This presentation thing with Sushi is getting out of hand. by Nancy Rommelmann "When was your first time?" asks Lizzy, looking not at me, or at the menu at the sushi bar in downtown Portland, but at what was in the display case behind the counter. Before I can answer, she is speaking to the sushi chef, in Japanese.
Lizzy, who is not Japanese, is one of those people that when you ask, how do you know so much about sushi, offhandedly mentions she’s worked in several sushi bars, lived in Japan, and studied Japanese cooking since she was 16, immediately after she first ate sushi, and felt, in her words, “as if it were a drug.”
“Do you want some maaji?” she asks, indicating the Spanish mackerel behind the glass. They’re lovely, sleek and silver and lined up like tin soldiers. I tell her, sure, then answer her original question; that I ate my first sushi at age six, because my dad’s office on Wall Street was across the street from one of New York’s first Japanese restaurants, and that my whole family used to sit in a tatami room on Sunday nights and order miso and tempura and sashimi. That, until this moment, I’d actually considered myself ahead of the sushi-curve, in that I did not, as do my husband and other friends, stick to salmon and tuna and California roll; that I am, in fact, a big fan of eel.
“Great,” Lizzy says. “Unagi or anago?”
I put down my menu and tell her to order for both of us. We start with hamachi (yellowtail), its flesh a golden pink. I bite; it’s as tender as butter, with the metallic tinge of seawater as well as something deeper, something smoky.
“It’s very fresh,” says Lizzy, and I watch her barely dip the second bite of hamachi into the soy and wasabi she’s mixed. Is there a ratio to it?
“No,” she says. “But one thing Americans tend to do is over-soy; they soak the sushi, which is sort of an insult to the chef, like dumping ketchup on a good steak.”
She steals a glance at my hamachi. “Also, always dip fish side down.”
I lift my soaked-through, rice-side down sushi from the soy, and notice I am holding it not with chopsticks, but my fingers.
“But that’s totally acceptable,” says Lizzy. “That’s how sushi started, something for the samurai and the drinkers and the card players to snack on. Bento.com is a really good site that tells about a lot of this.”
The mackerel arrives, lustrous and delicate and, to my surprise (having heretofore eaten mackerel only from a can), not at all fishy. Again, Lizzy says, it’s because it’s fresh.
Next, the unagi, freshwater eel, grilled until its glaze of brown sugar and soy becomes a burnished lacquer. I tell Lizzy, unagi is one of my favorites, as close as one gets to fish candy.
“Will you eat raw shrimp?” she asks, and I tell her that, aside from fruitcake and runny eggs, I’ll eat anything.
“Me, too,” she says, and orders ama-ebi (sweet shrimp), and then confides there is one sushi she will not eat.
“Uni,” she says, looking at the sea urchin eggs. “To me, it’s like licking the inside of a garbage can.” Indeed, the rust-colored uni looks like a ruffled tongue, and I know, from experience, how intense it can be, like biting into an organ soaked in iodine.
And then the ama-ebi is here, the headless shrimps glistening and translucent, flicked with flying fish eggs, and when I bite into it, it’s both gelatinous and sweet; a crustacean jelly squishing into the rice.
Lizzy sighs. “The only thing better than ama-ebi are the heads,” she says. “Fried.”
“You want heads?” asks the sushi chef, and Lizzy looks at me, and I tell her I’ve never met a fried shrimp head I did not eat, and if they’ve got them here at Hiroshi, which I am now convinced is the best sushi bar in Portland, to bring them on.
While the heads are being prepared, we gaze at what’s inside the glass case; at octopus and striped bass; salmon skin and giant clam…
“Let’s get a California roll,” says Lizzy, ordering the most proletarian of all sushi, a sushi upon which untold injustices are perpetrated, from being stuffed with the polymer-like substance that is fake crab to days of desiccation in the deli case. From limp cucumber rolls from 7-Eleven to the pay-one-price sushi mills I’ve come to think of as “all you can’t eat.” And the sushi restaurant I’d recently reviewed, lauded for its enormous portions, slabs of sushi as big as decks of cards, rolls near as long as my arm. And I remember thinking how this destroyed sushi’s jewel-like specificity, and used by comparison one perfect solitaire diamond versus some sprawling monstrosity you’d find on QVC.
What arrives is the antithesis. What arrives is miraculous, which is when one realizes why people try so hard to duplicate it. This California roll is balanced, amidst the unctuousness of avocado; the popping of the roe; the salt and paper of the seaweed, the rice’s chew, the flaked crab brought together with an undetectable amount of mayo. It’s sublime.
“And it always has been,” says Lizzy. “It’s just that it’s been bastardized by so many places, you forget how good it can be.”
The shrimp heads are placed before us, two to the plate, and prettier they cannot be, with six-inch tentacles crisped in tempura batter, thumb-size heads yielding a creamy interiors, and the alarmed black eyes, tasting like caviar.
“Yum,” I said, wanting to repay Lizzy for her knowledge, and ordering spicy scallop, the minerality of the mollusk tamed with mayo but also, fired up with chili paste. Biting through the toasted nori wrapper, I begin to feel the narcotic effect of Lizzy’s earlier allusion, and look over to see if she is similarly stoned, but no; she’s looking seriously at the menu.
“I can’t decide whether to go with the toro or otoro,” she says, and again, falls into conversation with the sushi chef, who looks at me.
“Toro,” he says, slices what looks like a piece of raw beef, and presents a single piece of sushi. I offer Lizzy the first bite.
“No,” she says. “For you, a gift.”
I bite down as she explains toro is from the underbelly of the tuna, the fatty part. That traditionally, people order toro-or otoro, the fattiest cut of all-first, to judge the quality of a sushi restaurant and the skills of a sushi chef. And also, that ordering the tamago (egg omelette sushi) is the equivalent of ordering a roasted chicken in a French restaurant. It’s basic, but if the chef does these well, chances are he knows how to properly make other things too. And that all of this, I can find at Eat Sushi.
Actually, that last part Lizzy emailed to me later in the day, at my request, because at the time I had not heard a word she was saying, being too busy being transported by the toro, its depth, its simplicity, and the feeling that, if I ate this every day, I could lift a train.
“Now you know why I’ve been here seven times in the past two weeks,” says Lizzy, not shy about her addiction, now mine, too.
Sushi: The Japanese Way
Nancy Rommelmann is a columnist and feature writer for the Los Angeles Times, the LA Weekly, Bon Appetit and other publications, and a frequent contributor to Portland Food & Drink. She is the author of several books, including %%AMAZON=014026373X Everything You Pretend to Know About Food And Are Afraid Someone Will Ask,%% and the recently completed memoir, Leaving Los Angeles. Her personal blog can be read here.