If you're ready to wean yourself off rolls, here's what you need to know about how to gauge a sushi bar and its all-important nigiri, or sliced seafood pressed onto mounded rice (Sushi means "sour rice." Without it, you have sashimi. When the seafood and rice are rolled in a seaweed wrapper, that's called maki.)
1. The best seat is at the bar.
Traditional sushi houses don't have dining rooms. Sushi connoisseurs want to see the chef at work, and don't want their raw fish to take a long stroll with a waitress before reaching the table. But even if you're not a stickler for sushi perfection, it's worth claiming a front-row seat.
"It's about interaction with the chef," explains Trevor Corson, author of "The Story of Sushi." "Most of us miss out on that, because we're stuck in the habit of going to a table." Even if you're not watching the chef, the chef is likely watching you, learning your preferences. Forging a relationship with a chef is at the heart of the sushi experience.
2. Beware the chef who snubs the bar.
Some sushi chefs are noisy jokers. Some sushi chefs rarely say a word. It's fine for a chef to express personality, but if the chef shirks from the bar, that's generally a bad sign. A chef should have confidence in his seafood and technique. "If the customer has the chance to sit in front of me, I will recommend something tasty," says Tomo Naito of Atlanta's Tomo Japanese Restaurant.
A good way to assess the chef's comfort level is to ask for "omakase," which literally means "I leave it up to you." Typically, you tell the chef how much you wish to spend and, in return, receive a series of nigiri or small dishes designed to impress. I've encountered a number of chefs in roll-focused restaurants who don't recognize the term.
3. Check out the seafood case.
The fish should look fresh, fatty and robust, but not implausibly so. "If the tuna is like a too-good-to-be-true color, it's carbon-injected," Mount Pleasant chef Sean Park says, referring to the practice of spraying fish with carbon monoxide to delay browning.
4. Scrutinize the rice very carefully.
The real test of a sushi chef is rice, which Park says should be "very airy, very soft, so it just mingles with the fish." The subtly sticky, short grains are supposed to separate in your mouth, which makes a too-firm packing undesirable. The rice should be served at body temperature, while the seafood ought to be no warmer than 40 degrees.
Just as important as texture and temperature is flavor. "Rice wine is like marinara sauce for an Italian chef," Park says.
Chefs make critical decisions about how much rice vinegar, mirin, sugar and salt to add to the rice. "I have 10 different vinegars; it depends on the weather, it depends on the local palate," Park says.
According to Naito, "The fish has to be fresh, but fresh fish doesn't matter if the sushi rice isn't tasty. Eighty percent of the taste of sushi is rice. If the rice isn't tasty, it ruins everything."
5. Leave wasabi decisions to the chef.
I've had nigiri in Charleston that were nothing but rice and fish. In most cases, there should be a dab of wasabi between the two, or perhaps a thin sliver of green onion atop the seafood. The chef delicately garnishes the fish in a way that best complements its flavor.
Americans have come to expect a heap of wasabi on their plates, so Naito typically offers it. But he's aghast at how it's used: "Most of the people here put tons of wasabi in a dish, and pour soy sauce to the rim and start stirring, so the table is a disaster, and then the dish is still full, and they put the sushi in it and let it soak," he says. No good.
6. One bite!
Once you've received your order of nigiri, you'll want to enjoy it as the chef intended. If the chef is skilled, you shouldn't have to go soy dipping, since the fish has already been brushed with a sheer sauce. But if you must dip, make sure you flip the nigiri and dip the fish, not the rice, in your soy sauce dish.
No matter how developed your chopstick skills, you shouldn't need them at the sushi bar: Nigiri should be eaten with your fingers.
How you grip it is up to you, but the entire nigiri should land in your mouth at once: The best sushi chefs will size their nigiri accordingly.
Reach Hanna Raskin at 937-5560.