Sunday, May 18, 2008

Tales From the Road: Sushi Overdose

I've been on the road the past two weeks--two back-to-back trips to San Francisco, including red-eyes back home and all that--so I'm just now coming up for air.

The coast-to-coast travel is a beast, but there's an upside: getting to eat out in San Francisco. There's so much good food out there, from locally-raised beef to great Chinese and that sourdough bread that just isn't quite as good anywhere else (some claim it's the water that does it). And, of course, there is unbelievable seafood everywhere you turn.

My coworkers are big sushi fans, so every time we've been out there we've been hitting various sushi joints. I have to admit, the sushi is remarkably good, both in its freshness and a variety. We did Sushi Ran in Sausalito the previous week and this past week hit Ozumo down near the Bay Bridge on Steuart St. We had Spider Rolls (with fried softshell crab), Spicy Scallops, and mackerel, and salmon, and hamachi with warm avocado and a ginger and jalapeno ponzu sauce that we all but lapped up directly from the plate. And a whole bunch of other stuff.

It was fresh and firm and had all the delightful fruity and silky notes that you want from good sushi. And at the end I realized something: sushi just isn't doing it for me any more.

I think it started a few months ago when I reviewed Sushi Haru for the Charleston City Paper and tried toro (tuna belly) for the first time. I had read about Jeffrey Steingarten's quest for toro in his collection It Must Have Been Something I Ate (read an except from the chapter here), and ever since had been itching to try it. So, when I saw toro on Sushi Haru's menu that night I knew I had to give it a shot.

It was good: don't get me wrong on that point. But it wasn't up to the hype. It was a lot paler and fattier than regular tuna, and you could really taste the richness of the fat on your tongue, almost butter like. I gave it good marks in the review, but ever since something about that toro has been nagging at me.

Maybe it was the "underwhelm" factor of it. Hyperbolic accounts like Steingarten's and others led me to expect a serendipidous moment ("where have you been all my life, toro!") and I ended up with a quick taste of tender fish that was gone in twenty seconds.

Or, maybe it was the whole sushi experience: taking just the tiniest, finest, best cuts of a fish and trying to fill yourself up on it, at the expense of vegetables and starches and all the normal staples of a meal. There's something exceptionally extravagant about the whole concept. And expensive, too. Has anyone ever walked out of a sushi restaurant with a bill any less than twice the amount they meant to spend when they walked in the front door?

Or, perhaps, it had something to do with the packing slips from the fish shipments that Sushi Haru posts on the wall--a clever little bit of showmanship that somehow magically suggests against all logic that this sushi must be really, really fresh. And when I examined it closer, it turns out the delivery was from New York Fish House up in Elizabeth, New Jersey. And when I poked into it a little more, it turns out New York Fish House is part of True World Foods, LLC, a massive distributor of sushi products that moves $280 million worth of fish every year and seems to have some sort of ties with Sun Myung Moon and the Unification Church.

The notion that my sushi dollar might be going to support the Moonies doesn't trouble me too much, but it just adds to the general aura of weirdness that now surrounds sushi for me. Perhaps the most unsettling thing is to sit and think about how long the supply chain is that brings that supposedly super-fresh fish from the ocean to the table of your local sushi joint. It can be caught anywhere in the world--in the Mediterranean, the North Pacific off the coast of Japan--and either put on ice or, more likely than not, flash frozen at -90 degrees. Then it's a long haul by boat to New Jersey, where it's processed and packaged and put on a refrigerated truck or a cargo plane and sent out somewhere in the U.S. Which, in my case, means Mount Pleasant, South Carolina, where I eat it less than two miles from an Atlantic Ocean teaming with fresh fish and shrimp. There's just something more than a little bit nutty about it.

And it caught up with me in San Francisco, as I polished of the last of the mackarel and thought about whether I wanted to order anything else before we called it quits. I suddenly realized I didn't. I'd had enough tender, chewy, sweet raw fish. We'd been eating for a good half-hour, but I didn't feel full and I didn't feel sated. I had just had enough.

The next night, before we caught the redeye back, I bullied my friends into going to Schroeder's, an old fashioned German restaurant founded in 1893. We ate German cocktail sausages with sauerkraut and red cabbage, potato pancakes, and massive schnitzels along with big steins of beer. It was hearty, it was filling, it was delightful. I think I'm still full.

I don't think I'll be having sushi again for quite some time.

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