By Jamie Swinnerton
By Mark Antonation
By Lori Midson
By Jonathan Shikes
By Amber Taufen
By Cafe Society
By Juliet Wittman
By Jonathan Shikes
At Hapa Sushi (see review), you don't have to worry much about rules. Don't sneeze on your neighbor's edamame, don't lick the help, don't stick two chopsticks in your top lip and pretend you're a walrus (they've seen it before, Shecky, and no one thinks it's funny). If you can manage that and have some command of the simple social graces, you're going to do just fine.
And believe it or not, that's one of the things about Hapa that bugged me: not enough rules.
So where do we go when the Friday-night scene and the fusion menu and the funny names grow tiresome? We go to Sushi Tazu, around the corner and down the block at 300 Fillmore Street. And what do we order there? Everything. Because Sushi Tazu understands and respects the rules.
I know. If you've been reading this column for any length of time, you're right to think that I'm the last guy on earth who should be preaching the gospel of strict adherence to anything, but in the case of sushi -- actually, in the case of a lot of things culinary -- I am a bitter classicist at heart. In the stainless-steel world where I made my bones -- struggling as a young prep cook, pantry cook, saucier and commis -- there was one way to do a thing right and a million ways to get your ass kicked by the chef. Consommé? One way, the method described by Escoffier -- no cheating, no shortcuts, no screwing around. Demi-glace? One way, no arguments. Bordelaise? Okay, every chef had his own way of making this, and each was a little different, but in his kitchen, each chef's way was law, and woe to the poor saucier who accidentally substituted the methods of his last boss for the technique of his current master. In a lot of the kitchens I came up through, there was the feeling -- mostly unspoken, but no less real -- that if a cook made a dish a hundred times, he probably had a pretty good handle on how it was done, but he didn't really understand it until he made the dish a thousand times. Add in the screaming, the curses and the occasional thrown sauté pan, and you've got the Zen of the kitchen, French style.
But when you're a sushi chef, the idea of rules takes on a whole other dimension. For the apprentice, there are rules of preparation, rules of plating, rules that govern what can and can't be combined with what; more rules covering temperature and season, still more dealing with the shapes of plates, the number of pieces of sushi on the plate and, sometimes, the number of grains of rice in each piece and which direction each grain must face. A sushi chef training in the classical Edo style may spend two years doing nothing but making rice, mashing rice, rolling rice balls, dedicating his every waking moment to rice.
And after rice, there's nori -- the seaweed wrap of maki rolls. The sushi apprentice will give that another year of his undivided attention, maybe two. Then there's the knife (or knives, really -- twelve at a bare minimum), and he can expect to spend a decade honing those skills (no pun intended). Half of that time, the trainee will be cutting garnishes, shaving ginger, chopping scallions and cucumber -- the grunt work of the sushi line. At some point he'll be given mackerel, jack and octopus to play with, then salmon, then the cheaper cuts of tuna. The classically trained sushi chef, like the classically trained pianist or dancer, will devote half of his career -- the half when he is most energetic, most vigorous and most wild -- to acquiring an understanding of the rules, and the other half to seeing how brilliant, creative and original he can be within the boundaries of his training. He will spend half his life learning the basics and the other half learning how to do the basics better. You've got to admire that kind of dedication.
And I do. I love watching sushi chefs work, and while there aren't too many around these parts who've put in that kind of time learning their trade, I'm still amazed by any guy who can take rice, seaweed and raw fish and turn it into something as simple, lovely and sublime as a perfect tuna roll.
On top of all these rules for making the sushi, there's a different set of rules for eating the sushi, and I love these, too. I'm the guy who bitches about having to put on a jacket for dinner, still slurps his soup and has a devil of a time keeping his cuffs out of the gelato, but sit me down at a sushi bar, and all of a sudden I'm the soul of restraint and decorum. It's not that I don't want to embarrass myself -- trust me, I've embarrassed myself all over this town -- but that I like the rules. They make sense to me. And my obeying them is a measure of the respect I have for the kitchen.