Day 29 Sushi Mart…
They say that it takes years of training to become a capable itamae. The greenest of apprentices begin by performing cleaning duty. If all goes well with the cleaning, they move on to preparing the sushi stations for the other chefs. Then they might move on to cooking rice, then to seasoning rice, then preparing nori, then sharpening knifes, then cleaning fish, then preparing fish, and eventually actually cutting fish and preparing sushi. Each step in the process of becoming an itamae can take months or even years. After going through this process, the itamae is believed to have gained a knowledge and respect for the craft of preparing sushi that goes beyond simply cutting fish and placing it on a ball of rice. The nigiri sushi the itamae creates is akin to a piece of art, combining fish that was cut to a perfect size with the rice prepared and formed in a way that most matched the fish.
The itamae is himself held in high regard and respected as one who has perfected his craft through years of arduous training. His attire should reflect his dedication to his craft and his appearances should be that most suitable of a master.
The dining environment he creates for his customers should be welcoming, but not too relaxed. The itamae must create an environment where the customer is respected, and he must also create an enrivonment where his ingredients are respected. He must only serve the freshest fish he is most proud of. He must, under no circumstances, compromise for the sake of pleasing the less knowledgeable customers or for the sake of monetary gain.
The establishment he operates must be named in a way that most conveys the itamae’s mastery of his craft, preferably short and preferably with his surname combined with the word sushi. The establishment must be decorated in a manner that mimics all other traditional venues where sushi is presented; light-colored wood is a must. It must have a bar area, where the itamae will be able to build a rapport with his customers, allowing the customers to submit entirely to a meal tailored specifically to him/her by the all-knowing itamae.
The above description of the itamae and his restaurant is a summary about the subject that my brain has received through books, comic books, magazines, television shows, documentaries, movies, foodie forums, foodie blogs, foodie sites, conversations with my former Japanese roommate, conversations with non-Japanese sushi lovers, conversations with itamaes, urban legends, rumors, hearsay, and observations.
When I enter a sushi restaurant that I have never been to, I immediately try to match these preconceived notions with the sushi chef and environment. The more they match, the more optimistic I am about the meal I am about to have. And the more they stray from my preconceptions, the more suspicious I will be about the potential meal. Usually the resulting meal experience has matched my pre-meal expectations. There are a few exceptions, but they are usually of the negative sort; sometimes capable looking chefs with respectable looking dining environments gave me disappointing dining experiences. But on the flipside, I have rarely been surprised with a good sushi experience when I encountered restaurants with suspect sushi chefs and non-traditional settings.
So why would I visit a place that calls itself “sushi mart”? The name doesn’t exactly inspire confidence in it’s food. I mean I would relate the name ‘sushi mart’ more to a quickie mart ( (or kwik-e-mart??) than proper sushi restaurants like Toshi Sushi or Ajisai Sushi.
Like most restaurants I have visited recently, I went to Sushi Mart because I read a lot of positive reviews about it on yelp and urbanspoon. The reviewers seemed like they knew what they were talking about. There weren’t any baseless hyperbole or unbelievable claims or unattainable expectations. I also dared to try it because of it’s relatively low price. I knew that I wouldn’t be plunking down 4 large per head like I did at the sushi bar at Tojo’s.
The first thing I recognized about the interior of Sushi Mart was it’s modern decor. This was a departure from the traditional sushi bar and akin to Wagamama Ramen (Locations in the U.K. and Boston) with it’s communal dinning table and mid-century modern light fixtures. The food preparation area was filled with young Japanese sushi preparers wearing t-shirts and mass-producing sushi much like you see in supermarket sushi prep areas. This was not a promising sight. Nobody in the sushi preparation area even remotely resembled an experienced and capable itamae. On the right side of the sushi prep area, next to the cashier, there was a refrigeration unit filled with boxes of pre-made sushi. Another bad sign…no self-respecting sushi itamae would allow their sushi to degrade in this manner. Then I saw the menu. It was filled with combinations of rolls and generic pieces of nigiri sushi. Looking around, that is what I saw most patrons there eating. Nothing I saw in the restaurant inspired even a little bit of confidence in me.
My wife and I stayed and placed our orders because we were too hungry to go elsewhere. We could have ordered two of their combinations, filled ourselves with disappointing sushi, and called it a day…but we didn’t. We took the very likely risk of throwing away our money by ordering items from their a la carte nigiri menu. We ordered 20 pieces or nigiri sushi and one roll. After we paid for our order, they gave us a tray with cups, napkins, plates, chopsticks, and a number for our order:
First they brought us complimentary miso soup:
Then we got our sushi:
We had 4 pieces of toro (albacore belly), 2 salmon, 2 hamachi, 2 albacore tuna, 2 unagi (freshwater eel), 2 amaebi (sweet shrimp), 2 kani (crabmeat), 1 sea snail/whelk, and 2 uni (sea urchin). We also ordered a spicy tuna roll and 2 inari (tofu-skin).
The first thing we noticed when we ate our first pieces of sushi was the amount of rice. There was way too much rice under each piece of fish. This amount of rice overwhelmed the taste of the fish, resulting in our taste buds only registering the flavour of the vinegar rice. So what we did was remove a third of the rice before every subsequent piece we ate so that we could taste the fish. You know what? The difference was night and day.
After the removal of the extra rice, we tasted amazingly fresh fish with very balanced vinegar rice. The toro was fantastically unctuous, heavenly even. The hamachi was crisp and fresh. The salmon was lean, clean, and delightful. The uni was sweet as cotton candy without even a trace of ammonia. The kani was as tasty as only real crab could be. The unagi was hot, tender, and perfectly sauced. The albacore was thick with a nice bite. The amaebi, unfortunately, was the first piece we both had and it was overwhemled by the rice. The sea snail/whelk was the only piece that I regretted ordering. It was a little too chewy and tasted no different than a piece of overcooked tako (octopus). The inari was par for the course, meaning it was as good as we remembered it from childhood. The spicy tuna was a revelation, with the distinct elements of the spicy sauce, the albacore tuna, and the rice all standing out on their own while existing harmoniously. This was one of the best spicy tuna rolls I’ve ever had, with there being more tuna than rice in the roll.
Surprisingly, after the extra rice was removed, this meal turned out to be one of the better sushi meals we’ve had since we’ve moved here. It was comparable to the really good sushi we had at Ajisai Sushi only a few days ago. Sushi Mart had fish that was as fresh and rice that was as well seasoned as Ajisai Sushi. In fact, I might even choose to visit Sushi Mart over Ajisai Sushi in the future because of Sushi Mart’s lower prices. I’m sure I could convince them to give me a 33% smaller ball of rice with each nigiri sushi the next time I’m here – they look much more flexible than the stubborn traditional itamaes that would kick you out if your made such an outlandish request.
The meal I had at Sushi Mart has really got me rethinking the necessity of the traditional itamae in making good nigiri sushi. I guess if the fish is fresh enough, and the rice well seasoned enough, good sushi can be made even by those who have not dedicated their entire lives to the craft of making sushi. That’s the easy part. As I’ve mentioned in my post on Ajisai Sushi, a huge component of a good sushi experience is the experience. It is created by the progression of each individual piece of sushi the itamae serves you. It is the timing of the arrival of each individual piece of sushi. It is watching the itamae’s skills in making each individual piece of sushi. The experience is the thing that sets restaurants with itamaes that serve an amazing sushi experience apart from those that merely serve good sushi. That being said, when I crave sushi, I mostly crave the sushi and not the experience. My wallet would probably be better served on those occasions if I visit Sushi Mart instead of the more expensive sushi establishments …