In the early stages of the romantic relationship that would become my marriage, the man who would become my husband took me out for a birthday celebration. Our destination: Lake Union. The object of my desire: I Love Sushi, where raw seafood glistened at one of the longest sushi bars in town.
I was thrilled. My date, I'd later learn, was less than enthusiastic. He dreaded the thought of eating raw fish, let alone crunching the fried shrimp heads I'd soon have him snacking on. But seeing as we were still in the stage where impressions were important, he took a seat at my elbow, ordered a large Japanese beer and let me have my way.
Sushi virgins everywhere take note: Though my man did not go willingly, he is now a convert. And it's obvious from the increasing number of sushi bars in and around Seattle that he's not the only one who has come to appreciate the seafood sensations that once scared the yell right out of him.
If you've yet to take the plunge, please reconsider. And if your knowledge of sushi is limited to supermarket samplings of California rolls, allow me to introduce you to the joys of dining at a sushi bar, where eating raw fish is only part of the pleasure.
Have a seat
First things first. If you're going to go for it, go for it: Sit at the counter where you'll get caught up in the convivial sushi-shop atmosphere and have the opportunity to get up-close and personal with your sushi chef and appreciate his artistry.
Expect to hear shouts of "Irasshai! Irasshai!" as you take your seat. Smile and offer a greeting, knowing that you're being welcomed to the fold — not being told to take your anxiety elsewhere.
A server will offer refreshers: an oshibori (hot towel) for hand washing, and a beverage. Beer and saké (rice wine) are the customary accompaniments, as is green tea, poured freely throughout the meal. You'll likely be handed the restaurant's complete menu, which includes the sushi-bar offerings and brings us to the question, "If all I want is chicken teriyaki, should I sit at the counter?"
The answer lies somewhere between "maybe" (if you're dining with sushi eaters) and "no" — though much depends on the sushi bar's size and the sushi chef's policy. My suggestion: Be kind. Counter seats are unreserved and much coveted by afishionados.
Order a starter
Do feel free to start with an appetizer such as edamame, salted soybeans steamed in their pods (put the pod between your teeth and suck out the beans), or sautéed geoduck (a local specialty). Place your order with the server, not the sushi chef — unless you intend to do as the fish fanciers often do: begin with an assortment of sashimi (sliced raw fish) to whet the palate and allow the chef to strut his stuff.
A good sushi chef is the master of his domain and the key to your success. Think of him as your teacher, not your torturer, and express an interest in the eye-candy sparkling in his cold case. A few inquiries of "What's that?" and an eagerness to try something new goes a long way toward forging a rewarding relationship — and ascertaining your likes and dislikes. With 20 years of sushi-bar sampling behind me, I've only just learned to like the sweet taste and creamy texture of fresh uni (sea urchin roe).
Becoming a top-notch sushi chef requires a combination of technical skills, artistry and managerial ability, a keen eye for quality, great connections with seafood retailers and distributors, a personable demeanor and the memory of an elephant. I frequent many sushi bars (see sidebar for a short list of favorites), but lately find myself seeking out Yutaka Saito, owner of 2-year-old Saito's Japanese Cafe and a consummate professional who began his sushi apprenticeship in Japan at age 15.
I regularly plant myself in front of Saito-san and let him "set me up" with whatever's exciting or intriguing. But he — like any sushi chef deserving of the title — is just as willing to set up a novice with delights that don't require an adventurous palate. Know that many sushi-bar offerings are cooked or marinated, that even vegetarians can find something to eat at a sushi bar and that health concerns are minimal if you seek out a reputable purveyor.
What to order next
Scaredy-cats might begin with ebi (cooked shrimp), smoked salmon or a California roll: crabmeat, avocado, tiny fish roe and cucumber rolled in a bamboo mat with rice and nori (dried seaweed).
Next rung? Scarlet-colored maguro (tuna), golden-fleshed hamachi (yellowtail), meltingly tender shiro maguro (albacore), or, if you're like my husband, who prefers chewy textures and leans toward the cooked stuff, tako (octopus), hokkigai (surf clam) or unagi (broiled freshwater eel).
Certainly, one of the easiest ways to make your acquaintance with sushi is the combination plate, consisting of maki sushi (rolled sushi, such as a California roll, tuna roll or cucumber roll) and a variety of nigiri sushi (pressed or "finger" sushi). These often include less challenging items such as cooked shrimp, octopus and tamago (a sweet omelette) and feature "meatier" fish such as tuna and yellowtail. Combinations offer individual pieces of nigiri sushi rather than the traditional matched pairs and have the added attraction of finite pricing.
Unlike sashimi, which may be off-putting for first-timers, nigiri sushi offers bite-sized fingers of rice seasoned with rice vinegar and topped with fish, shellfish or fish roe. It also offers the benefit of added textures and flavors, including a smudge of potent wasabi (Japanese horseradish). That said, my first sushi-bar experience began with an order of maguro sashimi, and I've been hooked on the clean vibrant taste of raw fish in all its guises ever since.
How to eat it
You'll find shoyu (soy sauce) on the sushi bar. Spill some into the shallow dish at your place-setting, then dip the edge of the sashimi or sushi "topping" (rather than the rice it rests upon) into the salty brew, lest you soak up too much soy and obliterate the delicate flavors. You'll find an additional daub of wasabi (it's the green stuff) on the wooden board that serves as your sushi plate, as well as a rosette of gari (pickled ginger slices) to cleanse the palate between bites. You may want to mix small amounts of wasabi with soy sauce for an added kick, though purists do so only as accompaniment to sashimi.
Eating sushi with your fingers is appropriate behavior; use the chopsticks for sashimi. If your mouth's too small to down the sushi in one bite, take two. Need a fork? Don't stand on ceremony: Ask.
Costs vary from one sushi bar to the next, with unlisted items dependent on market price. Combination sushi or sashimi plates run about $10 at lunch and $16-$20 at dinner. Ordered à la carte, you can expect to pay about $3-$6 for a pair of nigiri, though such prized delicacies as otoro (sliced from the tuna's fatty belly) may be considerably higher. Maki sushi or temaki (nori-wrapped hand rolls, which resemble ice-cream cones and are just as fun to eat) range, on average, from $3 to $10.
Eat as much — or as little — as you like. This is meant to be a casual, social pursuit, and you should pace yourself accordingly. Take the time to relax and enjoy, and when you're sated, a nod in your sushi chef's direction should be enough to produce a bill. Traditionally trained sushi chefs mentally keep a running tally of what you've eaten; locally it's not uncommon to see chefs using a pencil and a sushi list to keep track. Your server will deliver the check, and your tip will be shared among the restaurant staff, including your sushi chef. It's as easy as that.
Recently, my husband and I celebrated my birthday at Saito's, where we were presented with an astounding array of sea treats including Spanish mackerel, spotted sardine, New Zealand sea bream and thick slabs of otoro served both raw and lightly broiled. It was the most delicious fish I've ever eaten. As a birthday gift, Saito-san offered us a pair of conch in their shells. True to form, my husband smiled, looked, took a big sip of saké and as the chef turned away whispered, "Honey, it's all yours."