If you have 8 minutes to kills, watch this very informative and pretty damn funny video on sushi etiquette. An oldie, but a goodie.
And here’s how to pick the perfect sushi restaurant. More helpful sushi info over at Sushi Eating HOWTO.
- Eat only at the best place you can find. Many sushi bars are a bit expensive, but quality usually sucks, so price is no indicator of quality. Ask Japanese people where they go to eat sushi and go there.
- Stick to one or two good places once you find them. Regulars get better sushi and better overall service than casual patrons.
- The best sushi places I’ve been to in San Francisco, Mexico City, Zürich, Manhattan, Beverly Hills, Waikiki, Guadalajara, Paris, Moscow, Boston, Columbus OH (yes, you read that correctly), London, Amsterdam, Dallas TX, Milano, Toronto and Chicago have one thing in common: They have a very small sushi bar, i.e. they seat fewer than 12 people at the bar.
- A good Japanese restaurant is most often not a good sushi place. A good sushi place is usually a good Japanese restaurant.
- Count the number of Japanese sitting at the sushi bar. The more Japanese people eating there, usually the better the sushi. Remember: Japanese people are manic about quality.
- Most often than not, avoid the restaurants with little boats of sushi parading along a large sushi bar. It’s a great gimmick, but remember that those restaurants are to sushi what McDonald’s is to prime rib.
- The only chain of sushi restaurants in the world worth visiting (in fact, I encourage you to) belongs to Nobuyuki Matsuhisa. Nobu is arguably the best sushi chef in the world, and has opened a chain of small but high-quality (and pricey) restaurants in major cities in the US and in Europe.
Warning signs that you probably won’t get good sushi
- The fish and other seafood are not on display at the sushi bar
- The fish and other seafood on display look dry
- The sushi chef or (worse) a food server wants to take your order for all sushi items at once
- The sushi chef doesn’t give you a chance to order “one or two pieces at a time”, Japanese style
- The restaurant advertises “all you can eat sushi” for a fixed price
- The menu items are not listed in Japanese followed by a translation; they appear only in your native language
- The menu consists mostly of rolled sushi with names like California Roll or Oriental Delight
- More than half of the available ingredients are cooked
- The sushi chef hasn’t the vaguest idea of what you’re talking about if you ask for kazunoko, shiso, inago, chirashi, or yama gobo
- The morsels of fish atop nigiri pieces are so large that you can barely see the rice underneath (believe it or not, some people think that the sushi place is good because you get big pieces of fish). Big pieces of fish are good as long as the fish quality is good.
- The sushi rice is flavorless; sushi rice must have a delicate aroma and flavor
- The restaurant is part of a chain or franchise
If four or more of the conditions above are met, leave the place immediately and head to a different restaurant.
How to Order Your Food and Drinks
Eating sushi is not about filling yourself with raw fish. Eating sushi is an experience–some say a ritual–that involves all your senses. Serious sushi can only be eaten at the bar because that’s the only place where you’ll see the colors, inhale the aromas, share the laughter, and taste the food fully immersed in the environment. Plan on a one and a half to two hour meal.
- Eat at the sushi bar.
- Greet the other people at the bar and start conversation with them; sushi is about community.
- If you cannot eat at the bar, walk to it and check the quality of the fish before ordering.
- Greet the itamae (sushi chef) even if you don’t eat at the bar. He’ll recommend special stuff if he recognizes you as a regular and/or someone who truly knows how to eat sushi.
- Remember that itamae are not just “cooks”. They have traditions dating back to the time of the samurai. These same guys fed the meanest leanest macho hombre warriors of Japan. Be respectful and you shall enjoy the best sushi.
- Order all sushi items from the itamae, everything else from the food servers.
- Order sashimi (selection of fresh fish slices) first; ask the sushi chef for his choice of fish. He knows what’s fresh today better than you. “Please prepare what you think is freshest,” is the best way to order. Let him be creative.
- Order one kind of sushi at a time, maximum three if the bar is busy. That could be nigiri, maki or temaki. Big plates are for the table only.
- If you are a regular, let the itamae decide what you’re having and at what pace it is served.
- Don’t rush through your meal. Eat at McDonald’s if you want to eat fast.
- If you’re at the bar and in a bit of a hurry (i.e. have a half hour to eat or so), order a chirashi, a small lacquered box with a bed of sushi rice, a bit of sugar, some pickled veggies and a chef’s selection of fish and mollusks. This way you’ll get all your sushi at once in a single serving and then leave. Eat it with chopsticks.
- Pickled vegetables, sprouts, and some things like ankimo (monkfish liver) are OK to order from the sushi chef if you see them advertised at the bar.
- Don’t be afraid to ask for things not listed in the menu. Chances are the chef has them under the counter for those people (like you) who truly know what they’re doing. Kazunoko, inago, hebo and idtakko fall in this category.
- If the bar is busy and you feel like you can’t wait, order some edamame (boiled soy beans), suimono(clear broth) or misoshiru (fermented soy bean soup) to keep you busy until the sushi chef can take care of you.
- Eat sushi with moderation. More than 10 kinds of fish, crab, and clams is too much because your palate numbs.
- Drink green tea, beer, or sake with your sushi. Soft drinks spoil the taste and white wine is for snobs. Remember there are more than 300 kinds of sake, so at least one will be better than the cheap Chardonnay they offer by the glass.
- If you’re drinking sake, keep in mind that not all sake is heated for consumption. Nigori (unfiltered) sake looks like milk; drink it cold. For hot sake, ask for Sho Chiku Bai. Ask the itamae for more exotic drinks like gold sake (with real gold flakes in it!)
- If the sushi is excellent and you’re having a good time, offer to buy a drink for the itamae and his assistants. You will discover that most Japanese itamae drink Budweiser (as observed in San Francisco, Beverly Hills, Chicago, New York, and Moscow). Don’t offer to buy drinks during lunch; this is an evening tradition.
- Don’t be surprised if your itamae pours you a glass of the special reserve sake he keeps under the bar if he realizes that you know your sushi and how to order it. Thank him, raise your glass and toast by saying “kampai!”.
- Tips: The itamae and rest of the staff are tipped separately unless you pay the bill with a credit card. The bulk of the tip must go to the itamae.