Follow these rules, and you’ll keep the chef happy and have what could be a transcendent sushi experience.
AT WATARU’S six-seat sushi bar, it was impossible to ignore that the lady celebrating a significant birthday was getting lit on sake and wine. As the lovely omakase meal unfolded, she grew more animated. At the end of two hours, she was raring to do shots, but was quietly dissuaded.
Intimate and serene Wataru is not that kind of sushi restaurant. Its chef/proprietor, Kotaro Kumita, prepares Edomae-style sushi, also called nigiri, as does his mentor, Shiro Kashiba, who recently opened Sushi Kashiba. This style of sushi has a long tradition with certain customs and rituals attached. Familiarity with a few basics will enhance your experience at the sushi bar.
Omakase or okonomi
Okonomi (a la carte) means the choice is up to you. Most sushi aficionados prefer omakase, or letting the chef decide. It’s OK to discuss your price range upfront with the chef so there will not be any surprises.
An acquaintance who travels often to Japan gave me this advice about omakase: “Don’t order, and don’t say no. If you eat true omakase (no substitutions, restrictions, side orders, double or repeat orders), you will be served very particular things in a very particular order. It can be transcendent.”
Build rapport with your chef
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A sushi chef is reading signals from the moment you sit down. He waits to learn of your drink order before serving, for example, and adjusts your food to be compatible with your drink. Most chefs appreciate diners who show genuine interest in their food. Feel free to ask questions, but be sensitive to how busy the chef is before engaging him in conversation.
It’s appropriate to ask what the chef recommends. Avoid asking what is fresh today. It carries the insulting implication that not everything is. Sushi chefs often tuck away delicacies — rare fish flown in from Japan or local products in limited supply — that they are more likely to present to customers who signal their worthiness by their demeanor.
Chopsticks or fingers
Nigiri sushi is properly eaten with fingers, not chopsticks, unless it is garnished. Each piece is built to be consumed in one bite, two at most, but don’t put it down between bites. If a warm washcloth is provided, use it to clean your hands, and return it to its holder so you can reuse it throughout the meal.
If your wooden chopsticks split unevenly or have splinters, discreetly ask for a new pair. Rubbing chopsticks together to smooth rough edges implies they are poor quality. Place the chopsticks parallel to the edge of the table in front of you, pointing left. Never wave or point with them. When not eating, rest the tips on a chopstick rest — fold the paper wrapper to make one if none is provided — or on the edge of your plate. Placing chopsticks across your plate or bowl signals you are finished.
To dip or not to dip
Nigiri sushi is meant to be consumed immediately after it’s served. Letting it sit diminishes the taste and is an affront to the chef. Often the chef has already applied a condiment or sauce to the fish. Soy sauce should not be necessary, so before dipping, ask whether you should. Dip the fish side, not the rice. Wasabi is mixed into soy sauce only for sashimi.
When dining with others, never pour sake for yourself. Pour for others, then let them pour for you. Usually a younger person pours first for the elder person. To show the most respect when receiving sake, lift your cup up off the table and place your other hand underneath to steady it. Take a sip before setting it down.
Sushi chefs in America certainly don’t expect diners to be aware of every Japanese custom. First and foremost, one should behave according to the restaurant’s ambience. Knowledgeable, appreciative, well-mannered diners who show respect for tradition are likely to receive better treatment than clueless customers who are loud, drunk or overly familiar with the chef. The sushi bar is a communal dining experience. Other guests deserve respect, and so does a chef who devoted decades to mastering a centuries-old culinary art.