Discriminating sushi fans assert they would never eat Midwestern sushi, pronouncing it much too far from the dwindling seas of salmon and snapper. Portland diners, presumably, are a mere two-hour drive from the flapping tails and frightened, hook-stuck eyes of live fish. Actually, though, unless you're eating tuna, roe or certain farmed fish, most never-frozen sushi you eat in Oregon is illegal, deemed at risk of containing parasites. Not to mention that tuna is often frozen anyway, in part because the tuna trawlers are often at sea for weeks and in part because the stuff's too expensive to waste.
Many upper-end restaurants do have ties to local fisherman and—like foodies hoarding raw Gallic cheese—may also serve fish that hasn't touched a deep-subzero flash freezer. But don't fret if you don't find it. The quality of your sushi has never depended merely on the travel time from ocean to knife; fish are not donor organs speeding on motorcycle to a dying patient.
Sushi's quality depends most on the care of the fisherman when handling the fish, the care of the fish procurer in selecting it and the care of the chef in preparing it. Sushi, you see, is an intimate food. Selecting a restaurant and chef should be a function of deep trust, the sort reserved for family and lovers. We talked to Mineko Moreno—a Tokyo-trained chef, cooking instructor and author—about what signs you should look for that your fish has been well attended to:
GOOD FISH AIN'T FISHY
This is the most elementary, but perhaps also the most important detail. If the sushi restaurant smells of a fisherman's wharf, run away. Aside from maybe salty, briny mackerel (saba), sushi shouldn't taste or smell fishy: It should carry a pleasant sweetness and taste satisfyingly savory.
THE RESTAURANT SHOULD BE WELCOMING, CLEAN AND HARMONIOUS
Do you feel nice when you walk in? Is it pleasant and meticulously tidy? This is a sign the owners take pride in what they do. Says Moreno, "There's no chaos in a good sushi place."
LOOK AT THE CUSTOMERS
Moreno says she no longer counsels people to look for Japanese diners among the customers, because so many Westerners are now knowledgeable about sushi. But the customers can still offer a sense of the place. Are they obviously regulars? Are they talking to the chef at the sushi bar? These are signs of an ongoing, trusting relationship, and bode well.
WASABI, GINGER AND RICE
Lower-end sushi joints don't have real wasabi, which is rare in the U.S; they have dyed horseradish with mustard. Real wasabi is more fibrous than its American counterpart, and sweeter. Beige ginger that's not dyed pink is another sign your chef lives according to the old ways. Rice is the most important of all; it should be delicately seasoned and firm but not crunchy. A chef who makes loosely packed sushi rice is cutting corners. Ordering a cucumber roll is a good way to assess the flavor and consistency of the rice.
FISH VARIETY AND CONSISTENCY
Good fish tastes richer, is even in tone and has a slightly translucent rather than dully opaque quality. If a restaurant offers a wide variety of fish or high-end tuna with prices to match, it's a sign they are successful, because they're able to maintain that inventory. If the restaurant instead has limited sashimi/nigiri options and lots of maki rolls with krab and cream cheese, you're in the wrong place.
EGG AND SAUCE
An old, slightly apocryphal sushi saw is that if the tamago (egg)—which includes dashi broth and is very difficult to do well—is consistent, delicately sweet and lightly yellow, you can trust anything else in the kitchen. Moreno also advises tasting the eel-glazing sauce, which is very particular among different chefs.
DID YOU LIKE IT?
If you enjoyed your meal, you're probably right about it. So go ahead and dip your mega-jumbo, sushi-train nigiri rice-side down in a tureen's worth of soy sauce adulterated by smears of fake wasabi. Offend all Japanese tradition, and dip your pre-glazed omakase right in front of the chef. You're an American. You've been affably screwing up for years, and no one's ever going to make you stop.