Trip Tips: Visiting a Sushi Bar

If you’re looking to taste the best sushi of your life, look no further than Japan. Most of the time, I’m content with the local kaitenzushi. (That and the fact that I have a four-year-old. I’m NOT paying the big bucks to have her eat all my uni.) But sometimes, when I’m traveling on my own, it’s worth splashing out for some amazing sushi.

The trick is to find the sushi bar that makes you feel comfortable. Frankly, I often feel intimidated by the set-up of a sushi bar, where you sit right in front of the chef and tell him what you want. I’m not the only one – even Japanese friends (especially women) I’ve talked to said they feel sometimes feel a sense of intimidation. So what can you do? How can you find the right sushi establishment for you? Ask Japanese friends, check with the local tourism office for a suggestion, or reference online food blogs for ideas. Or take the chance and slide open that door.

Most high-end sushi bars are very small. Reservations are highly recommended, if not essential
Most high-end sushi bars are very small. Reservations are highly recommended, if not essential

You’ve found your place? Great! Grab your seat at the bar (or wherever they want to put you), take the proffered oshibori (wet towel) and tea and either reference their menu or pick your set. Now, I know a fair amount about sushi after six years in Japan, but if I want a top-notch meal, I leave it to the professionals. You can do the same, with just three simple words:

  • Okimari – Okimari is your set meal option. If the restaurant has a menu, it might show a picture of a certain number of nigiri sushi and maybe a few rolls. The chef will prepare the sushi and serve it to you all at once. This is usually the most affordable option, but doesn’t necessarily take into account what’s in season or what looked the best at the market that day.
  • Okonomi – Okonomi means “as you like it”. Use this if you really know your fish, or if you aren’t that interested in branching out. You tell the chef what to begin with – most sushi aficionados will start with the lighter white fish and word up to things like tuna or sea urchin. The chef will usually make two of each type of request, and season it accordingly with soy sauce, if needed. If you order only tuna or really pricey products, don’t be surprised if your bill is accordingly high.
  • Omakase (oh-MAH-kah-say) – This is my magic word. It means you leave everything up to the chef. He usually knows best anyway. Tell a chef “omakase” and then just sit back as he offers you the best of what came from the market or special small dishes he has been working on perfecting. Omakase usually starts with nigiri sushi (or even just sashimi) and works its way up to larger or heavier dishes. In the middle, some chefs often serve a clear soup to provide a bit of a break for your digestive system. Omakase usually means the bill is on the higher end. However, you can specify your budget to your chef, especially if you are quite concerned about the final total. Some chefs offer omakase but set the price limit themselves.

Often, as the chef serves you the sushi piece by piece, he will flavor it accordingly (maybe a dab of citrus or a light brush of soy sauce). That’s why you often won’t see soy sauce in front of you, and hardly ever will there be wasabi. The chef has already perfected the flavor combo, so there’s no need to add anything else. And don’t be embarrassed to pick up the sushi with your fingers. Sushi was originally a finger food, and it’s more than acceptable to forgo the chopsticks.

Nigiri sushi put right on the bar between chef and  diner, already brushed with soy sauce.
Nigiri sushi put right on the bar between chef and diner, already brushed with soy sauce.

I’ve had two excellent sushi omakase experiences. One was in Kanzawa (a mecca for seafood lovers). I was one of three customers in a ten-seat bar and the chef’s omakase comprised about thirteen pieces of mostly nigiri sushi with a few gunkan rolls. Standouts included hamo with yuzu zest and a roll topped with crab mixed together with its innards. Being omakase, the chef checked in with me a few times to gauge my appetite and see if I wanted to continue. All of that goodness only ran me about ¥8000. A steal compared to some well-known Tokyo sushi joints. My second memorable meal was in Karatsu (Saga Prefecture). The chef offered a set price omakase (¥16000) which comprised sashimi, small dishes and various nigiri sushi. His innovative roasted squid stuffed with roe and cracked white pepper was divine. Both were meals I still salivate over and would happily return to, if I have the chance.

The closing dish - eel served on handcrafted Karatsu pottery - of my Saga omakase meal.
The closing dish – eel served on handcrafted Karatsu pottery – of my Saga omakase meal.

There are TONS of sushi restaurants in Japan and an equal number of opinions about them. Some people get into incredibly heated debates as to whose rice is better, which chef has the more deeply nuanced soy sauce, which is the hardest table to book. Frankly, what I aim for is a place where I don’t feel embarrassed if I eat something the wrong way or if I don’t eat quickly enough or if I ask a question. I want to enjoy my meal, with good exceptional food and a friendly chef. I feel lucky to have had two excellent sushi bar experiences and I look forward to more!

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