Friday, June 17, 2011

handful of genre changing meals, sushi edition

i dont claim to a sushi expert by any means.

i remember when someone told me that eating uni is newer in japan than eating mcdonalds. i guess i really dont know my edomae sushi from deep fried tempura sunshine out my ass rolls covered in spicy mayo sauce.

but i do know what my personal experiences are and i know what i like.

growing up, like most children, i had weird eating habits. my mother is an amazing cook and what i attribute most of my knowledge of all things food to. however, growing up, my mother usually had to make accommodations for me. like when everyone else is enjoying her amazing food, im in the corner eating white rice with nori and tiny bits of american cheese.

and while everyone is eating at a family friends amazing sushi restaurant, im in the corner eating ebi, no wasabi.

i just didnt like the idea of raw fish. ewwwww. but could you blame me? i was like 6 yrs old. what 6yr old wants raw fish for lunch?

of course through the years, i dabbled a bit in "sushi". i had a few "go to" orders of sushi to go along with some "go to" drink orders that made me look like i knew what i was talking about. but it was all just really superficial. no depth at all.

but this isnt what i want to talk about today.

what i want to talk about are the meals that totally changed things for me. im talking about meals where your foundations of all things you knew were shook down to the core and you had to reevaluate things.


if you liked sushi and were around the silicon valley during the time when people got bmw z3s for signing bonuses, if you were worth 10 million dollars at one point but you live with your parents now, if you thought you were going to retire at 35 because your stock portfolio was going through the roof because you owned hella shares in companies that gave free deliveries for items that weighed 100 pound but only cost $5...... then you must have eaten at sawa sushi.

i was in college at the time and was surround by paper millionaires.

i was fortunate enough that one decided to take me to sawa sushi. he was a regular there so i didnt get the whole sushi nazi attitude from him that the chef/owner is known for.

all i got was an education in sushi.

by this point, i was regularly frequenting all sorts of restaurants. i was also trying my luck cooking things to varying degrees of success. however, i was your typical kid. i thought i knew everything about everything. i had built up a repertoire of all kinds of sushi... well, at least i thought i did...

little did i know that going to the places your parents go to eat doesnt make you an expert in sushi. memorizing a laminated sushi menu doesnt make you an expert.

the omakase meal that was served at sawa that day was mind boggling good. although i may be a bit more knowledgeable now, back then, i really didnt understand why the hell was everything so damn good. what the hell is that? why does this taste so good?

this was not the sushi i ate when i went out on dates in college. wtf was going on?

this meal made me realize real quick, i dont know shit.


a family friend wanted to take me to dinner. he asked if i liked sushi. mind you, beyond the korean style "hwe" sushi, where you get super fresh (usually either just caught, or pulled from a live tank) white fish and eat it with a spicy dipping sauce and/or with leafy green wraps, i have never eaten sushi in asia.

needless to say, i was pretty excited.

i knew things were going to be a bit different from the usual meals i would eat. this is the first time i have eaten at a place where the chef proudly presents for all his diners to see all sorts of plaques, degrees, certifications on the wall..... well actually i take that back. my korean barely passes for literate. my hiragana and kanji? even worse. so even though my dinner companion and the chef both said those were meaningful documents, it could have said proud finger painting graduate for all i know.

even though the chef was pretty much silent to the rest of the customers, when i asked a question or two, he let a small grin escape and answered, yes, i find all my fish every morning. no, we dont have any of those dreadful american style makis here. yes, these knives are very sharp. i think it was somewhat funny for him to have a diner so innocently interested in what he does. by korean standards, i was a grown man at that time and shouldve acted as the cold, emotionless, joyless ahjushi diner who should eat, talk business to my companion and leave. (well until you got drunk later in the night at another place. then you can belt out some crazy korean love songs at the norebang, with your neck tie tied around your head)

i dont think the chef was used to a young man that was really interested in his art. but he happily answered all questions i had.

apparently the chef was born in japan. he was a jae il kyopo, a japanese born korean. he grew up there. he learned his art from a young age. he earned his stripes there. he opened up his own place in seoul. he seemed happy to see an american born korean taking an interest in what he did. he explained that it took years for him to learn how to make the rice just right. the cooking, the seasoning and equally as important, the smacking and forming of the rice to make the vessel for the fish. this was the first time i was ever taught that the rice is equally as important as the fish you are serving.

and the fish that was served? it was a rainbow of delights. local white fish with just enough chewiness and bite to make you remember you are eating sushi in korea. treats from all over japan, fishes with names i can hardly remember but i still remember the taste. this was also the first time i learned that "tuna" isnt just tuna. theres different species, different cuts, but most importantly, different grades of tuna. fish from a few time zones down, to the left to the right... all masterfully presented on perfected rice.

a chef took his years of experience, knowledge and crafted for us our orders. i delightfully ate it all up.


by this time in my life, i have spent years and years eating, cooking and learning about food. though i wouldnt say im an expert by any means, i have spent a good majority of my time eating and enjoying food.

when it came to sushi, i had gotten pretty deep into it now. i even understood many aspects of the distribution channel for the majority of fish bought in my area. i knew that most restaurants got all their "fresh fish", as many have written in their yelp reviews, from pretty much the same place. there were, according to the all knowing mind of me, a handful of chefs that took the effort to seek out their own fish sources.....

i also knew there was a ranking system you could put pretty much all sushi places in....

worst were the chinese sushi places. this is what you would call the high school sushi eaters joint. cheap fish. cheap bento boxes. barely passable.

then came the korean owned sushi places. some were decent. some were great. most, so so. enough quality to there to justify a certain price point so the owners can lease their s class mercedes.

on the top were japanese owned places. locally, in san francisco, they were the murasakis, the kiss, the okinas.... the few handfuls of small restaurants that the chefs took real care in presenting you a meal....

in my all knowing mind, hell, with my all knowing knowledge of everything like ike jime, distribution chanels.... i gotten pretty jaded (and perhaps a bit too cocky) as an eater.

roger at zushi puzzle smacked that back around to a place that my quest for knowledge should be at. basically, he shut me up. eat your food and enjoy it.

wait, this a chinese sushi chef/owner place? wait, this place is in the marina? (a predominantly white, two polo shirt wearing, sorority girl cackling neighborhood)......

i was wrong on all fronts.

does it matter what nationality the chef is?

does it matter who the patrons are?

what matters is the food.

i dont know when nor why it started, but as my knowledge of food slowly rose, so did a certain level of arrogance. it really didnt matter how much i learned about sushi. sure i came a long way. sure i knew more than the majority of diners. sure i knew more than most sushi joint owners....

but did i know enough for me to be so smug about it? was i going to stop and call it a life?


sometimes you need a wake up call.

roger spends the time to find interesting, different, delicious fish. he doesnt go through the normal channels. that would be boring. he finds his own. he puts his twist of fun and humor mixed with his love for the art into his dishes.

i walked away from the sushi bar with a new appreciation for things. sushi did not get boring. i did. i let myself think to know what to expect. i barely scratched the surface of things and i let myself get stagnant. roger and my meal at zushi puzzle help me snap out of it, find my way again and once again, eat with a passion.


this was special.

like really special.

i found this place on handy dandy yelp. a few of my friends who i trust when it comes to these things spoke very highly of yohei and even though it was miles from tourist beach where we were staying, it was worth every last drop of gas getting there.

random strip mall in the middle of what looks to be an industrial area. walk in, plain simple. basic. nothing fancy. a bunch of old folks, locals looks like. staff, old japanese folks. we take a seat by at the bar.


what happened next was a barrage of flavors, taste and texture that put a smile after every bite. the chef didnt speak much english but he spoke the language of food. local, inventive, skilled. thats how i would describe this meal. there was no pretension. there was no fluff. there was an old japanese dude, a simple hole in the wall restaurant and amazing food.

this enforced my opinion that food does not have to come with white table cloths. great food comes from people who put the love and care into it.

this meal enforced my opinion that great chefs dont have to be the one with a restaurant empire.

this meal enforced my opinion that food is a common bond and that it crosses all borders.

when the chef presented young locally caught abalone with uni and a shiso leaf... he couldve been a deaf mute for all purposes. i understood what he was saying. we learned to communicate because i was listening to what was being said.

i was coming into my own. i was getting comfortable with sushi. my journey so far brought me to a point that i could sit at a sushi bar, an ocean away from my home, with a chef thats doesnt speak my native tongue, and hear what was being said.


this isnt the holy grail of sushi.

though during the meal, i just might have thought so.

another hole in the wall restaurant in a random ass strip mall. next to a taco shop, next to a coin laundry, next to a vons.

i couldve drove by this place a thousand times before i would have tried it.

bare bones interior. theres really nothing but tables, chairs and a sushi bar.

there were super standouts like cold raw squid noodles with uni and a touch of truffle salt... and yes, it was amazing, but what struck a nerve with me here were the "plain" dishes. a simple king salmon with a slice of kelp. a piece of aji.....

slight side bar here, one of my all time favorite restaurants is a place called ad hoc. their approach is simply make a dish with the best ingredients you can find and prepare it in the best possible way. its quite simple really. thats the beauty of it.

sushi zo. a simple king salmon. it made me reevaluate what i know about good food. for some strange reason, i had blown off salmon as an ingredient for quality sushi. it was thrown in with the world of over sauced, over fried rolls... and yes. a majority of places, this will hold true and i should be aware of it, but i should also be aware that you still can make amazing things with it. just because everyone else was doing poorly with it, it doesnt mean you have to.

even though i was continually evolving my idea of what food is, perhaps every so often, out of habit, out of routine, out of what i considered to be truths, i hit a speed bump.

the chef here reminded me, if you put the care and love into something, into anything. it will show. even a lowly piece of king salmon.


so its 2011, im a 30 something year old. ive tried sushi in a handful of countries, at hundreds of places. my tastes  and approach have been evolving mostly for the better and sometimes for the worst. what now?

my journey in all things sushi, my journey in all things food has been a direct analogy for my life.

the way i thought of and appreciated sushi/food was directly tied into the person i was. but was the way i saw food influencing the way i thought about life or was it the other way around?

i dont think that mattered. they will be forever tied together for me.

writing all this down, i see my journey as a person.

i will make mistakes. i will adjust. i will learn. sometimes i will stall. sometimes i will accelerate.

sometimes, i just need a slap in the face to realize whats going on and where i need to be.

i dont know everything. not even close. i dont think i ever will. but that doesnt mean i wont try to keep learning. its not really the end result thats important. we all have our own end. its the way we get there thats important. there will be important figures along that journey that will shape the journey itself. thank them. appreciate them. there will be important lessons. remember them.

so what now? im going to keep learning.

(that means im having lunch)

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