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.
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.
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.
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.
is a typical exchange: "So, how long have you been
a sushi chef?"
three times. Give up.
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.
from Andy Wang of Huntington Beach's Spiritual Sushi;
Octopus and salmon eggs; not your everyday butcher's
case at Mitsuwa Marketplace.
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.
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.
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.)
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
I have made all the blunders for you. So here are 10
simple rules to eating sushi.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
scenes from the Mitsuwa Marketplace. Bring your
Japanese-English dictionary, an open mind, and a healthy
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
me, I've earned it.
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
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 West Coast Highway, Newport Beach, (949)
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)
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.
In The Bluffs shopping center at 1346 Bison Avenue,
Newport Beach, (949) 760-1811.
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.
675 Paularino Avenue, Costa Mesa, (714) 557-2696
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.
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
3344 East Coast Highway, CdM, (949) 675-0771
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
634 Lido Park Drive, Newport Beach, (949) 723-4203.
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.
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
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
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
Nigiri-zushi (nee-gee-ree-zoo-shee) Finger sushi
Chirashi-zushi (chee-rah-shee-zoo-shee) Scattered sushi