Fabulous Sushi
September 7, 2004 2:37 PM   Subscribe

At a Japanese restaurant, I'm tormented by the fear that a whole world of tasty Japanese treats lays just outside of my reach hidden behind a wall of California roll. I have a theory: if I challenged a handful of local sushi chefs to show me a broader range of more authentic Japanese food, at least one will be willing and able. I'm afraid that years of making smoked salmon-cream cheese role may have dulled his skills and strangled his spirit. I want to be ready to help pull him out of his waking matrix-esque nightmare but I just don't know enough about it. Besides the stuff that you can get at any Japanese restaurant anywhere in the world, what's the most wonderful thing you've ever had in a Japanese restaurant?

What I have in mind is a Japanese tasting menu. Lots of little treats that can be whipped up by the sushi chef, although not necessarily sushi. I would also lean towards dishes that have been perfected over hundreds of years rather than dishes thrown together to appeal to a new American palate. But good food is good food, so just give it your best shot.
posted by stuart_s to Food & Drink (26 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
posted by skwm at 2:40 PM on September 7, 2004

I once went to Tojo in Vancouver, a shrine for foodies everywhere and often considered the best sushi and sashimi outside of a few select spots in Tokyo.

The bill was several hundred dollars Canadian for two people, sitting at the bar, served by Tojo himself. It was worth every penny and if I could afford it I'd do it regularly.

Some of his dishes - the buttery, flower-tasting raw scallops served on a bed of shredded truffle; the tuna belly wrapped in sheets of tomago, with slivers of baby asparagus; chunks of fatty pork, maybe some kind of bacon, sauteed in a delicate gingery gravy and crispy on the edges ... It was really absolutely incredible.

Tojo asked us what we were allergic to, what we loved and what we were ambivalent about, and told us to tell him when we were full. He perfectly paced 8-10 dishes, giving us both slightly different variations so that we could share a bit, and was a gracious and tremendously friendly host, and totally unobtrusive. It was us and the food, that's it.

It was like Nobu times a thousand, except really good. I cannot recommend it enough.

If you get a chance, try a good kaiseki meal anywhere ... That's always interesting and you'll get to try lots of interesting bits. It's a sort of tasting menu. I know a couple of good places in Manhattan, and one in San Francisco, that do decent Kaiseki for under $100 per person.
posted by luriete at 2:46 PM on September 7, 2004

Stop tempting me - I lived in Vancouver for three years and never did Tojo's - it's first on the list for when I go back.

My favourite off the beaten path dishes... Tobiko with quail egg. Monkfish liver. Little snails in the shell (you evict them with a toothpick). Spicy lobster roll. Alaska roll (this has varying definitions, but the one I like is basically a California roll with salmon added). Deep-fried whitefish roll. (The entire roll. Deepfried.)

But for all that, the most incredible food in the world is just a simple piece of plain, raw, salmon on a bit of rice.
posted by Gortuk at 2:56 PM on September 7, 2004

Luriete, that meal sounds amazing.

Is kaiseki just a more formal version of chef's choice? Or is that precisely the concept of chef's choice in a sushi restaurant? Because sushi lovers far more experienced than I am (I'm adventurous enough not to stick to rolls, but I haven't ventured beyond tuna, salmon, yellow tail, squid or octopus. Oh, and eel, but I don't think that was raw) have always said the thing I should try is basically leaving everything up to the chef.
posted by emelenjr at 3:00 PM on September 7, 2004

If you are thinking of pushing the Japanese food envelope, I can see that these are the foods I've had in Japan that have really blown me away. I don't actually know what most of them are called in Japanese, but I know that they are tasty.

- yakitori: especially the raw chicken yakitori, which was sooooooo good.

- live sashimi -- they take the fish out of the tank, fillet it, and serve it to you still flopping around. gross and weird, but sooooooo tasty!

- if you haven't gone beyond the california roll, make sure you have the otoro and chutoro, the sea urchin (my favorite sushi) and fresh clam, and the eel.

- if you haven't had sukiyaki -- glass noodles with beef and raw egg in broth -- then you should definitely try it.

- anything made with tofu. some of the most amazing things I've had in Japan were a small square of very small tofu, served with three different dark sauces, which you just eat with a wooden spoon -- delicious! and at a restaurant i had what was essentially a cold tofu soup with miso paste over warm rice. I don't know what this was called, but we had it several times at the end of a meal and it was great.

My real advice is to find the best Japanese restaurant in your area, one run by actual Japanese people and which will probably be very expensive. Then sit at the bar, ask for the very freshest fish that day, and have it whatever it is. The best meals I've had in my life have been a six a.m. in the Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo. The squid, tuna, mackerel, and urchin I've had there taste nothing like what you have when you don't have it fresh. The kaiseki style meal of 8 or 9 items all chosen because they are supremely fresh is, IMO, the best meal in the world.

(On preview: ditto. And if anyone knows anyplace in Boston where such a meal can be had, please share! -- I just moved here and haven't had Japanese food since arriving.)
posted by josh at 3:01 PM on September 7, 2004

A big part of eating sushi for me is the theater: a good sushi chef goes through these ritualistic motions that are like Tai Chi. Most sushi chefs outside Japan know that their patrons don't expect it, and they just shuffle through the preparation with no flair.

Ordinary sushi at a good sushi joint is better than weird sushi at a mediocre joint. I never understood why people willingly ate ama-ebi until I had it at a really good place.

That said, one of my favorite off-the-beaten-path items is ume-shiso maki. No fish: just pickled plum and shiso leaf. Weird and wonderful to the western palate. Most sushi joints can prepare it, even if they don't list it on the menu.
posted by adamrice at 3:19 PM on September 7, 2004

Luriete: what are the places in Manhattan you'd recommend?
posted by bshort at 3:56 PM on September 7, 2004

luriete and josh, I think you've just made me want to try some (proper) sushi.

posted by toby\flat2 at 4:22 PM on September 7, 2004

Spicy scallop rolls, spicy tuna rolls, spider rolls (tempura soft-shell crab), salmon skin rolls. None are too too adventurous but every place can make them for you and they are off the beaten path.
posted by vito90 at 5:14 PM on September 7, 2004

josh, for what it's worth, the quintessential place people around here seem to go to for Japanese is Ginza (review from the Pheonix mirrored here). Friends of mine who've lived in Japan seem quite happy to continue eating there, if that says anything. There's also a pretty good list of restaurants at boston.com/dining, which can do area/price/cuisine searches of the area.
posted by whatzit at 5:15 PM on September 7, 2004

My favorite lately has been fish roe with the yolk of a quail egg on top. I have no idea what they call it, but I love it.
posted by crunchland at 5:17 PM on September 7, 2004

josh: JP seafood has some really good sushi- I go there once or twice a month (and their unagi bento is very comforting). I've also had good sukiyaki at Kaya in Porter Square. And for the none glamorous world of Japanese food- Porter exchange at Porter Square and Cafe Japonaise on Beacon for all your Pan needs- an pan, cream pan, melon pan. And of course Super 88 for your kitchen needs Porter exchange also has a market)

Back to the original post: As much as I like sushi I find myself gravitating to places serving katsu curry (breaded and fried pork cutlet over rich with curry sauce), noodle shops, and the aforementioned bakeries. The only thing I wish is that Boston had a yakitori shop- just yakitori.
These are more of a comfort food for me and not the supreme vision of Japanese dinig- for that it's sushi as fresh as possible.
posted by rodz at 5:49 PM on September 7, 2004

Josh, Ginza is very good. Fugakyu is better, and Oishi is sublime - for the Boston area, anyway. I'm half ready to book a flight to Vancouver tonight...

(and my absolute favorite thing to eat at a sushi restaurant is a simple, perfect, plump, purple piece of tuna)
posted by jalexei at 5:55 PM on September 7, 2004

Oh man, all I want to do now is eat sushi!

Thanks for the Boston suggestions everybody. I am going to check every single one of them out.
posted by josh at 6:02 PM on September 7, 2004

This looks useful: sushifinder.com. I'd love to learn more about Kaiseki. Linkrace, anyone?
posted by mwhybark at 6:04 PM on September 7, 2004

This is a great article (no longer online, thanks Wayback Machine!) by Stephen Shaw (who later went on to help run eGullet) about how to do your sushi eating.
posted by mkultra at 6:08 PM on September 7, 2004

Kaiseki is a formal Japanese cuisine formerly associated with nobility and the wealthy. Even today, kaiseki-ryori is rarely eaten by the average Japanese. Maybe once or twice a year. It is always expensive, and often consists of many small dishes, often cold items, picked, salted, etc. The formality surrounding kaiseki is also what makes it special: lots of hand-crafted lacquer bowls or serving trays, hand-made pottery, servers almost always in kimono, etc.

I enjoy kaiseki, more as design and art and as an experience, than as food. Give me a bowl of real Hakata ramen instead ;)
posted by gen at 6:51 PM on September 7, 2004

History of Kaiseki

In 1749, the eighth Shogun, Yoshimasa Ashikaga, built a small, rustic teahouse which is now part of the Ginkakuji Temple in Kyoto. In its secluded environment he entertained guests, using exquisite utensils from foreign lands in the preparation of green tea (cha).

At first, the tea ceremony (cha-no-yu) which developed was the leisure pastime of nobility and the wealthy because of the large investment in a teahouse and elegant utensils. However, as time passed, a more humble version of the tea ceremony called wabizuki was developed, because hospitality and attention to detail were felt to be more important than the opulent displays popularized by Yoshimasa. Thus it became possible for anyone to participate in the tea ceremony.

With the tea ceremony, there developed a small meal of a few choice morsels. These minimalist dishes were called kaiseki since the meal was similar in purpose to the warm stones (seki) which Buddhist priests put in their robes: to forget their empty stomachs (kai) while studying and meditating. Kaiseki restaurants and their Kyoto variants, the kyo-ryori restaurants, remain today one of the main learning centers for the art of the tea ceremony.
Although the name kaiseki reveals its Buddhist roots, the essence of the food service comes from traditional Japanese Shinto beliefs regarding the primacy of nature. The four seasons and seasonal foods are the cornerstones.
posted by gen at 6:56 PM on September 7, 2004

Here's another good link, more on Kyoto-style kaiseki, but more descriptive of the parts of the meal.
Each of the courses of a Kyoto-style kaiseki has a special name and standard style of cooking as listed below. All courses are served on beautiful handcrafted pottery and ceramic works of art.

1.Gohan ( located on the diner’s left )
2.Miso-shiru ( located on the diner’s right )
Lots more at the site.
posted by gen at 6:59 PM on September 7, 2004

The simplest things, made well, are sometimes the best. At a place in Evanston, IL a few years ago, I had a starter dish that was [somethingsomething] ponzuae, rectangles of simple white fish, floating in a sour marinade, comparable to a seviche. Simple and perfect--it was fantastic. I think the quality was directly related to the skill of the chef.

I'll put in a vote for okonomiyaki, too. Comfort food--something moms make for kids when they come home from school.
posted by gimonca at 7:24 PM on September 7, 2004

I'm already starving since I missed dinner tonight, but a flight to Vancouver for a meal at Tojo's is really not that insane. It is so amazingly good that it will wreck cheap sushi/sashimi/fish forever. The Tojo's Tuna appetizer special comes in two sizes - regular and large. Get about three of the large ones, because you will all be fighting over every morsel of the melt-in-your-mouth-like-whipped-cream tuna. Also, they will run off a bunch of the nightly specials after you are seated with a nice beer and menu. The woman that we call Triangle Woman (her hair and bangs are a perfect triangle) wears fushia-pink lipstick and will go through each of the specials in amazing detail, but unless you speak Japanese, you'll likely only have an inkling of what is actually on special that night. Just order them all -- they're all tiny, tasty, fresh, and will re-establish your eating equilibrium. Squash blossom tempura, a variety of mushrooms, scallops, etc... it doesn't matter what it is, it will change the way you view seafood. This doesn't directly relate to the question of other food, but there is a whole world beyond the California Roll! It is said that the skill of the sushi chef actually imparts taste to the fish; something about the way s/he (usually he, actually) slices the fish can relate to the way the fish rests within your mouth, and the way it breaks down in flavour. I'm not sure if I buy all of that (fresh fish has much to do with it), but after eating fish with Tojo, you've got to wonder what he's got up his sleeve.
posted by fionab at 7:37 PM on September 7, 2004

Last summer we stayed in a fishing village. I ate maguro-don (raw tuna on a bowl of rice with some seasonings0) every day and didn't get tired of it. It was prepared like yamakake, that is, suspended in gooey grated potato slurry with soy sauce, aonori (slivers of dried seaweed) and wasabi. Another favorite is oyako-don, marinated chicken cooked in egg and green onions with various other goodies as a topping for a bowl of rice.
posted by planetkyoto at 8:50 PM on September 7, 2004

Luriete - What is the name of the place in San Francsico where you have gotten Kaiseki?

Anybody else have recommendations for sushi/japanese restaurants in the bay area?
posted by rorycberger at 1:02 AM on September 8, 2004

There's so much more to Japanese food than sushi, sashimi and California rolls. The problem is, its going to be hard to find them outside of Japan since many restaurants in Japan focus on one particular type of dish and its variations.

The most common is ramen. Not the instant kind. Real fresh ramen in all its wonderful varieties; bbq pork, black vinegar, different soups and all the weird variations (cheese ramen is one of my occasional favorites).

Tonkatsu is also awesome. Pork fillet deep fried. Yes, I know it sound bad, bad it is so delicious.

Then there is tepenyaki. Noone does beef like the Japanese. Kobe beef is something out of this world.

Oh, has anyone mentioned the squid and mayonaise pizza yet :-)
posted by Meridian at 5:50 AM on September 8, 2004

Natto. Looks like snot, smells like old socks, tastes like ... natto. People in Tokyo love it, most other Nihonjin think it looks and tastes like snot. Fermented soy beans that get stringy and gooey - like okra - when you stir them up. Add mustard and eat with rice.

Shiokara: fermented raw squid guts with bits of tenticle. I admit - it sounds worse than it tastes. A great bar snack with beer.

Unagi don. Grilled eel on rice, a specialty of Kyoto. One bowl of this and you will never again complain about any other fish having a "fishy flavor."
posted by zaelic at 6:11 AM on September 8, 2004

Decent Kaiseki can be had in San Francisco for well under $100 per person at the always-interesting Minako Organic Sushi - the multicourse "shogun" meal is only about $25 per person early in the evening. It's not Tojo, certainly, but it's good. Their regular fish and shellfish kaiseki is about $30 or $40 per person. Service is friendly but slow, as the kitchen is perpetually understaffed.

Another good place to try in SF is Tanto, at 120 Cyril Magnin at O'Farrell, which has a menu that changes seasonally. Their late-winter menu included things like salmon-ball claypot, ganmodoki (fried patties of tofu, grated yam, kikurage and gingko, served over dashi with very, very hot mustard), kabocha (sweet stewed Japanese pumpkin served with mitsuba in a potato-starch broth) and plenty more. Not too pricy.
A lot of folks swear by Ebisu, in the Sunset (1200 block of 9th ave, between Lincoln and Irving, I think). Loud, chaotic, crazy waits, no reservations (although I might be wrong about that very last part) ... Very fresh fish, competent chefs, decent prices. A great meal but not a destination restaurant.

In Manhattan, I haven't had anything that compares with the quality of the fish at Jewel Bako, which is ridiculously expensive, or the quality of the meal overall - the presentation, the cooking, the preparation - at Sushi Yasuda, which is sublime. Fantastic. Amazing. Make reservations far in advance.

Blue Ribbon in Soho is good, much better than average, and a lot of fun, too. But also expensive, full of fancy people who care more, I think, about where they are than what they're eating. At Yasuda, however, it's about the FOOD. I do think, however, that even with the very high quality and everything, it's still a bit too expensive. Maybe I'm just cheap, or maybe I'm spoiled by places like Tojo.

Hapon is one of the better values in NYC sushi, as is Sushi of Gari. Always dependable and you can usually get a table at either place.

Even the omakase at Nobu Next Door is decent - I mean you wouldn't write a poem about it, but the price is good - usually under $75 per person for 6-8 courses including sashimi, dessert, maybe some lobster tempura and stuff like that. And you never have to wait more than 30-40 minutes, not like when it first opened and you were there for hours.

Also in NYC: kaiseki at Sugiyama is incredible. Been there once and was amazed. Had low expectations not knowing anything about it. Fantastic service, wonderful food, and a great relaxing atmosphere. Perfect evening, actually.

There are lots of good cheap Japanese places in Manhattan as well ... there's a place in the diamond district that only serves various types of katsu and is always good. I think it's called Katsu-Hama. Also a Japanese street food place in the village that has these great octopus fritters, can't remember what it's called. There's also a couple of great noodle counters down in the village too.
posted by luriete at 10:45 AM on September 8, 2004 [1 favorite]

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