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Sushi 101

The ultimate guide to everything sushi


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From Nashville to Danville, Japanese restaurants serving handcrafted morsels of velvety fish and other sea creatures are proliferating as fast as a soft shell crab scrambling to avoid becoming a spider roll. Sushi is one of the fastest growing segments of the U.S. restaurant industry, The Wall Street Journal tells us. The trend is certainly in evidence in the Bay Area, a sushi paradise with proximity to many of the world’s great fishing fields, longstanding Japanese-American culture, and a thriving culinary scene.

The East Bay boasts every style of raw fish cuisine, from the traditional sushi called Edomae—after Edo, the former name of Tokyo—at Yusan Sushi in El Cerrito to the flavor fusions and monster maki rolls of Sushi Groove in Walnut Creek. Here’s our guide to the best places to feed your sushi jones, as well as tips for enhancing the total experience. We also include classes and shops that will help you roll your own.

The most important word in sushi is itamae, which means sushi chef, and the itamae-san who reigns at your sushi bar will determine its quality. Classic itamae training takes years to turn an apprentice into a master who is skilled in techniques and traditions going back 300 years. One of the East Bay’s masters is Yuzo Sasaki, the chef-owner of Yusan Sushi in El Cerrito. Trained in the classic Tokyo (Edo) tradition, Sasaki, now 72, claims to have invented the ubiquitous California roll back in 1974, using crab, avocado, and sesame seeds (later replaced with tobiko, flying fish roe), when there was no fresh fish to be had.

What are the signs of a good sushi restaurant?

The most important thing is the rice. When I trained in Japan, I had to make rice for three years before I was allowed to touch the fish. I make my own rice. It can’t be too sticky; it can’t be too hard.

I’ve heard of “sushi Nazis” who say each piece must be eaten in one bite. And where do you stand on the chopsticks vs. fingers issue?

Eating sushi with chopsticks is an American thing. If they’re doing it in Japan, it came from America. Two bites is fine. It’s best to eat maki [sliced seaweed-wrapped rolls] in one bite because they fall apart easily.

How is ginger eaten?

You should take a bite of ginger in between the different kinds of fish. It clears the palate, and you can really taste the distinctive flavor of each fish. We use a very young, pale “virgin” ginger; if it’s pinker, it’s older.  
 

When is wasabi not wasabi?

Most of the time. All powdered “wasabi” is made of horseradish dyed green with food coloring. Authentic wasabi is a member of the mustard family [and is a rhizome, not a root like horseradish]. We serve a chopped, pickled kizami wasabi—which contains authentic wasabi and other ingredients—that can be nibbled plain with drinks as well as eaten with sushi.

Is it true that women can’t be sushi chefs because their hands are too warm?

Today there are women sushi chefs. But, yes, it’s good to have a very cold hand. If you make the sushi with a warm hand, rice sticks to your fingers. [At Yusan, a cold water tap runs behind the bar so that the sushi chefs can rinse their hands constantly.]

What’s best to drink with sushi?

Sake. I like Kurosawa Jun-Mai Kimoto. Both heating and chilling disguise inferior sake, but meticulously hand-brewed kimoto varieties can best be appreciated at room temperature.

What can you order if you don’t want to eat raw fish?

Salmon that’s been smoked or cured; eel; shrimp; octopus, which is steamed; salmon-skin roll; California roll; and, of course, any of the vegetable rolls.

Fish on Fire Sushi Bar,  101-C Town and Country Dr., Danville, (925) 837-1027

This tiny restaurant, formerly named Blowfish, has a hip, bold look and one of the friendliest sushi chefs in the land. The fish laid atop expertly prepared rice is practically still kicking. The bigeye tuna is tender and clean tasting, and the salmon is rich and buttery. The chef’s special rose-shaped tuna with tobiko and raw quail egg is a one-bite flavor adventure.

Fujian, 1518 Bonanza St., Walnut Creek, (925) 932-0368

The sushi bar is often crowded at Fujian, and with good reason. The fish is beautifully selected and presented; it often looks too good to eat. The only concern is that if you stick to sushi, you’ll miss the deeply flavored broths and crisp vegetables in the noodle dishes.

Hanazen, 87 Orinda Way, Orinda, (925) 254-3611, www.myhanazen.com  

After glowing reviews appeared in Bay Area newspapers, Kenji and Coco Horikawa, the husband-and-wife owners of this neighborhood restaurant, have become shy about getting more press—only because they don’t want too many newcomers to crowd out the regulars. The raves focus on chef Kenji’s rolls, made with the freshest fish and high-quality ingredients, and on Coco’s expertise selecting and pouring sake.

House of Sake, 313 N. Civic Dr., Walnut Creek, (925) 930-8811; 4288 Dublin Blvd., Ste. 101., Dublin, (925) 833-8448

With its tile floor and ceiling, House of Sake in Walnut Creek isn’t going to win any design awards. Its distinction is its sushi, and the crowds that fill the long sushi bar and many tables are proof of its quality. The raw-fish nigiri is pristine and is served with just a small dab of wasabi. The unagi has a rich, grilled flavor, and its sweet sauce is a cut above.

Jo’s Honda Sushi, 150 Longbrook Way, Ste. C, Pleasant Hill, (925) 798-3459

This hidden gem of a sushi restaurant is tucked within the small ivy-covered plaza at Ellinwood Square. Its interior is unpretentious, as are the prices, but it offers tasty and whimsically titled dishes such as the Sushi Candy roll, a mix of avocado, wakame, unagi, and cream cheese, and the Sexy roll, another unagi-and-avocado packet, this time with crabmeat.

Kaiwa Sushi, 1534 Locust St., Walnut Creek, (925) 274-9496

At casual Kaiwa, chef Nam Bui has given his name to his elaborate Nam22, a roll packed with six pieces of tuna topping a mix of crab and shrimp tempura and highlighted with a light spicy sauce, tobiko, and green onion. But the real treat is the red tuna and tempura flakes on top, which add just the right amount of crunch. During Kaiwa’s popular daily 5–7 p.m. happy hour, fresh tuna, ebi, and unagi nigiri can be had for $3.25 a pair.

Kane Sushi, 125 Hartz Ave., Danville, (925) 362-8686; 3474 Mt. Diablo Blvd., Lafayette, (925) 284-9709

The atmosphere at Kane in Danville is casual and fun; on weekend nights you’ll find happy diners gorging on playfully named rolls and washing them down with “sake bombs” (a sake shot dropped into a glass of Japanese beer). Lafayette is quieter, with a huge selection of sushi, including gleaming, melt-in-your-mouth cuts of upmarket tuna.

Kawa Sushi, 2180 Third St., Livermore, (925) 606-7222, www.kawasushi-inc.com

Don’t let the cinder block exterior and the chain-diner-like laminated menu lead you to think that this popular Tri-Valley Japanese restaurant serves only middling sushi. The raw fish selections, like the restaurant’s bright, modern interior, are fresh and fun. The menu is generous, featuring a variety of specialty sushi and sashimi dishes, including the Sushi Girl, a roll packed with spicy crab and alternately topped with tuna and avocado.

Kirala Restaurant, 2100 Ward St., Berkeley, (510) 549-3486, www.kiralaberkeley.com

Since Kirala opened in 1989, the stylish 89-seat south Berkeley restaurant has attracted diners who don’t mind its no-reservation policy and are willing to stand in line for hours just to taste one of chef Akira Komine’s top-shelf sushi creations, such as tender, sliced toro (the lusciously fatty, pink belly) of bluefin tuna and perfectly seasoned tuna poke.

Lindo, 4233 Rosewood Dr., Ste. 9, Pleasanton, (925) 847-3044

Lindo takes its name from a blossom found in chef-owner June Osanai’s native Honshu, a northern Japanese island. Osanai, who has more than 20 years’ experience as a sushi chef, makes beautiful rolls with fresh, seasonal ingredients, such as petal-thin slices of lemon.

Matsu Sushi, 4930 Dublin Blvd., Ste. 800, Dublin, (925) 833-3966; 1914 Contra Costa Blvd., Pleasant Hill, (925) 671-9972, www.matsusushiusa.com

This ultra-lively restaurant, with two locations, features an extensive menu of authentic Japanese dishes, from sashimi to teriyaki. Items include many of the usual sushi suspects (California rolls), as well as specialty rolls with big, bold names: for example, the Titanic, with shrimp, tuna, salmon, spicy crab, and avocado; and the Godzilla, a tuna tempura with spicy sauce topped with tobiko and green onions.

Miraku, 2131 N. Broadway, Walnut Creek, (925) 932-1112; 2416 San Ramon Valley Blvd., Ste. 120, San Ramon, (925) 820-8107

Diners at Walnut Creek’s Miraku enjoy a Zenlike experience in traditional Japanese dining. A rock-lined pond glistens in the middle of the low-lit restaurant. San Ramon is quite a bit livelier, both in terms of the decor and the developing social scene. The sashimi of salmon, yellowtail, and ahi likewise glistens. As for the sushi, the popular Volcano roll features slices of tuna wrapped with cream cheese and avocado.

Momiji, 411 Main St., Pleasanton, (925) 846-3077

Momiji has a soothing vibe: Tasteful Japanese art is displayed on its pale walls in what feels like an old-fashioned storefront space. The sushi selection is excellent, offering toro on a regular basis, as well as a long list of other fish that is sparkling fresh. If spotting a good Asian restaurant means one with lots of Asian customers, this would be it.

Nama Sushi & Teriyaki, 1502 Sunnyvale Ave., Walnut Creek (925) 932-9540

Nama means fresh in Japanese, and the restaurant’s food is vibrantly delicious. Toro melts on the tongue with oceanic flavor. One sushi specialty combines a paper-thin slice of red snapper, halibut, or sea bass with yuzu juice, lemon, orange, caviar, and jalapeños. If you visit often enough to be considered a regular, manager Jim Kim will put a framed certificate with your name written in both Japanese and English behind the sushi bar.

Senro Japanese Bar & Grill, 30 W. Neal St., Pleasanton, (925) 600-8040

At Senro, a bustling three-year-old restaurant off Main Street, there are sushi rolls that pack heat. The Island Breeze includes wrapped spicy tuna and unagi topped with a jazzy mango salsa and macadamia nuts. Another popular favorite is the Shelby roll, which combines spicy tuna, crab, creamy sauce, and hamachi.

Serika, 2 Theatre Sq., Ste. 118, Orinda, (925) 254-7088

This serene spot tucked in the courtyard behind the Orinda Theatre is decorated with sedate wall hangings and features a soundtrack of traditional Japanese string music. It also serves beautifully crafted sushi and sashimi, including fresh slices of soft, pink hamachi and silky, white halibut. The more savory “stamina” rolls are packed with slices of broiled chicken and beef.

Shun Japanese Bistro, 3120-G Santa Rita Rd., Pleasanton, (925) 484-4827, www.shunsushi.com

Shun offers one of the most extensive Japanese menus in the East Bay, with a huge selection of sushi—belying its strip mall location. The sushi jumps off the plate and includes some unusual offerings, such as meltingly delicate sea bream and two varieties of hard-to-find fatty tuna. The pieces are generous.

Sozo Sushi, 2835 Hopyard Rd., Pleasanton, (925) 484-5588, www.sozosushi.com  

This popular 10-year-old restaurant offers a wide sushi selection, including creative nods to casual California cuisine: for example, the Three Amigos, with tuna, salmon, hamachi, and a spicy cream sauce, and the Monterey, a mix of shrimp and jalapeños.

Sushi Bar Hana, 301 Hartz Ave., Ste. A, Danville, (925) 820-0670

This restaurant, which recently moved to the Danville Clock Tower Center, boasts 10 seats at the sushi bar and eight tables. Hana’s coziness translates into friendly, personal service. You’re guaranteed a front-row view of chef Yoshi Fukuda preparing specials such as the Tiffany roll, which lives up to its posh name and whose decadent flavor melds chopped shrimp, green onion, broiled chili paste, avocado, cucumber, and radish sprouts.

Sushi Groove, 1523 Giammona Dr., Walnut Creek, (925) 945-1400, www.sushigroovewc.com

Jimmy Tang overhauled the former Slates supper club in downtown Walnut Creek and created a sleek, fashionable East Bay outpost for the San Francisco-based Sushi Groove venture. Anytime you order one of chef Mitsu Nagamine’s specials, the result will be a different sushi creation presented as though you were going to frame the finished product rather than eat it.

Suwa’s Japanese Restaurant, 2151 Salvio St., Ste. E., Concord, (925) 825-3201, www.suwas.com

Japanese master chef Toshiro Suwa founded this family-owned restaurant in 1978, and its location in Concord’s Salvio Pacheco Square includes a sushi bar and a tatami room that seats 18 people. The tekka don, slabs of raw tuna over sushi rice topped with nori, is a treat. The fish is perfectly fresh, and the sushi rice is well seasoned.

Worth the Drive

Rohnert Park

Hana Japanese Restaurant,  101 Golf Course Dr., (707) 586-0270, www.hanajapanese.com  

Located in a far corner of Rohnert Park’s Doubletree Plaza, Hana Japanese Restaurant consistently ranks as one of the Bay Area’s best venues for sushi. Chef-owner Ken Tominaga serves 15 kinds of fish each day, searching worldwide for the best. The restaurant features a traditional sushi bar where names of the day’s selections hang on wooden signs. Its chefs, trained in the Tokyo style, also serve trendier small plates, salads, and grilled items on the restaurant menu. In Zenlike fashion, Tominaga nominates as his favorite roll a teppa maki, the humble cucumber roll.

Sausalito

Sushi Ran, 107 Caledonia St., (415) 332-3620, www.sushiran.com

The only sushi restaurant to earn a star in the brand-new Michelin Guide to the Bay Area, Sushi Ran offers a lively, convivial atmosphere, upscale coziness, and the exquisite sushi of chefs Mitsunori Kusakabe and Garth Murakami. Try the Dragon roll, featuring shrimp tempura with eel and avocado. In its 18 years of existence, the restaurant has inspired an enthusiastic following, so be sure to make a reservation.

San Francisco

Kyo-Ya, Palace Hotel, 2 New Montgomery St., (415) 546-5090, www.kyo-ya-restaurant.com  

Restaurant Anzu, Hotel Nikko, 222 Mason St., (415) 394-1100, www.restaurantanzu.com  

Ame, St. Regis Hotel, 689 Mission St., (415) 284-4040, www.ame restaurant.com

Some of the city’s best destinations for sushi and sashimi are in hotels. Kyo-Ya Japanese Restaurant, in the Palace Hotel, and Anzu, in the Hotel Nikko, are both known for their excellent fish selection flown in straight from Japan. You won’t get sushi at Ame, the restaurant in the sleek new St. Regis Hotel South of Market, but you will get some of the city’s most imaginative sashimi. Chef Hiro Sone fuses silky cuts of fish with European or California touches, such as tuna kibbe with flatbread, ceviche of halibut with chilies and radishes, or carpaccio of sea bream.

Sushi Etiquette

Sit at the sushi bar. Sushi preparation is performance as well as art, and only a view of the flashing, skillful hands of the chef offers the full experience.

Cleanse your hands with the steamy towel you’re offered, and keep it nearby in its basket for when your fingers get sticky.

Pour a bit of soy sauce in the small dish provided. Add wasabi to taste, but be aware that the itamae-san may already have brushed the fish or the rice with enough wasabi when preparing the sushi.

For the authentic experience, put yourself in the sushi master’s hands, and ask him or her to serve you what’s freshest.

When seated at the sushi bar, the itamae will place pieces of sushi on a serving board atop a ledge in front of you. That board is for service only; don’t pick it up or remove it. Take sushi directly from the ledge.

Order one or two pieces at a time, and, in the best Zen tradition, eat all the food you’ve requested. (Ordering item by item also assures maximum freshness, so the fish stays cool and the nori stays crisp.)

Eat sashimi (plain raw fish) and chirashi (“scattered” sushi—fish and other ingredients served loosely over rice) with chopsticks, but eat nigiri sushi (hand-shaped ovals of rice draped with fish) and maki (seaweed-wrapped rolls cut into rounds) with your fingers.

When eating nigiri, place the thumb and middle finger on either side and the index finger on top. Turn the sushi over and dip only the fish side (neta) in the soy sauce. If you dip the rice, it absorbs too much soy sauce and falls apart.

Sushi is traditionally eaten in one bite. In America, the pieces are often too large to eat in one bite, so two is fine. After the first bite of nigiri, dip the neta (fish side) again to season the second morsel.

To appreciate the distinct flavor of each fish, cleanse your palate with a bit of ginger between each variety.

When finished eating, place your chopsticks—not just the tips—across the soy sauce dish parallel to the sushi bar.

Order sushi, sashimi, and chirashi from the itamae but soup, drinks, and cooked food from the waitstaff. Tip the sushi chefs separately, but don’t hand them money. A well-trained sushi chef at work touches only knife, towel, rice, and fish.

Don’t hesitate to make conversation with your fellow diners at the sushi bar. Community is part of the experience; a nearby diner might send over a pair of especially fine sushi, much as westerners might buy you a drink.

Eat Healthfully

Sushi’s appeal lies not only in its flavors and freshness but also in its purported health benefits. A piece of sushi, particularly one with the Japanese seaweed called nori, provides a concentrated packet of nutrition—protein, omega-3 fatty acids, carbohydrates, vitamins, calcium, iron, and fiber—with few calories and very little fat. But eating raw fish, which can carry bacteria, parasites, and heavy metals, is never totally risk free. Here’s the 411 on sushi and sashimi safety.

Eat at established sushi bars or restaurants to ensure you’re eating sushi-grade fish from reliable suppliers prepared by sushi chefs trained in traditional methods of handling raw fish. With few exceptions, sushi served at restaurants has been frozen to kill parasites.
Overall, the most dangerous fish is raw salmon. Fortunately, a traditional Japanese sushi bar uses only salmon that’s been cured, smoked, or frozen.

Traditional sushi accompaniments may also aid in making sushi safer. Vinegar used to season sushi rice prevents bacterial growth. Authentic wasabi, soy sauce, and the shiso leaf often served with sashimi and sushi are also thought to have antibiotic effects. There’s even some evidence to suggest that pickled ginger contains an antibacterial agent.

Be leery of spicy tuna rolls at restaurants you are not familiar with because this is where the least fresh fish sometimes ends up. And don’t eat the unnaturally bright-red tuna that’s been “gassed” with carbon monoxide, which prevents the fish from turning brown no matter how old and decomposed it gets.

Fish high on the food chain—tuna, sea bass, halibut, and king mackerel—may contain large concentrations of mercury, a growing concern for people who love seafood. In particular, children can suffer brain and nervous system damage from exposure to even low levels of mercury and should therefore avoid eating these kinds of fish. Women who are pregnant, nursing, or thinking about becoming pregnant should also limit their consumption. In California, restaurants that serve seafood are now required to post mercury warnings. To learn how to eat seafood safely, visit the Natural Resources Defense Council website, www.nrdc.org/health/effects/mercury/protect.asp. The site also has a Mercury Calculator you can use to check your diet for risks.

DIY Sushi

It’s easy to say that making sushi is an art, but you can’t truly appreciate the statement until you’ve rolled your first vegetable maki. Once you’ve toasted the nori, wrangled the rice, and arranged the avocado to complete that first roll, you’ll be as proud as a new dad. And obsessed with your next roll.

Shopping tips

Quality ingredients are key, not just for preparing scrumptious sushi at home but also to make sure your creations are safe to eat. Most reports of sushi-related illness involve sushi prepared at home, so you might consider avoiding hazards either by using only cooked fish, such as the traditional lightly boiled shrimp (ebi), barbecued eel (unagi), or cooked crab (kani) or octopus (tako). Always buy sushi-grade fish from a knowledgeable fishmonger.

The East Bay has several well-known markets for sushi fish and other sushi items, including Berkeley Bowl Marketplace (2020 Oregon St., Berkeley, 510-843-6929, www.berkeley bowl.com), Diablo Oriental Foods (2590 N. Main St., Walnut Creek, 925-933-2590), and Tokyo Fish Market (1220 San Pablo Ave., Berkeley, 510-524-7243). All vendors keep their fish wrapped and practice traditional precautions.

Lee Nakamura of Tokyo Fish Market says it is important to buy fish that is specifically intended for sushi and sashimi. Nakamura first worked as a chef, then ran the fish counter at Berkeley Bowl for 10 years before joining Tokyo Fish, the East Bay’s granddaddy Japanese market. “My suppliers only buy fish specifically designated for sushi or sashimi from the time it’s caught,” he says.

The fish then must be cut and handled to avoid contamination from parasites or bacteria from nonsushi fish. This means maintaining a separate area for sushi fish, as well as cutting boards and knives that are not used for other fish. “We wrap all our sushi fish so that when we take it in and out of the showcase, it’s never exposed to any outside contamination,” says Nakamura.

Freezing is also important to kill parasites and bacteria. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration recommends freezing all fish intended to be eaten raw or undercooked at a temperature of -4¢ªF for seven days, or -31¢ªF for 15 hours. Few home freezers can get that cold. For Nakamura, it’s not freezing that is crucial to fish safety but the quality and integrity of his supply chain. “I pay extra to get the best quality—whether frozen or fresh—and everything I buy has been inspected at least twice before it gets to me.”

On a recent visit to Tokyo Fish Market, the sushi section contained bluefin tuna from Australia and Mexico; yellowfin ahi tuna from Hawaii; halibut (hirame) from the East Coast; yellowtail (hamachi) from Japan; amberjack (kanpachi) from Hawaii; tai snapper from New Zealand; local and Canadian albacore; and tombo tuna from Hawaii, as well as boxes of sea urchins (uni) and a variety of fish roe in gumdrop colors—red, black, yellow, green, and orange. The sushi section doesn’t contain fresh salmon, however, because Nakamura doesn’t recommend it for sushi.

Tokyo Fish Market and Diablo Oriental Foods also sell knives, rolling mats, sake, many kinds of nori seaweed, and premium short- or medium-grain sushi rice. Tokyo Fish carries an “all natural and organic” Premium Sushi Kit for $44.75, as well as tubes of authentic wasabi from Pacific Farms in Oregon and kizami wasabi, the chopped, pickled version from Japan.

Classes

Unusual Touch With Chat Mingkwan

Trained in Southeast Asia, France, and the United States, East Bay chef Chat Mingkwan teaches a broad range of cooking classes, but he also is a master of sushi, regularly offering three-hour workshops in sushi-making through the City of Walnut Creek’s Recreation Division and the Piedmont Adult School. He also offers private, in-home classes that can be tailored to your experience and schedule. (510) 528-2547, www.unusualtouch.com

Mari’s Catering

The sushi specialists at this San Francisco catering company will bring their expertise to your private home party or corporate team-building event in the East Bay. The company offers three versions of the sushi class: one that focuses on technique, one that offers a party atmosphere, and one with an emphasis on team-building. Parties must include eight or more people. (415) 341-5468, www.marisfood.com

Healing Cuisine With Meredith McCarty

Although based in Mill Valley, Meredith McCarty, who describes herself as a holistic nutritionist, will come to the East Bay to offer private, in-home sushi classes. She teaches students how to make healthy, organic, vegetarian rolls. Smoked salmon is sometimes incorporated into the menu as well. (415) 381-1735, www.healingcuisine.com  

For those unable to take a class, websites and books offer extensive do-it-yourself information. Diablo Oriental Foods and Tokyo Fish Market both sell books, and www.eatsushi.com, www.eat-japan.com, www.thesushibar.com, www.sushinow.com, and www.sushiref.com offer a wealth of information, including videos demonstrating sushi techniques. 

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