How to rate suburban sushi

Hibachi Saba

One fish, same price, two very different results

OsakaSabaI live in a town of 30,000 that has five restaurants specializing in sushi. Can a community our size really support that many establishments providing a top quality dining experience? My suburban sushi tour aims to find out.

I go at lunchtime and try to order the same thing at each place—the lowest priced sushi combo, plus a side order of saba (mackerel marinated in rice vinegar) to see what the restaurant can do with a custom order. The two saba orders at left show the wide variation I’ve encountered. One was beautifully prepared and presented and generous, the other raggedy and sparse.

Nigiri (raw fish) sushi is best for comparative critique because there are fewer variables. There’s the fish, rice, the presentation. That’s pretty much it. I don’t like to eat sushi with my fingers so I generally use chopsticks, turning the fish over into a shoyu/wasabi mix before I eat. If the rice falls apart while I’m trying to do this, it gets demerits from me. In addition, the combinations also include a bowl of watery (but not always) miso soup and a forgettable California roll.

You can find a detailed listing of my findings (which I’ll continue to update) through this Yelp list, but Yelp isn’t necessarily the best source of sophisticated sushi advice in a non-sophisticated region. Not a few of our locals think sushi is from Thailand, and most focus their reviews on the rolls rather than the nigiri which is where a sushi chef makes his (I’ve never seen a female sushi chef) mark or falls short.

Also, a frequent criticism of Yelpers is that the fish tastes frozen, an easy slur that’s not always relevant. I’d rather have sushi grade fish that has been flash frozen at sea and carefully defrosted than “fresh” fish that’s sat around awhile. However, I expect most of the local places do have access to fresh fish if only from the Sysco truck. What happens after it arrives is what counts. How is it kept (and for how long, before it makes way into a Spicy Tuna or Dragon Roll)? And most important, how skilled is the chef at interpreting each piece and making sure, elegant cuts?

I found one place that really knows fish, though it’s not great on presentation, and one which is great on presentation and fair on the fish. The other three are going through the motions, for those for whom “sushi” is an end result rather than a complex tasting experience. I bet It’s the same in your town, but if not let me know.

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