Monday, April 4, 2011

Dining Alone - The sushi bar

Hiroshige - "Bowl of Sushi" 19th century

If you're not familiar with Japanese cuisine, the sushi bar might seem challenging. But a sushi bar is a place where anyone can feel comfortable dining alone. Except you're actually not alone. When you sit at the sushi bar, you are in a relationship with a true artist of food - the sushi chef, or itamae.

Los Angeles is home to many trendy sushi bars, where you can get fabulous concoctions and fusion-inspired combinations, complete with grilled pineapples, waving insect antennae crafted from carrots, mayonnaise-based sauces and fried fish skeletons - but Hide Sushi on Sawtelle Boulevard isn't one of them.

It's just a small neighborhood joint, simple and friendly. There are about eight chairs at the sushi bar, and a handful of tables in the small room. Have a seat at the sushi bar. Hide Sushi has three chefs working during a busy weekend lunch hour.

When the hostess seats you, she offers a warm damp towel. This is to clean your hands. Do so, and then fold the towel and place it so that you can use it again to wipe your fingers while you eat. You order hot food, drinks, soup, etc. from the waitress. You order sushi and sashimi from the sushi chef. That's the way it works.

The sushi bar has a raised shelf above the main part of the table. The chef will put a plate - usually a rectangular platter - on this shelf, and upon it you'll find a thimble-sized nub of green wasabi and a flower-sized cluster of finely sliced pickled ginger. Be patient. Take your time. The itamae may be working on someone else's order.

I usually watch politely as he works, then wait for a subtle signal like a nod, or eye contact. You can ask for something you like. Or you can ask for what he recommends. What's good? What's in fresh today? If you wish, you can ask for omakase or chef's choice, which means you put yourself in his hands. He may ask you what you like, or if there's something you don't like.

If you want a long and varied meal, start with sashimi - this is simply raw fish, sliced and served without rice. Sometimes it will come with a simple sauce or flavored oil, or a sprinkling of herbs like scallions or shizo leaf. You eat sashimi with chopsticks. You can get something called chirashi-sushi that is sashimi served on top of sushi rice in a bowl.

The chef will place the sushi on the platter. Keep the platter on the upper shelf for his convenience. You may be given another plate to keep in front of you - or he may serve some kinds on their own platter, especially if they are served with sauce.

"Sushi" means the rice, not the fish. The rice is flavored with vinegar, and it's served with toppings, fillings, or condiments. There are mainly four different styles.

Tuna, yellowtail and octopus nigirizushi and cucumber, oshinko and pickled plum makizushi

is rice pressed into an oblong about the size of your thumb. A slice of fish or seafood is laid on top of it - often with a bit of wasabi, or the grated root of a plant similar to horseradish. Nigirizushi is usually served two pieces to the order.

is made by lining a sheet of dried seaweed, or nori, with rice, topping it with fillings, and then rolling it up into a tight cylinder. The cylinder is then cut into bit-size pieces - an order may have five or six pieces. You can have small maki, with just one filling, or you can have larger maki - futomaki - made with an assortment of fillers. California rolls are a kind of futomaki.

(or battleship roll) - is similar to nigirizushi, with a pressed oval of rice topped with seafood, but it's wrapped with a collar of nori to help enclose a topping that's loose - like fish eggs - or soft, like sea urchin.

Temaki are also called handrolls. A sheet of nori is rolled into a cone, and filled up with ingredients like an ice-cream cone.

If you worry about it, the etiquette of eating sushi is somewhat daunting. It's good to know what NOT to do, that might offend the chef. But the rules are pretty simple, and in Los Angeles today, I think most sushi chefs have seen just about anything, and are pretty tolerant.

At Hide Sushi, the chef who served me was a dignified and quiet man with a nice smile, and it would have pained me to be impolite to him. And while I'm too tongue-tied to speak to him in the few Japanese phrases I know, I do try to remember these basic steps:

1) Don't scrape your chopsticks together as though to rub off splinters. This implies the chopsticks are cheap, so it's an insult.

2) Pour a little soy sauce in the dish, but don't mix wasabi in it. The chef has flavored your sushi as he intended, so trust him. If you find you'd like more wasabi on the sushi, ask the chef to put more on the next piece he makes for you.

3) Dip the fish side into the soy, not the rice side.

4) It's OK to eat with your fingers, or with chopsticks. I use my fingers.

5) Try to eat the sushi in one bite - or if you have to eat it in two bites, do so at once, don't put a bitten-in-half piece back on the platter. I'm told American sushi tends to be bigger than that served in Japan. I have to take two bites for most, except the small maki.

The pickled ginger is meant to be a palate cleanser between different flavors. I take a tiny sliver with my chopsticks, and I love the spicy taste.

L to R top: Saba (mackerel), Sake (salmon), Ebi (shrimp) nigirizushi. Bottom: Maguro (tuna), Yellowtail nigirizushi, Tobiko gunkanmaki

I like simple sushi - I don't generally go in for the fancy rolls. I like plain good fish like fatty tuna, albacore, and yellowtail. I also like the salty, strong-tasting mackerel, called saba in Japanese. I also like scallops, and ankimo (or monkfish liver), and tobiko, or flying fish roe with tiny bright red eggs that crunch between my teeth. I'm not a fan of sea urchin, and while I like octopus all right I have hard time chewing it. One of my favorite maki rolls is oshinko-maki, which is just pickled daikon - I love its odd taste and its vegetable crunch.

Cherry blossoms on the sidewalk in front of Hide Sushi

The simple and traditional fare served at Hide Sushi makes me remember when I first ate sushi with my dad, in New York City. I lived in the Village and worked in dingy lofts on the Lower East Side doing theatre, and my dad commuted into town from New Jersey to work for corporate clients as a consultant. Sometimes he'd invite me to lunch. The part of town where he worked was filled with Japanese restaurants and ramen shops, and sushi shops. It was the 1970s, but in Manhattan, on Third Avenue in midtown, no one was making California rolls.

I never sat at a sushi bar with Dad, we always sat at the dining tables. I don't know, now, whether he sat at the bar when he visited these restaurants alone. I like to think that he did - he was exactly the kind of person who would have enjoyed the polite, somewhat ritualized relationship between customer and sushi chef.


Janet said...

I love oshinko and have you tried the shiitake mushroom sushi? SO good!

I call Tobiko my dessert sushi...don't know why, but I always save it for popping the little eggs!

Navhelowife said...

I don't care for sushi, but I so enjoyed reading this post and seeing the pictures! Thanks for the very informative reading :)

Anonymous said...

Hi G. I am delighted to see you again. Your command of the s bar is amazing. We have friends that live part time on a farm down the lane from us who also live just outside LA part time too. I had them for dinner the other night and they were talking about the sushi bars in LA. We will visit one when I come for a visit to your part of the country. :) Have a wonderful week.

Marsha said...

I may not quite be following - if you don't mix the wasabi with the soy sauce, and the chef provides it on the sushi, why do you have additional wasabi on the plate?

Cheri @ Blog This Mom!® said...

Hide is our LA favorite and second home. *love* this post!

ARUN said...

Thanks for sharing, I will bookmark and be back again

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