Yes, there is such a thing as too much sushi.
At the end of our sushi odyssey, seekers cried “no more.” Perfectly good raw fish, rice and seaweed went into the trash. Whether they stirred the nocturnal urgings of the raccoons and other night raiders, I do not know. Our panel finished its wine and scattered.
And left me to memorialize the experience.
What is Sushi?
What we regard as sushi took shape in 18th century Japan. Rice was seasoned with rice vinegar and pressed with fresh fish from Tokyo Bay. This “fast food” was eaten without utensils. While there are myriad ways to prepare sushi, the constant is sticky, short-grained rice seasoned with a mixture of vinegar, sugar, and salt.
In the 1920’s, outdoor sushi carts blossomed in Japan. With the advent of refrigeration, indoor “sushi bars” proliferated. The booming post-war economy and advances in shipping helped introduce sushi world-wide. The first reported sushi counter was in 1962, at Nippon Restaurant on East 52nd Street in New York. In 1970, the sushi bar “Osho” opened in Hollywood and catered to celebrities; a few years later, a chef in Los Angeles invented the ubiquitous California Roll. Forty-three years later, you can buy packaged sushi in Kroger, and Current Magazine is chasing the tail of Washtenaw County’s twenty-or-so sushi restaurants.
Restaurants have now developed signature “rolls” that are visually ostentatious, as opposed to the minimalist presentation of nigiri sushi. These are often filled with cooked food, such as fried shrimp or crab, oddities such as cream cheese, and topped with sauces or salmon roe. Even bars and restaurants that don’t otherwise serve sushi may feature a homemade roll on its appetizer menu, such as “The Cheesecake Factory’s” “Spicy Ahi Tempura Roll.”
The most common form of Western sushi is nigiri; this is a small mound of seasoned rice with a piece of raw fish or other toppings. Another common offering is maki, with a piece of nori (seaweed) rolled around rice and fish or other ingredients.
Sashimi (raw fish alone) is typically eaten with chopsticks, it is not improper to eat sushi with the fingers. Traditionalists will not add wasabi (grated horseradish) to sushi, trusting the chef to have properly flavored it; however, most Western sushi is served with a bit of wasabi, pickled ginger, and soy sauce. That inky, salty delicacy, by the way, is not supposed to soak the rice. Soy sauce is traditionally dabbed on the topping, perhaps with a brush of pickled ginger, which is to be eaten separately as a palate cleanser.
The New York Times notes in a 1997 article the challenges of describing sushi. All might agree that freshness of the fish is the key; but what is “fresh?” For example, the tuna that finds its way to Ann Arbor on a Friday evening was not swimming that morning—perhaps not even that week. Commercial tuna boats travel long distances to find their catch, and often don’t return until taking on 20,000 lbs. of fish—which will have been iced down and held for close to two weeks. The Times notes, “If well handled, such a fish will have a clean taste, no fishy odor, and seem to dissolve in the mouth.”
So “freshness” really means the care with which a fish has been preserved in ice, and may encompass color, texture, clarity, and smell. Fish that “melts in the mouth” has a fattier texture. That ruby red tuna steak that looks great for the grill, for instance, is not as prized for sushi as the pale pink “toro” or belly cut with the highest fat content.
The Times further notes that the first sign of a good sushi bar is an immaculate counter, with an orderly and attractive arrangement of fish. But fish isn’t everything; sushi chefs can spend years perfecting their rice, which should be “chewy with a glossy sheen.” The seaweed wrap should be crisp and crackly, and the soy sauce mellow rather than salty. The ginger should be ivory, indicating the absence of dye, and in the best sushi bars, the wasabi is freshly grated root, rather than a reconstituted blob of wasabi paste.
Sushi chefs, ideally, are masters who have taken up to ten years of apprenticeship to perfect their craft. The Times calls them the “Green Berets of the culinary world,” noting that a good chef works “quickly and fluidly, without being flashy, and exudes an aura of authority.” With such a chef, a diner cannot go wrong by ordering “omakase,” the chef’s choice—which we did at a few places on our Odyssey.
The Sushi Odyssey presented a particular challenge. As with most others, the difficulty was paring down the list of restaurants. It is beyond the scope of this article to sample the twenty-odd places in Washtenaw County which specialize, at least in part, in sushi. We narrowed it down by eliminating chain restaurants; a few others with scant press or reviews; and finally – in one fell swoop – the five or six sushi counters near UM’s central campus. (We would have selected Sadako, which tended to have higher reviews than the others, but they were closed.)
To compensate for the narrow selection, we dispensed with the usual Odyssey scoring and ranking system. Instead we assigned everyone to pick up two orders each, assembled at a final meeting spot, and went through the eight take-out orders one by one, with gusto, to trepidation, and finally some aversion as we transitioned into a sushi coma.
Everyone has different tastes and there is definitely no single way to approach sushi if you are new to it. Here are some tips to get started.
• Try cooked items first. Not all sushi is raw. Sushi restaurants often make rolls that are cooked tempura style (battered & fried). California rolls are a great place to start too, with avocado, cucumber and cooked imitation crab meat (called kamaboko or surimi).
• Start with what you know.
Sushi is not that different from eating any fish, it’s just not cooked. If you were to put it in the context of ‘seafood’ it should be easier on the neophyte palate. If you like grilled or smoked salmon, then a piece of salmon sushi shouldn’t be that much of a reach.
• Try ‘vegetarian’ sushi.
Just to get yourself in the ‘sushi mode’ you might want to try rolls without any meat in them. Kappa Maki (cucumber rolls) are a good place to start.
• Start with the cut rolls (maki) instead of sushi or sashimi. The cut roll or hand roll (temaki) is a good way to start off if the thought of eating raw fish might be off-putting. With the rolls, the items are inside and not staring you in the face, and the rice is a nice buffer for you to become more accustomed to the concept of eating fish raw.
• Try the items with the least ‘fishy’ intensity. The milder items are a great place to start. Scallops (hotategai), red snapper (tai), squid (ika), and halibut (ohyo) are particularly mild, and are great for beginners. The general rule is the less oily, the less fishy, so keep that in mind.
The Sushi Standouts
Sushi Zen & Miki
This popular downtown Ann Arbor eatery was purchased in 2011 by Yoon and Felisha Kim, the owners of the popular Brighton spot, Sushi Zen. They have a mind-boggling list of specialty rolls (French Kiss Roll, Banana Hama with banana and sweet potato, and Sunday Morning Roll with deep-fried salmon and cream cheese, to name a few).
On the recommendation of the server, we opted for a Ruby Roll (spicy tuna, avocado & tempura crunch inside. Topped with seared tuna, salmon, red snapper, shrimp & crab. Drizzled with eel sauce, wasabi mayo & spicy mayo. Sprinkled with red tobiko). We added a combination plate. Rose was impressed with the latter, due to its beautiful presentation, variety, and quality of the fish. And the Ruby Roll justified the server’s recommendation.
But to sushi purists, are these over-the-top rolls with their non-traditional ingredients truly sushi, or are they merely creative appetizers – much like the “martini bar” craze pushed the boundaries of a traditional martini well into “fru-fru drink” territory?
106 S. 1st St. Ann Arbor (734) 665-8226 www.sushizenusa.com
“Won’t you take me to, Sushi Town?” Yes, we were understandably dubious about a sushi counter tucked next to a hardware store, but to the extent it is relevant, their online review scores were by far the best in the area. They immediately impressed with one of the prettiest presentations, the signature “Sushi Town Roll” with tempura shrimp, “real” crab (beware the imitation), avocado, cucumber, lettuce, “crisps,” and house sauce. Heather commented, “It’s a nice appetizer, but not necessarily as sushi.” But the quality of Sushi Town’s fish was high across the board. The fresh tuna and salmon jumped out of the special “Boston Night” riff on a California roll, and Patti was overall pleased with the texture of Sushi Town’s fish.
But the Boston reference was lost on us, as with the Oklahoma and Idaho rolls. At least the “Cheddar” did feature actual baked cheddar cheese.
740 Packard St. Ann Arbor (734) 327-8646 www.sushitown.org
Another full-service restaurant, Godaiko is alternately praised as the best local source of sushi, to over-rated and over-priced. Our panel was generally pleased and found the portion size justified the expense. This was also Jack’s favorite, and he took the opportunity to point out the utilization of higher-quality “toro” cut. Heather, too, was impressed with the texture of Godaiko’s fish. Mike commented favorably on the precision of the cuts of the fish, and Rose noted their “clean, fresh flavors.”
Heather, with Rose, also raved over the “Love Potion” roll (breaded shrimp, salmon and scallions wrapped with avocado and masago – a type of roe), but Patti would have preferred more flavor in her Ultimate Spicy Tuna roll.
3115 Oak Valley Dr. Ann Arbor (734) 930-2880 www.mygodaiko.com
The Rest of the Crowd
It would not be fair to single out the other five places we tried. Heather probably nailed the overall tenor of the evening, with “Midwestern sushi can be very good but it is not outstanding.” One restaurant’s offering went into the garbage after just one tentative bite. Another presented an indiscernible fish that could have been surf clam. Thin, red on the outside and white on the underbelly, it was tough. Jack quipped, “I have a hole in my shoe this can fix.” Another thought it was ‘krab’, and Patti offered “pig ear” sushi. Jack pressed it and warned, “Don’t eat it.”
Final Thoughts And Lessons Learned
This was a tough Odyssey. Even given our foodie credentials, and Jack’s experience in Japan, many of us had newly burgeoning sushi awareness. For example, tasting the salmon roe topping, Ken commented, “This orange stuff is good!”
Similarly, Patti had not previously tried eel. Taking a bite, she exclaimed, “Nick! Eel is delicious!” Whereupon a long discussion of eel ensued. Heather agreed, “I love eel but I once got the wrong kind at home. It was a horrible experience. They were baby eels and it was like cooking a pot of worms.” Jack went from there to discuss eel fishing, and commented that with all this pure protein he was eating, “By 11 PM I’m going to be Superman!” That said, no one was feeling too super at the end of the night, as we all had varying cases of sushi fatigue.
Sushi is not an “all you can eat” product. It should be eaten within minutes of the chef’s presentation, and thoughtfully. As the New York Times noted, at a superior sushi restaurant, “The atmosphere is serene.” In contrast, our takeout sushi was not eaten immediately, and our increasingly raucous evening was anything but Zen-like.
We hope to have offered some insight into the history of Sushi and its foray into the Midwest. Let an experienced sushi guide take you to some of the best places. Engage in
“Okonomi,” the practice of ordering sushi a few pieces at a time. And when you are done, politely say, "gochiso sama deshita," which literally means "it was quite a feast." It’s best if you keep your comments about shoe leather to yourself.
My odyssey panel set out armed with only the knowledge of a Western foodie, save for our resident expert, Jack Savas, who served in Japan as a diplomat. His diplomatic skill was not as useful as anticipated, as we discovered when Jack began greeting Washtenaw county sushi chefs in fluent Japanese, only to discover that many local chefs are of Korean descent.
The sushi panel consisted of all veterans from previous Current Food Odysseys (Pizza, Beer, Burger, BBQ, and Vegetarian).
(From left to right)
Nick Roumel Your author, a food lover with many years of restaurant, bar, and catering experience, and a long time food writer.
Heather Leavitt Heather is the owner of “Sweet Heather Anne” (www.sweetheatheranne.com) famous for its beautifully designed cakes and other sweets. Heather also cooked at eve the restaurant for three years, assisted Courtney Clark of “Cake Nouveau” with her Food Network “Cake Challenge” successes, and has been recognized in Metro Detroit Bride, CBS Detroit, Edible Wow (Cover Story), University of Michigan LSA Alumni Magazine and Inspire Bride Magazine, among other publications.
Ken “Sky” Walker Sky, a sports writer, has joined Current for all but the Vegetarian Odyssey. His dry wit and plain spoken commentary cut through many a fishy moment.
Patti Smith The only veteran of all six odysseys, “Teacher Patti” is into craft beer, blogging and social networking. She is currently working on a historical book of downtown Ann Arbor for Arcadia publishers..
Jack Savas Jack learned food at the feet of his Greek “Papou” who owned a Detroit-area restaurant. Jack earned his cooking certificate from Schoolcraft College and immersed himself in Japanese food and culture as a diplomat serving in Tokyo. He guided us through much of the language and nuance of sushi.
Mike Pitsch Mike brings his engineer’s technical curiosity to the table, and has refined his tastes for good food through his world travels with …
Rosemarie Pitsch Rosemarie, a professional health and science writer, who was precise in her descriptive terms and made the most delightful faces as each new plate of sushi made it her way. Rose and Mike have accepted almost every Odyssey challenge.