For Dinner Out, the Best Sushi Begins With the Experience

By Leigh Lambert
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 6, 2007

"You see him slapping it?" asks Trevor Corson, pointing toward the chef at Sushi Taro, who is giving a good whack to a slice of clam. "That's because it's alive."

At a good sushi restaurant, the freshest octopus and clams are squirming just moments before they are served. One final beating makes sure they won't get up and crawl away.

That is the kind of tidbit you learn when eating sushi with Corson, who lived and studied in Japan and has become an expert on the topic. To write his new book, "The Zen of Fish: The Story of Sushi, From Samurai to Supermarket" (HarperCollins, 2007), the Washingtonian spent two years visiting fish markets, Sacramento rice growers and Oregon wasabi farms. For three months, he shadowed students at the California Sushi Academy in Los Angeles, using the story of one student as something of a metaphor for the way America has embraced -- and remade -- the cuisine.

In the United States, sushi myths abound, starting with the very definition of the word. (It refers to the vinegar-seasoned rice, not raw fish.) And despite its image in the West as the epitome of Japanese refinement and healthful eating, sushi began as what Corson calls a "crude snack food," invented as a way to preserve old fish and sold by street vendors. Not until after World War II was the modern sushi bar born, Corson writes, and that's because American occupying forces in Tokyo forced the street vendors to move indoors.

In the years since it arrived in Los Angeles in the 1960s, sushi has become practically as ubiquitous as the hamburger in the United States, where in the last decade the number of sushi restaurants doubled to more than 9,000, according to Japanese Restaurant News. That doesn't even include the 3,000 sushi-to-go outlets. In Japan, meanwhile, sushi has become the urban fast food of choice.

"It was possible that if the authentic sushi experience were to survive anywhere, it would be in the United States," writes Corson, 37. "If Americans learned to appreciate the sushi tradition, they might be saving it not just for themselves but for Japan as well."

When I accompanied Corson to four of Washington's top sushi restaurants, the first lesson was in what defines sushi. "Sushi is not about the food per se, but the experience," he says. Especially if you ask for omakase, or the chef's choice, "what makes sushi unique is the relationship with the chef. We are relinquishing control. We place our trust in him."

At Sushi-Ko in Georgetown, this surrender to the chef left Corson meditating on engawa -- the abductor fin muscle of a flounder, considered a delicacy in Japan -- topped with sea urchin and shiso leaf. The creation was chef Koji Terano's and not one you will find on any sushi sampler listed on the menu.

Lesson Two: Not all sushi is raw. In omakase-style dining, cooked items often precede sashimi (raw fish served without rice) and nigiri (raw fish atop formed rice). Chef Terano served us crab abogado cakes with green tea salt, crispy fried marinated eel and seaweed-cucumber salad before the raw fish arrived. The small-plate surprises appeared two by two, like little jeweled offerings.

Lesson Three: Get to know your sushi chef. Of course, it doesn't hurt to speak Japanese. At Kotobuki in the Palisades, chef Hisao Abe's eyelids were at half-mast, his demeanor unenthusiastic as he made us a sushi sampler. But when Corson asked him in perfect Japanese how long the restaurant had been open, Abe came to life.

It eased introductions everywhere we went, but even if your Japanese is limited, Corson has a suggestion: Frequent your favorite sushi bar several times, and make your face familiar. When the chefs realize you want to learn about sushi, they will probably enjoy educating you.

Lesson Four: Sit at the bar if possible. As customer Donna Toll of Potomac said at Kaz Sushi Bistro downtown, where she goes two or three times a month, "we get to taste things we probably wouldn't have gotten to" if seated at a table. Things like house-cured monkfish liver or, as we experienced at Sushi Taro in Dupont Circle, deep-fried eel spine, which looked like a gold bracelet laid out on a white plate.

Unlike in Japan, American sushi restaurants usually have more seats at tables than at the bar. But if you get a seat at the counter you can establish a rapport with the sushi chef, who will take note of your reaction to different items and can improvise offerings in response.

Lesson Five: Even if you order your own sushi rather than ask for omakase, break out of your comfort zone and try something besides the common rolls, a California invention. A roll requires less finesse than great nigiri, which takes deft, practiced hands to form. And you'll gain much credibility with the sushi chef if you avoid dunking the fish in lots of soy sauce mixed with wasabi. Abe at Kotobuki told Corson, in Japanese, that he worries that it wouldn't matter what he makes for most customers, because so many Americans come in knowing exactly what they want and then cover up the flavor with soy.

Lesson Six: If the restaurant is out of some item, it probably means the chef is paying attention to quality and freshness. "It's a sign of good sushi if you can't get what you want sometimes," Corson says. Fish have peak times for maximum flavor depending on their migration and eating patterns, the temperature of the water and their food supply.

Our sushi crawl took place in March, so we were offered raw Maine shrimp almost everywhere we ate. They have a brief six-week season; their buttery, unctuous flavor is fleetingly spectacular. At Sushi Taro, when chef Shige Yokote served those shrimp, he instructed us to reserve the heads; then he deep-fried them and returned the crispy antennae to us as a between-course treat.

To Corson, it was the perfect example of the real sushi experience, which isn't about wasabi, soy sauce or ordering off a menu. For the real deal, go with the omakase, letting the sushi chef take charge.

"Ask his advice for everything, down to the smallest details," Corson says. "Become his friend. It may take a while for him to come around, because many sushi chefs have given up on American customers. Try anyway."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company