Turning Japanese
One man's journey into the heart of the sushi experience

Costa Mesa's Mitsuwa Marketplace offers everything from dried kelp to decorated chopsticks; Check those eyes on that snapper - Fresh!; Laguna's 242 Cafe Chef/Owner Miki Izumisawa finishes off a dessert sushi masterpiece.

_You are no doubt wondering how I got to this state, hitting a different sushi bar every night of the week, drowning myself in pools of cold sake and eating more raw fish than a great white shark with the munchies. Yes, it's true, I am a bona fide sushi addict, a man who would pawn his TiVo for a spicy tuna roll, cheers for the Japanese Iron Chef, and who inspires a call of "Irasshai!" from every sushi chef in town. But it was not always this way. I was once an upstanding Bud-drinking, barbecuing American male for whom chopsticks meant only a catchy tune on the piano.

_Then I drew a story assignment to interview local sushi chefs - find out where they came from, how they learned their trade, why they liked the feel of sticky rice in their palms and drunk fish-eaters in their faces.

_So I hit the bars. The problem was, I soon became too busy eating the sushi the chefs were too busy making to make any real progress.

Here is a typical exchange: "So, how long have you been a sushi chef?"

_"Long time. Sake?"

_"Oh, sure..."


_Repeat three times. Give up.

_Or, the fateful "What is one of the more adventurous items?" question that always resulted in the sushi chef turning, walking away, and returning moments later with an order of saba, or mackerel. I was told that it was a "little fishy," but was also one of the chef's "favorites." I have spent my entire fishing life cursing mackerel and throwing them back. Now I know why. About the third time I was served this I began trying to throw it back by offering it to the chef who gave it to me. So far, no takers.

Sushi from Andy Wang of Huntington Beach's Spiritual Sushi; Octopus and salmon eggs; not your everyday butcher's case at Mitsuwa Marketplace.

_Finally, I did sit down with Miki Izumisawa, owner and chef of Laguna's 242 Café Fusion Sushi. She is considered a true artist of her craft, and has the added distinction of being one of the few women sushi chefs. Her place is packed nightly.

_Unfortunately, interviewing her about her vocation is something like interviewing an artist about his art: there's little point. They always say, just look at the art. With Miki it was the same, only more filling.

_Eventually, I became resigned to the idea that sushi chefs are best left as enigmas wrapped in Samurai garb, and only slightly less dangerous. (And in fact, a trend in Japan is for sushi chefs to dress up like Samurai warriors.)

_Probably the biggest challenge for neophyte sushi bar-goers is dealing with the rules. Hitting a sushi bar is nothing like going to a new kind of restaurant; there are different tools, various levels to the table setting, foreign dishware and the looming prospect of putting a fellow customer's eye out after losing control of your chopsticks. Eating at a presidential dinner is less stressful.

_Luckily, I have made all the blunders for you. So here are 10 simple rules to eating sushi.

_1. That's right, even if you don't like fish, you can still love sushi, because, contrary to the belief of 99% of sushi bar veterans, the term itself has nothing to do with raw fish. In fact, sushi really means vinegared rice or food served on or in vinegared rice. This is why at a sushi bar you can get a wide variety of vegetables, meats, and shell fish that are cooked, fried, or slathered with inventive hot and cold sauces. So step up, there's nothing to be afraid of. Except the mackerel.

Creamy miso sauce over salmon sushi from WaSa Sushi's Chef James Hamamori; Sushi: not for the weak of stomach. The coast's sole female sushi chef, Miki Izumisawa of Laguna's 242 Cafe.

_2. Go ahead and ask for a fork; the life you save may be your own. I've developed the theory that the ability to use chopsticks is akin to the ability to form a taco with one's tongue: some people can, some people can't. It's a genetic thing. That's why most California sushi chefs will not look down on you if you give up and ask for a fork. It's better than flinging a $10 piece of soy-soaked tuna into the $400 dress of the patron next to you. Trust me on this one.

_3. If it seems easiest, reject all utensils and dig in with your fingers. Contrary to another huge myth, today's most common sushi is meant to be finger food, and in fact is called just that - nigiri-zushi. It also represents one of the more recent inventions in sushi's 2,000-year-old-plus history. In the early 19th century, sushi stalls began dotting Japan, offering bite-sized vinegared rice snacks to on-the-go patrons. Then, in 1824, a small sushi stand owner, Hanaya Yohei, made a major breakthrough. He topped his finger sushi with slices of raw fish and quickly became Japan's answer to the Earl of Sandwich.

_4. While forks and fingers are okay, spoons are taboo. Soups are to be sipped, and if they have chunky ingredients, that's where the chopsticks or forks come in. And when you get used to drinking from a bowl, you'll find it is much more efficient and easy than a spoon anyway. In fact, I suggest a trend shift, here - just think how fun it would be to slurp down a big bowl of French onion soup at Chat Noir.

_5. Yes, that small wet towel, called an oshibori, is meant to be used before you dig in. You can also use it during your meal, and this I recommend. Why? Because sushi rice is sticky, like tree sap sticky, and the smallest amount can be harder to get rid of than an overachieving insurance salesman. I found this out the hard way while delighting in an MD-Roll at Newport Beach's 930 Sushi when I pushed the hair out of my face. I spent the rest of my visit waiting for opportune times to surreptitiously yank at the sushi gum stuck in my hair. Three days later I cut it out. So use the towel on your hands and even your face and you'll look like a pro. Resist wiping your neck or armpits, however.

More scenes from the Mitsuwa Marketplace. Bring your Japanese-English dictionary, an open mind, and a healthy appetite.
_6. Mellow on the wasabi, kimosabi. If you don't want to insult the chef, who happens to be staring down at you with razor sharp knives, by the way, don't mix wasabi in with your soy sauce. It's sort of like adding a bunch of salt to a meal before you try a bite. The chef has added what he feels is the proper amount of wasabi to his sushi (I think they put that hunk of wasabi on your tray just to test you). If it's not enough, ask for a dash more next time. One exception, here, is sashimi, which the chef adds nothing to. So go nuts.

_7. Dip only the fish portion of your sushi into the soy sauce. The reasoning here is a good one: we've all seen - okay been - the guy who by the end of his fourth tako platter has a small rice paddy growing in his soy sauce dish. He's dipped the rice portion of his meal in there and now has to scoop the stuff out with a spoon, which we all now know is a taboo, or chug it down. So, fish only, please.

_8. Don't drench your food in soy sauce. Just as adding wasabi to your dipping sauce is like over-salting, slathering a prime piece of sashimi or sushi with soy sauce is like dumping a load of steak sauce on a filet mignon before tasting it.

_9. Do not rub the disposable wooden chopsticks together. Rubbing these waribashi together is the equivalent of shining a fork at a sit down dinner. It implies that you believe the chopsticks of poor quality and probably have splinters, thereby insulting your host. So there are two solutions here: take the way of the pool shark and bring your own sticks (or, like regulars at Laguna's San Chi Go, secure a spot in the restaurant's racks of personal chopsticks), or, suck it up and take a shard of wood in the lip, you wuss.

_10. Chopsticks are meant to be together. We're talking in between bites here. Set chopsticks down tightly together, below your plate, with the small ends (the part that touches the food) facing away from your eating hand. This is the sushi bar equivalent of the Japanese tea ceremony - ripe for insulting faux pas. Don't believe me? Try leaving your chopstick sticking out of a bowl of rice and watch the chef's expression cloud over. This is done only at funerals: the deceased loved one's chopsticks are left in a bowl of rice to give them sustenance for the journey ahead.

_Bonus Rule: I know I've sort of covered this, but let me just reiterate that you check your ego at the door and avoid the neophyte - usually sake-induced - mistake of asking for "something adventurous. If you feel the urge, call up one of these five dishes: baigai, small water snails; fugu, blowfish (fatal if prepared incorrectly); sukimi, bits of fish scraped from the bone; basashi, horse sashimi (no idea if that's what it sounds like, but are you going to risk it?); and finally, shiratake, sperm sacs of cod fish. That's pretty much all I have to say on that.

_I made every one of these mistakes in a record few amount of visits. But the embarrassment paled in comparison to my rising Visa bills. I had to stop, before my creditors did it for me. Which led me to my next journey: creating sushi at home. I had grown to love the fresh, clean, seemingly simple recipes of this style of cooking and figured, how hard could it be? It is primarily rice and raw fish after all. But the more I learned, the less confidant but more intrigued I became. Sushi is simple like Tai Kuon Do is simple - to attain perfection requires a lot of cuts, bruises and swearing at the top of your lungs. The costumes look a lot alike too.

_I hit the books: I read Sushi for Kids, Sushi for Dummies, Sushi for Complete Blithering Idiots, and still couldn't get it. Some of this was due to the fact that there are more kinds of sushi than meet the eye. There's finger sushi, battleship sushi, hand-shaped and molded sushi, sushi rice balls, sliced rolls, cut rolls, inside-out and hand rolls, pressed sushi, scattered sushi, even tofu pouch sushi. It was more confusing than a Dr. Seuss adventure. But it seemed just as fun, at least before I entered the kitchen, which I now refer to as the room of a thousand tortures.

_My sushi rice came out more fluffy than sticky, the rolls looked less appetizing than my daughter's Play-Do hotdogs and the tempura attempt was downright dangerous. After barely surviving this inedible adventure, I decided I needed to up my standards as far as ingredients went; I needed to fully submit to the Japanese experience and uncompromising attitude when it came to sardines or eels. To do this, I went to Costa Mesa's Mitsuwa Marketplace, which was billed as a little piece of Japan.

_My spirits were immediately bolstered upon entering the marketplace. In addition to a lot of Japanese people, with whom I probably couldn't communicate, there was an entire newsstand filled with books and magazines I couldn't read. A small food court offered Japanese cuisine, including sushi, but I avoided it like an alcoholic crossing the street to pass a good bar.

_I made my way to the grocery store, where there were busy aisles of foreign products with indecipherable labels. The store did offer small English translations for many items, however, and I quickly filled my cart with things like dried sardines, dried anchovies, dried kelp, and dried seaweed (Japan is big on dried). I grabbed a jar of quail eggs, which neither had nor needed translation, some medium grain rice (optimistic, since most beginners start with short grain), then spent approximately 15 minutes lost in the rice vinegar and cooking sake isle. Finally, a store clerk helped me choose a good bottle of both. I held up the bottle of Sake and yelled Kampai!, but this only forced his cautious retreat, to get a manager, I suspected.

_I took cover in the fresh fish section, the Holy Grail of the sushi world, if you will. What I found was impressive. But it also resulted in sticker shock. (To my credit, I resisted taking a shot of sake.)

_The snapper sashimi started at $15.99 a pound and went to $45.99. Scallops weighed in at $17.99 and a boiled octopus would set you back $21.99. I was preparing to head back to the sushi bar when a small, well-dressed Japanese lady approached the display.

_I watched as she longingly gazed at a jumbo clam ($69.99 per pound), like a child watching a bubble, wondering whether to risk touching it or not. Through gestures, I asked her to help me decide on some tuna for my sushi endeavors. She smiled and nodded and soon, as we studied the options, I had the distinct feeling of being in Japan. More than the backward magazines, or the character-heavy labels, it was my interaction with this woman, who was on a routine shopping trip, that transported me. It was that same feeling that traveling gives - alien architecture and train stations are one thing, but nothing says you're lost and far away from home like the sudden realization that you couldn't ask for a drink of water if you were dying of thirst. It was that way here in the middle of a Costa Mesa market.

_I discovered my new friend had a two-English-word vocabulary: "very" and "good." I pointed to the Tuna Sashimi, which went for $25.99. In my limited experience, the word sashimi meant the top grade; at least that was true back in American markets. She labeled it "good." I pointed to the $41.99 per pound Tuna Gourmet. That brought forth a "very good." The Tuna "Chutoro" ($55.99/lbs.) received a smile and an extra "very." There was but one grade left, the Tuna "Ohtoro," which, at $65.99 a pound, I half expected to come with a credit application.

_As I picked it up for a closer inspection, my friend let out a small gasp. She opened her mouth to speak, but nothing came out. Finally, she gave up, her two English words were no match for the supreme cut of fish I held.

_Feeling as if I would commit the ultimate insult by returning the package - about the equivalent, I suspected, of double-dipping at a party, then sneezing into the salsa for good measure - I thanked the lady and put the fish into my basket.

_Next I moved to the whole fish section, where a man told me that the way to judge a fish as fresh, look for shiny scales, bright red gills, and clear, bright eyes. It was in this way that I found myself bent over peering deep into the eye of a giant smelt. They also had some mackerel, but I had seen enough of them.

_When I finally did make it to the checkout I had almost $60 worth of ingredients, and I hadn't even checked out the sushi tools section yet. At this rate, sushi bars seemed like a bargain.

_So that is my story, the story of a journey to the edge of gastronomical delight and madness, of tasty triumphs and devastating defeats. And if you see me, in the last chair of the sushi bar, coveting your banzai roll or sending out a condescending sneer as you order that oh-so-safe ebi, do not feel sorry for me, do not judge me. Just slide a shot of sake my way and call out Kampai!

_Believe me, I've earned it.
Super Sushi Joints
_There are dozens of sushi bars in coastal Orange County. Here are a choice few.

242 Café Fusion Sushi
242 North Coast Highway, Laguna Beach, (949) 494-2414
_Don't expect lively interaction with Miki, the coast's only female sushi chef; she's too busy creating sushi art. Do expect a wait, and to be rewarded for it with some of the most unique sushi creations around. A local favorite: the Sexy Handroll; don't ask, just go with it.

930 Sushi
930 West Coast Highway, Newport Beach, (949) 645-6500.
_Small but very comfortable, 930 Sushi is known for some of the coast's freshest and best prepared sushi. John, one of the most popular chefs, is easy to talk to and always happy to take the time to customize rolls and other treats to a customer's particular tastes. If you're not sure what to get, go with the MD-Roll, a can't miss.

San Shi Go
1100 South Coast Highway, Laguna Beach, (949) 494-1551.
_When you're ready for a little fun with your sushi, hit San Shi Go. Not only are the chefs interactive, usually your fellow patrons will be, too. If you turn into a regular, you may even be honored with a spot in the chopsticks rack behind the bar.

WaSa Sushi
In The Bluffs shopping center at 1346 Bison Avenue, Newport Beach, (949) 760-1811.
_Chef/Owner James Hamamori is one of the coast's most respected sushi chefs, and at Wasa it is obvious why. He combines ancient technique with New Generation flare in his many creations. Check out what he calls the "WaSa Treasures," which includes such delights as salmon topped with sea kelp marinated in rice vinegar and a sprinkling of Osetra caviar.

Ango Tei
675 Paularino Avenue, Costa Mesa, (714) 557-2696
_When you're located a block away from the area's premier Japanese market, Mitsuwa Marketplace, you better serve good sushi. Ango Tei does. Don't expect great décor, but count on mouth-watering and authentic dishes.

2900 Newport Blvd., Newport Beach, (949) 675-1739.
_Named after its head chef/owner, who was trained by the famous Nabu himself, Abe offers delicious and unique items in its spacious sushi bar. A local favorite is the Dragon Eyes.

Gen Kai
3344 East Coast Highway, CdM, (949) 675-0771
_Gen Kai is practically a CdM landmark, with a hopping weekend crowd that has as much boisterous fun as raw fish. The menu is simple, but it's simply good, too. A notable exception is the rare Asparagus Roll. Come with a thirst and ready to make friends. There is also an Irvine location.

Buddha's Favorite
634 Lido Park Drive, Newport Beach, (949) 723-4203.
_Okay, so maybe Buddha's Favorite's sushi doesn't live up to its name's standards, but how could it? Besides, it gets an hoorary sake shot for such a cool name. So what is Buddha's Favorite dish? Try the Crunchy Roll, the one that could make Buddha rub his own belly.

101 Bayview Place, Newport Beach, (949) 675-0771.
_In the 80s, Kitayama was the favorite among yen-rich Japanese businessmen. Then came the yen crash. But Kitayama survived thanks to what's considered some of the best sushi west of Tokyo.
Sushi bar banter
_Though you'll never need it in the customer-friendly sushi bars of The OC, here are some helpful phrases and words to impress your fellow diners.
Konnichiwa (kohn-nee-chee-wah) Hello (at lunch time)
Kombanwa (kohm-bahn-wah) Hello (at dinnertime)
Hai (hah-ee) Yes
Lie (eee-eh) No
Oishii! (oh-ee-sheee) Delicious!
Kampai! (kahm-pah-ee) Cheers!
Domo (dohh-moh) Thank you
Kyo wa nani ga ii desuka? (kyohh wah nah-nee gah ee deh-soo-kah) What's good today?
Omakase ni shite kudasai. (oh-mah-kah-she nee shee-the koo-dah-sah-ee) Please, you decide. (Said to the sushi chef)
Gunken-maki-zushi (goon-kahn-mah-kee-zoo-shee) Battleship sushi
Maki-zushi (mah-kee-zoo-shee) Sliced rolls
Temaki-zushi (the-mah-kee-zoo-shee) Hand rolls
Ura-maki-zushi (oo-rah-mah-kee-zoo-shee) Inside-out rolls
Nigiri-zushi (nee-gee-ree-zoo-shee) Finger sushi
Chirashi-zushi (chee-rah-shee-zoo-shee) Scattered sushi