Thursday, January 7, 2016
Stuff I love #3: Sushi
The town where I grew up, Berea, Ohio, boasted exactly one restaurant in the 1960s: Pizza King, serving up a horror I remember to this day with revulsion: a greasy, tasteless circle of drippy dough with a third inch of cheese, tomato sauce and a scattering of pepperoni. I can see it still.
Growing up and moving away, out into the world, meant discovering new cuisines, thank merciful God. The introduction of some I remember clearly. I recall exactly when and where I first experienced Thai food: The Thai Hut on Devon Avenue, around fall, 1979, taken by Kier Strejcek, my roommate, who knew more about the city because he had a band that played at North Side clubs. I remember exactly what we ordered: chicken satay, mee krob, and chicken pad thai. And for years, that was all I would order at Thai restaurants. The Perfect Trio, why depart from it? (To show you how far I've come, now I always order beef and broccoli at a Thai restaurant. Because that is what I want).
Sushi entered my life more subtly. I can't recall when or where. It could have been in Boulder, Colorado in the mid-1970s. Sushi had a fad in the 1900s in the United States, but really started to take off in the 1960s. It might have been at New Japan, a wonderful place in Evanston on Chicago Avenue for many years. It served grapefruit sorbet as a refresher between courses and a little soy salad with wheat noodles. The first time Edie met my parents we ate there. Now it's an Ethiopian restaurant.
Whenever I first ate raw fish—a hump some Americans just can't get over—by 1982, when I was living in Los Angeles, sushi was a cherished highlight, a Friday ritual. Survive another week at a job I hate and reap the reward: a big platter of sushi, the New Yorker, and a jar of sake or two.
I have been eating sushi, hand over fist, for 35 years, and I'm not tired of it yet. Just last Tuesday, Ross and I went to our current favorite spot, Sushi Sai at Randolph and Franklin, for its $20, all-you-can-eat, sushi chow down, for dinner before "Bel Canto" at the Lyric. The place is only a few blocks from the Civic Opera House, and that $20 special, you just can't beat it.
What is it that makes sushi so good? Fresh, cool, succulent, a variety of slightly different tastes. The deep red tuna is more complex than the pale pink yellowtail. The fish eggs are salty and minute, caviar basically. The pickled ginger a sweet, crunchy break. Plus, they just look beautiful: a colorful array of discrete packages, artfully constructed, like jewelry.
One nice thing about sushi is that it's so expensive, which sounds odd, but the cost keeps you from eating it for every meal, which I once did visiting New York City: breakfast, lunch and dinner. The breakfast was, if I recall, one of those pre-packaged boxes from a bodega, and the big change over the past 30 years is that while once sushi was an urban oddity, now every Mariano's has a sushi chef on call. The stuff they make isn't very good—like frozen pizza to pizzeria pizza. But it will do.
The downside of Sushi Sai is that their staff is a constantly changing band of anonymous persons. I've gone there 50 times over the past decade and, I swear, have never had the same waiter twice. I go anyway, but being a constant stranger there removes the social aspect of eating out.
To be acknowledged as a customer, we go to Fujiyama in Northbrook, where we're met by Irene, the co-owner, and her husband Paul, behind the sushi counter. They're the only two staff, besides an occasional busboy. At Fujiyama being a welcome patron is something you earn. The first time we went, 15 years ago, we tried to order sushi and Irene snapped, in essence, "No, you don't want sushi. My husband is very busy now. Get something else." That "What are you doing here? Get out!" vibe persisted for about five years, but we went back anyway, because the sushi is that good. And over the past few years, the hostility has mellowed considerably. The most recent time the boys and I went, last month, to celebrate their being home from college, we were greeted as old friends, quizzed about their schools. I like to think that's Irene warming to us, though she used to get roasted fairly savagely on Yelp, and she might have finally decided to warm to the people she was asking to pay top dollar (about $80 for a lunch for three, and Kent didn't even get sushi, but a Bento box).
This wasn't meant to turn into a restaurant review—though I can't leave the subject without plugging Blufish, also in Northbrook. Very good sushi, a bit more creative, more of a contemporary exotic flair than Fujiyama, 2/3 the cost, and the young staff serves you with vigor and gratitude. (There is a third sushi place in Northbrook, to illustrate how popular it has become, the venerable Kamehachi. And though it's a few blocks from my house, we never go there, because it's staid, completely eclipsed by the previously mentioned places).
What else am I missing? It's delicious, beautiful to look at, as the photo above (from Sushi Sai) shows. I was going to say it's low calories. A piece of tuna sushi has about 60 calories. Though Sushi Sai's $20 all-you-can-eat (after 2 p.m.) chow down defeats that, now that I think of it. I ended up ordering 21 pieces, which weighed in at 1200 calories or so. Quite a lot, really.
Still, if you've never tried it. And there are people, amazingly, who never have, you should. If I can eat sushi a thousand times—and I have—you can eat it once. You don't know what you're missing.