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Sushi rule #1: sit at the sushi bar


Fat Guy
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The issue of sushi bar versus dining room has come up in a few places in eG Forums discussions, most recently in debate about New York's Sushi Yasuda and also discussion of the infamous sushi spreadsheet. I thought it would make sense to consolidate all that discussion here on a dedicated topic, rather than have it be side discussions on other topics.

In my experience, sitting at the sushi bar is the single most important thing one can do to improve one's meal at a sushi restaurant. The better the restaurant is, the more important this advice becomes. Sitting at the sushi bar won't make mediocre sushi great. But sitting at a table can make a meal at a great sushi restaurant mediocre. There are a variety of reasons and proofs:

First, when you're at the sushi bar, you get more information, because you deal directly with the sushi chef. You get information not only about what's available, but also about what's best. Of course, you have to engage the sushi chef to get this information, and it helps to do omakase or some other variant of ordering where the chef makes the decisions. In general, at tables, you're dealing with a printed menu and working through the server as intermediary, and you just don't get the same information.

Second, as soon as a piece of sushi is formed, it's a race against time. The best sushi experience happens when the pieces go virtually from the hand of the sushi chef to your mouth. In a piece of nigiri, warm rice, cold fish and the body heat of the sushi chef combine to create body-temperature sushi pieces that are just right for eating. A few minutes later, the pieces are at room temperature, and not nearly as enjoyable. With maki, as soon as the nori and rice make contact, the nori starts to soften and lose its crispness. Both of these situations are essentially unavoidable when you order from a table because the sushi chef will make a platter with your order on it and then the platter gets delivered after all the sushi is made, whereas if you're at the sushi bar the chef can hand you each piece as soon as it's formed.

Third, as an empirical matter, over the past decade or so I've heard and read hundreds of comments from people who have dined at the same sushi restaurants but had wildly divergent experiences. The tie that binds so many of those comments is that the people who dine at the sushi bar overwhelmingly have better experiences than those who dine at the tables. The same restaurant that inspires people to say "best meal I ever had" at the sushi bar can trigger the "I don't see what the big deal is about this place" reaction in those who sit at the tables. If you read through the eG Forums posts about some of the top sushi places, you'll see this pattern assert itself from time to time: the discussion is like two ships passing in the night -- like two groups of people, who dined at two different restaurants but thought they were all at the same restaurant, arguing about whether that restaurant is good. It's also worth noting in this connection that when New York Times interim restaurant critic Amanda Hesser reviewed Masa (arguably the top sushi place in the US) she concluded: "After several visits, my impressions are firm: four stars when dining at the sushi bar and three stars at the tables."

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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Very valid points as usual, Steven. I would only go to a Japanese restaurant and sit at a table only if I were going to have something other than sushi. At the bar the focus is one the food, while at the table the focus may be elsewhere for the diner (and the chef).

John Sconzo, M.D. aka "docsconz"

"Remember that a very good sardine is always preferable to a not that good lobster."

- Ferran Adria on eGullet 12/16/2004.

Docsconz - Musings on Food and Life

Slow Food Saratoga Region - Co-Founder

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Those are some really fantastic points ... especially the second one. I can't stand when nori gets chewy from the rice's moisture. There's literally a 10-second golden eating window ... I get sort of compulsive about that.

Another important thing I try to do is eat the time-sensitive pieces first. Even at the sushi bar, it's possible to have overlapping courses or multiple items served at once. In this case, temperature and humidity sensitive pieces are elevated to red alert: uni, ikura, unagi/anago, hand rolls of any kind, maki (seaweed on outside only), etc ...

In terms of finding out the most information from the sushi chef, I'm always sort of skeptical at new places to completely trust the chef. How do I know that he doesn't want to get rid of certain cuts for time-sensitivity? Maybe the chef thinks I don't like shirako, so he won't tell me he has it. I guess sitting at a table makes finding out this information even more difficult; I guess I just feel like sitting at the sushi bar doesn't guarantee complete accuracy.

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I agree, ajgnet: when it comes to getting good information, sitting at the sushi bar is necessary but not sufficient. It's unlikely that, on your first visit to any given restaurant, you're going to get the best that restaurant has to offer. But there are various things you can do to increase your chances: express interest, communicate, be nice, demonstrate appreciation. I've found that with sushi chefs sometimes less is more: you don't want to start going on about how much you know about sushi; rather, you want to be deferential to the sushi chef. Sure, sometimes the economics of the situation mean that the sushi chefs have been told to push some lesser fish, but there are plenty of customers in the restaurant and most chefs are unlikely to screw over a kind, interested, enthusiastic, deferential customer sitting at the sushi bar when they can just as easily send the substandard stuff to a table or to the jerk at the end of the sushi bar who's talking loudly and incessantly to his girlfriend about how much he knows about sushi because he spent three days in Japan on a business trip.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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The following comes from the recently published book, "The Sushi Economy," by Sasha Issenberg. This is part of a profile of sushi chef Tyson Cole of Uchi, in Austin, Texas:

Sitting in front of a favored chef offers diners rewards other than companionship. While dismantling fillets of salmon, Cole diligently separates the cuts. He uses pieces from the fish’s back for sushi, the belly – a mellow orange color from the presence of fat – for sashimi, and groups the cuts in the case by type and quality. When orders come in, he can decide where each piece will end up. “I’m discriminating,” he says. “I can pick out and choose every different cut of every different fish. If two women sit down and they’re not going to taste a bit of the food – they’re ordering a California roll – I’m not going to give them a good piece of salmon. I’m going to give them a piece of tail. If there’s a forty-year-old Japanese guy who has been eating sushi since before I was born, I’m going to cut him the best piece I’ve got.” Orders from tables in the dining room, distant and anonymous, all get treated like California-roll-preferring women. “I reserve the best cuts for the bar,” Cole says plainly. “Wherever you go, you should always sit at the bar.” (My emphasis; page 160)

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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First, when you're at the sushi bar, you get more information, because you deal directly with the sushi chef.

As rule, I just haven't found this to be true. At least not where I live. When I sit at the bar, I still interact only with the waiter, who sweeps in to take my order. We're regulars at a neighborhood sushi place (eating there at least twice a month), and have never had luck engaging the sushi chefs. There is a major language barrier and a clear vibe from the chefs that they don't want to talk. This is the case at other places that I've been to around town.

I don't doubt that dealing directly with the chef would give me a better experience. It's just not an option.

Todd A. Price aka "TAPrice"

Homepage and writings; A Frolic of My Own (personal blog)

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If you're flat out barred from interacting with the sushi chefs, there's probably no advantage to sitting at the bar because your order goes into a computer and gets made up all at once on a platter just like it does for the tables. Then again, in that situation you have to ask if it's worth dining at the place, because interacting with the sushi chef -- or at least the option to do so -- is part and parcel of a serious sushi experience.

At most good places I've been to, yes, a server comes to the sushi bar and tries to take your order, but usually you can just give a drink order and say "I'd like to order my sushi from the chef." There's actually a Japanese word for ordering that way, which of course I can't remember. I don't think I've ever had that request flat-out denied. Then again I haven't had sushi everywhere.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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If you're flat out barred from interacting with the sushi chefs, there's probably no advantage to sitting at the bar because your order goes into a computer and gets made up all at once on a platter just like it does for the tables. Then again, in that situation you have to ask if it's worth dining at the place, because interacting with the sushi chef -- or at least the option to do so -- is part and parcel of a serious sushi experience.

Well, I don't think there is a rule about talking to chefs. :biggrin: And no computers there, just little slips of paper.

I agree that talking to the chef is wonderful part of the experience. We lived in Dallas briefly, and there we discovered a sushi place where the chef was very chatty (he was also Vietnamese). He introduced us to lots of off-menu items. A great experience.

I won't argue that our neighborhood place is stellar. It's merely good. We go because it's convenient.

And even without the direct interaction, we still get all the other advantages of sitting at the bar (quick delivery, etc.).

Todd A. Price aka "TAPrice"

Homepage and writings; A Frolic of My Own (personal blog)

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I've had waitstaff come to me when I've been at a sushi bar to take an order, but that is to see if I want something from the kitchen in addition to the bar.

John Sconzo, M.D. aka "docsconz"

"Remember that a very good sardine is always preferable to a not that good lobster."

- Ferran Adria on eGullet 12/16/2004.

Docsconz - Musings on Food and Life

Slow Food Saratoga Region - Co-Founder

Twitter - @docsconz

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hmm, thanks for the information! i haven't really been to a sushi place without my family yet, so 4 people in a group at the bar seems a little clumsy and it's never occured to us. however, i'll keep it in mind for the future. we're somewhat regulars at the place near us that we go to, though, so hopefully they're not treating us so badly. :-)

this kind of reminds me of stuff from a book i read last fall for an anthropology class. if anyone is interested in the more "academic" aspects of sushi and fish (and japan), you might be interested in the works of Theodore Bestor. we read a book called Tsukiji: The Fish Market at the Center of the World for that class and it was fascinating (who knew that chilean sea bass is transported in the cargo areas of passenger flights? :blink:) the reason i thought about this book when reading this post was because bestor develops a relationship with the sushi chef by sitting at the counter, and realizes himself that this was probably the best way to a. get the best stuff, and b. be treated well as a customer.

"I know it's the bugs, that's what cheese is. Gone off milk with bugs and mould - that's why it tastes so good. Cows and bugs together have a good deal going down."

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To be more precise, okonomi is a noun, and it means preference (okonomi-yaki = Japanese-style pancake), but I don't think there is a specific Japanese word for ordering directly from the chef. I have no idea how sushi shops operate in the United States, but in Japan, sitting at the counter means that you want to order from the chef. Nethertheless, it's perfectly alright to order a set menu (ume, matsu, take, etc.) even when you sit at the counter, rather than ordering piece by piece. Another way to order from the chef is to tell the chef about your preferences (and how much you want to spend).

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According to Trevor Corson's book, "The Zen of Fish," (pages 318-319) there are three ways to order sushi:

"Okimari" = "It's been decided" = the customer is ordering one of the restaurant's set menu items (the "sushi deluxe" platter, etc.)

"Okonomi" = "As I like it" = the customer is going to order what he or she wants from the sushi chef

"Omakase" = "I leave it up to you" = chef's choice

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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I absolutely agree with your advice, Steve. Sitting at the sushi bar and engaging the chef in conversation, however brief, is the best way to get the best quality sushi. It can be as simple as catching his eye at the beginning of the meal and asking, "What's good today?"

Even if you eat at a cheap conveyor-belt sushi place, you'll get better quality sushi -- freshly made and better pieces of fish -- if you order directly from the chef rather than pick the sushi from the rotating belt.

SuzySushi

"She sells shiso by the seashore."

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I can't beleive that it's standard practice to give the best cuts to bar sitters rather than everyone who orders whether they sit at the bar or not. I would not be happy knowing I was being shafted because I chose to not wait 90+ minutes for a seat at the bar and immediately took a seat at a table. I also can't believe that sushi chefs and servers are not cognisant of the fact that time is of the essence when making and getting sushi out to the tables. People make it sound like sushi is sitting on a hot plate underneath heat lamps for 15 minutes before you get your order. When I sit at the bar and see orders being made for tables, it's almost always 2-3 chefs filling the table orders so the table that ordered 6 rolls are getting them made pretty quickly and to them in a reasonable time frame. Being a knife freak I watch what and how the chefs are cutting the fish. I personally have not seen this predetermined seperation of quality when sushi is being made.

The bar is where I prefer to sit but when you're starving, you're starving and you want that Spanish Mackeral right NOW! Know what I mean? If the chef has morals he should not be stiffing the customer sitting at a table. He doesn't know who he's making sushi for so IMHO, it should be best he has.

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According to Trevor Corson's book, "The Zen of Fish," (pages 318-319) there are three ways to order sushi:

"Okimari" = "It's been decided" = the customer is ordering one of the restaurant's set menu items (the "sushi deluxe" platter, etc.)

"Okonomi" = "As I like it" = the customer is going to order what he or she wants from the sushi chef

"Omakase" = "I leave it up to you" = chef's choice

I see. I was thinking of specific terms that you can say directly to the server. All these are correct Japanese, and are probably handy for non-Japanese speaking people, but I can't imagine a situation where I can use those terms in a sushi shop, except omakase, as in "omakase de onegaishimasu" (omakase, please).

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According to Trevor Corson's book, "The Zen of Fish," (pages 318-319) there are three ways to order sushi:

"Okimari" = "It's been decided" = the customer is ordering one of the restaurant's set menu items (the "sushi deluxe" platter, etc.)

"Okonomi" = "As I like it" = the customer is going to order what he or she wants from the sushi chef

"Omakase" = "I leave it up to you" = chef's choice

Speaking as someone who's only Japanese spoken throughout his life comes from the rock group Styx :blink:, how are these terms phonetically spoken?

My Photography: Bob Worthington Photography

 

My music: Coronado Big Band
 

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I can't beleive that it's standard practice to give the best cuts to bar sitters rather than everyone who orders whether they sit at the bar or not.  I would not be happy knowing I was being shafted because I chose to not wait 90+ minutes for a seat at the bar and immediately took a seat at a table.  I also can't believe that sushi chefs and servers are not cognisant of the fact that time is of the essence when making and getting sushi out to the tables.  People make it sound like sushi is sitting on a hot plate underneath heat lamps for 15 minutes before you get your order.  When I sit at the bar and see orders being made for tables, it's almost always 2-3 chefs filling the table orders so the table that ordered 6 rolls are getting them made pretty quickly and to them in a reasonable time frame.  Being a knife freak I watch what and how the chefs are cutting the fish.  I personally have not seen this predetermined seperation of quality when sushi is being made.

The bar is where I prefer to sit but when you're starving, you're starving and you want that Spanish Mackeral right NOW!  Know what I mean?  If the chef has morals he should not be stiffing the customer sitting at a table.  He doesn't know who he's making sushi for so IMHO, it should be best he has.

I know how you feel, but what Fat Guy wrote upthread is also true in Japan, although sushi chefs may not readily admit it.

As for the pronouciations,

okimari = o-ki-ma-ri

okonomi = o-ko-no-mi

omakase = o-ma-ka-se

or should I write something like:

oh-key-mah-ree

oh-koh-noh-mee

oh-mah-kah-say

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Sitting @ Sushi bars in my neighbourhood for decades now I can't say I've ever seen an order going to a table being made up of inferior cuts.

Some dishes, spicy anything/Tuna Goma-ae, do contain bits o' this 'n that but nothing that's 'off' or anything like that.

From time to time I'm given a particularly nice piece of fish but it's all top quality or people wouldn't eat there.

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Even if we didn't have sushi chefs and Japanese foodies telling us "Yes, customers at the sushi bar get better fish," it would still be easy to believe just based on logic.

We know that a fish is not a monolithic thing like a block of tofu. We know there are more and less desirable pieces of every fish, and there are more and less desirable fish in every order of fish. There must, therefore, be some sort of decision criteria used to allocate the better and worse fish.

In some cases, it's possible to price and label the different cuts differently, as with toro. But you're still going to have better and worse fish, no matter how narrowly you categorize, unless you literally price every individual slice of fish differently.

You could use random selection as your only decision criterion, but no sane businessperson would do that. Instead, you're going to try to maximize customer satisfaction, and the way to do that is to give the best fish to the customers most likely to appreciate it, and the worst fish to the customers least likely to be able to differentiate. At a good sushi place, we're not talking about rotten crap going out to the tables. We're talking about the difference between A-, A and A+ fish. But it's a difference.

For the most part, it's a reasonable assumption that the more serious sushi eaters are going to be at the sushi bar. Yes, there will be the occasional serious sushi eater at a table. Yes, there will be the occasional undiscriminating eater at the sushi bar. In general, it stands to reason, the serious sushi eater suffers for being at the table and the undiscriminating eater benefits from being at the sushi bar.

Presumably, there are things you can do at a table to get a better meal. If you're known to the restaurant as a sushi-bar customer but you're at a table because you came with six people, the sushi chef is probably going to be able to figure that out, especially if you go over and say hello at the beginning of the meal.

I'm not sure it's possible through casual observation to know who's getting what quality of fish. A lot of the bases for differentiation aren't evident to the naked eye, especially the naked eye that's not professionally trained.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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I'm not sure it's possible through casual observation to know who's getting what quality of fish. A lot of the bases for differentiation aren't evident to the naked eye, especially the naked eye that's not professionally trained.

It certainly is for someone like me who's caught/killed/cleaned/cooked and consumed the majority of species found in Sushi bars more times than I care to remember.

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Our best sushi experiences were when we sat at the sushi counter in front of the chef, which was something we could only do when we arrived in Japan last year, simply because we did not have such options back home in Perth, Aust. It's great to order the sushi, and watch the chef prepare it and plop it straight down in front of you for you to consume freshly made. But of course, fresh fish always makes the difference between good and bad sushi experiences.

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According to Trevor Corson's book, "The Zen of Fish," (pages 318-319) there are three ways to order sushi:

"Okimari" = "It's been decided" = the customer is ordering one of the restaurant's set menu items (the "sushi deluxe" platter, etc.)

"Okonomi" = "As I like it" = the customer is going to order what he or she wants from the sushi chef

"Omakase" = "I leave it up to you" = chef's choice

I see. I was thinking of specific terms that you can say directly to the server. All these are correct Japanese, and are probably handy for non-Japanese speaking people, but I can't imagine a situation where I can use those terms in a sushi shop, except omakase, as in "omakase de onegaishimasu" (omakase, please).

In a number of Japanese restaurants in the U.S., omakase refers to a tasting menu containing not only sushi but also a variety of dishes from the kitchen. As a general rule I wouldn't order that way and expect only sushi.

If I do just want sushi, I always sit at the bar and whenever possible engage the sushi chef in a conversation about what I have enjoyed in the past and what is particularly good today. That typically leads to a nice combination of top examples of some fish I am familiar with combined with some interesting new things I haven't tried before. It's also not at all uncommon for there to be an unusual item or two in the counter case that is not even listed on the menu you see if you sit at a table.

Chief Scientist / Amateur Cook

MadVal, Seattle, WA

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