Judging a good sushi restaurant

A reminder to those of you lucky enough to live in a town with good sushi: This is tuna season! Tuna that is caught in colder waters now has a lot of fat on it, so if you like the fattier cuts such as chu-toro and o-toro, then this is the time for you.

While we are at it, here is how I judge a good sushi restaurant, wherever it is.

  • Any restaurant should be clean, but a sushi restaurant should be impeccably clean. The windows should be sparkling, the counter and neta case (fish display case) spotless, and above all there should be absolutely no 'funny odor'. No oil smell, and certainly not a fish smell!
  • While it's possible to have inexpensive Japanese food, sushi is by nature expensive because the fish is expensive, and it's also very labor-intensive. So, in my opinion there is really no such thing as a cheap sushi restaurant. You can have acceptable sushi at a reasonable price in a city with a lot of sushi places, but you can't have good and cheap sushi.
  • The more popular a restaurant is, the faster the turnover, and the fresher the ingredients.
  • Mr. Kondo, the chairman of Tsukiji Sushisei, always used to get an order of some kind of simple sushi roll such as cucumber roll (kappa maki) at a sushi place he wasn't familiar with. A roll is a good way to judge the quality of the shari (sushi rice). The quality of the shari is the main indicator of the quality of the sushi and the skill of the chef.
  • The sushi shari should be proportionate to the neta (fish or other ingredient) on top of it. I am not a fan of jumbo-sushi. The shari should not be packed into a tight dumpling - the rice ball should be firm enough to hold together loose enough to fall apart in your mouth.
  • Generally speaking, the more Japanese expat locals you see at a sushi restaurant the better it is.
  • Finally, when it comes to sushi I am a traditionalist, so if a sushi place has exotica such as spider roll and hamburger roll, it's not for me (unless I'm in the mood to try the exotica). Generally speaking the more elaborate rolls are listed on the menu, the less likely that the sushi would be of top quality.
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Comments

Hiya,

Just discovered your site via the LA Times article. Gorgeous blog. I like to check out the counter of any sushi place before I decide to eat in it. I'll also ask the chef how often and on what days he gets his fish. When trying a new place for the first time, I'll usually order toro and magajiki, plus a few rolls. From this, I can usually tell if it's a place I'd return or run away from.

Cheers!

Ooh-- I love o-toro! I might have to go get get some soon.

My dad used to say that you could judge how good a sushi restaurant is by their tamago (egg) nigiri. There is something to be said about the consistency of the omelet, and just the right amount of sweetness. But it's true-- the quality of the shari is utmost.

Unfortunately, I live in a town with one sushi restaurant which recently closed due to lack of business (it was really very good, even though the chef was trained in French cuisine, he loved Japanese food). It has since re-opened under new management and under a new name, but I always get nervous about trying new restaurants, especially when the food is expensive.

Have you managed to find any reasonably priced and decent sushi places in Zürich? While I love a good bratwurst, the biggest thing I miss about Los Angeles is the incredible variety of good, cheap food, especially sushi.

Chubbyhubby thanks for the compliments! And great tips about sushi resturants - since maguro / toro are the most popular fish if that's good chances are it's a good place.

Also what Yoko said about the tamago - thanks for reminding me Yoko-san :) I always end a sushi meal with tamago (not as nigiri, just the tamago itself) And of course many sushi places make a point of serving the hot out of the pan tamago at the counter, which is usually great. On the other hand, if the tamago is rubbery and suspiciously yellow, beware - it's premade junk.

Oliver, unfortunately I haven't really found a reasonably priced and good sushi restaurant in Zürich yet... for instance, the sushi at Nooch (www.nooch.ch) - a place I go to quite a bit since it's next to the Cinemax - is okay, but just edible (not really worth choosing over their superior Thai-inspired dishes).

I haven't tried the sushi bar in Globus at the Bellevue yet...I have to remember to do so next time I'm there. (Update: I did, don't bother.)

(Update: there is a fairly decent Japanese restaurant in Zürich called Takano, who have 'sushi a discretion' (all-you-can-eat-sushi) twice a week.)

But I do mostly save my sushi money for when I'm in other cities, unfortunately.... (or make facsimiles at home)

I always order uni at a new sushi restaurant. First, to gauge the reaction of the itamae-san and/or waitress. Second, it is so easy to make uni taste completely disgusting, and if the uni is good, then usually the quality of the rest of the fish will be good as well.

I found an unbelivable good place that serves Sushi and is also called Sushi Ya in Timisoara Romania. It is one of the best sushi i ever had. It is called Sushi YA (bar) but it is actualy an restaurant that used to be a sushi bar and they also serve Gyoza, Tempura, Yakitori, Teriyaki, salads and a few fusions.
They have a few extravagant rolls but also all of the traditional sushi you can find at traditionalists. Just check it out on the site: www.sushiya.ro and what you see in the menu is what you get on the table... and prices are real resonable. So this is a place that kinda contradicts you theory, good price, good sushi, fancy rolls, all in one !
Pitty it is so far, far away...

Hi Maki,

If you are seeing this and if it's appropriate to ask: do you have favorite sushi restaurants in Tokyo and/or Kyoto which you would recommend?

Thank you in advance.

N.

Kyoto really isn't the place to go for the type of sushi you are probably thinking of. You can get sushi of course, as you can everywhere in Japan, but as a landbound town it has never been known for raw-fish dishes as such.

In Tokyo there are so many good sushi places it's hard to recommend one over the others really...though in most places you do pay for quality. (cheap sushi usually means not so good.) Traditionally the 'best' (and most expensive) sushi restaurants have been in the Ginza district. You an get less expensive and good sushi in the nearby Tsukiji market area, which may be more fun anyway.

I've heard good things about sushi shops in the Tsukiji market area like you said. Thanks for your reply!

Good post, but I'm not sure I agree with your last criterion, at least outside areas with big Japanese expat populations. Here in Albany, NY, we've got a couple of excellent sushi restaurants (comparable with what you'd get in NYC), but all of them have a fairly big selection of interesting rolls. Their "traditional" sushi is no less good because of that fact.

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