subtle than even the best filet mignon. Ebi (shrimp) is cooked - but you've had shrimp before, I assume. Tamago (egg) is cooked, but it's different from just cooked egg--it's slightly sweetened.
posted by plinth at 4:26 PM on February 8, 2005

The first time I tried sushi, I just jumped in and got a combination nigiri sushi and sashimi plate with a couple rolls. I loved all of it. If you get a combo plate with the sushi chef's choices, chances are they won't give you anything too scary (like quail egg), because the more adventurous stuff tends to be more expensive (in my experience.) And try the mackerel - it's my favorite and I liked it the first time I had sushi. Tell the chef it's your first time, he'll probably be sensitive to your squirmishness and avoid giving you anything too outrageous. If you're wary of wasabi, just add a bit to the soy sauce to mellow it out.
posted by sophie at 5:05 PM on February 8, 2005

Toro-toro-toro-toro-delicious-fatty-melts-in-your mouth- expensive, but so tasty-delicious toro! It really is very different than the other tuna on the menu.

Good fresh raw fish is just something one needs to get used to in this world. I've never had stomach issues and I've eaten fairly inexpensive sushi and quite expensive sushi. Reputation and, I hate to say it, price should guide you in your raw fish eating forays though.

Also, I'm a big fan of tobiko on the outside of my sushi role and seaweed salad.

Not quite on topic but japanese soups are the bees knees too, a nice soba or udon soup is one of the most restorative dishes I can think of.

Happy tasting!
posted by prettyboyfloyd at 5:29 PM on February 8, 2005

ShawnString: near baltimore, maryland, us

You're in luck! Sushi Sono, located on the waterfront near the Columbia Mall, is rated as one of the best in the entire Baltimore area. I've been there multiple times for lunch and once for dinner. It was my first sushi experience, but luckily I went with others who knew much more about sushi.

It's a bit expensive (good sushi usually is). Getting stuffed at lunch costs around 45-50 bucks per person.

And don't sweat the raw stuff. You'll be surprised by how fresh and completely non-fishy it tastes, as long as you go to a quality location.
posted by jsonic at 5:37 PM on February 8, 2005

Any hints / recommendations on roe selection? I've had it several times but still feel like a newbie.
posted by mikeh at 6:44 PM on February 8, 2005

my personal recommendation would be to stay away from raw squid ("ika" in Japanese). Must be onomatopoeia for what you say when you bite into it and start to chew: Ick! Uuuuhh...

Then you'd hate what I had on Friday night here in Korea, and love: freshly killed octopus, chopped, still wriggling as you chew it. Exquisite cruelty perhaps, but delicious.

I love raw squid, too, but the wrigglers take more getting used to, I suppose.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 6:49 PM on February 8, 2005

This is what I would do if I were a sushi newbie:

Go to somewhere generally acclaimed as 'good', at an offpeak hour, like 4:30 pm on a Friday.

Take a seat at the sushi bar, explain to the chef that you have never eaten sushi before and you would be personally honored if you could buy him a Sapporo in exchange for his introduction to the joy of sushi - no holds barred, he brings it, you try it. Maybe go with a friend who can ask him in Japanese, if you're shy. Sushi chefs take their art quite seriously and I often feel like they feel underappreciated here in the good old U. S. of A.

If it sounds corny - like a parody of Nipponese-ness - I guarantee you it's not. I've never met a sushi chef who wouldn't be delighted to oblige. In fact my introduction to sushi came this way and I still like to drop in at my favorite sushi place (Japonica on 12th near University) and tell the guy, "Please, pour two Sapporos, one for you, one for me; put a pigeon egg in each one; and bring whatever seems good to you, until I cannot eat any more." This is really what sushi is about.
posted by ikkyu2 at 7:08 PM on February 8, 2005

I think On preview: What ikkyu2 said. It's worth doing that at any new sushi place you try, even if you're not new at sushi. Hell, it's worth doing that all the time.
posted by mendel at 7:49 PM on February 8, 2005

Unagi, ebi, hamachi - yum! I love wasabi and even eat it by itself.
posted by Lynsey at 7:53 PM on February 8, 2005

I'm with splice. Let 'em know you are a beginner and how much you want to spend, and let the sushi chef fix you up a plate. Hold back a few extra dollars (ten or so) to reorder anything you particularly liked.

As for wasabi, I never mix it with soy sauce since I find that merely dipping the chopsticks in the soy leaves enough for my palate. Then the smallest smear of wasabi on the tip of a chopstick about halfway through chewing the piece is, for me, the perfect finish. It may not be traditional, but that's the way I like it.
posted by mischief at 8:51 PM on February 8, 2005

Unagi = heaven on earth. Green-lipped mussels = you have actually ascended to heaven and are eating the nectar of the gods. Bon appetit!
posted by melixxa600 at 11:11 PM on February 8, 2005

For what it's worth, Zagat lists Sushi Sono in Columbia as having the best in the area.

Keep your mind open, and enjoy. If you don't like the first thing you try, don't give up. There's a wide variety of flavours and textures. I'd be surprised if you don't find a few that you love.
posted by mosch at 12:29 AM on February 9, 2005

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