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“If it looks like sushi, it is sushi”

There is no doubt that the making of sushi is not just a culinary trade, but it is also regarded as an art perfected over a lifetime. Below are some memories and points that highlight various things that make good and bad sushi bars. Things like shop conditions, ingredients quality, etc., but most importantly, the sushi chefs themselves are the ones that stand out as affecting the good sushi vs. bad sushi comparison.

“Bad” Sushi Bar 1: Tokyo, Japan — A local place caught my eye as a cheap and quick means to end my weekly sushi craving. Unfortunately, more often than not, “cheap” and “quick” should be taken as red flags when it comes to sushi. The restaurant immediately smelled of fish upon entering and after taken my seat, the counter smelled of cleanser, a shear sign that the meal would not go well. However, hunger and convenience overpowered my reason and I started to order.

Every order seemed to take 5 minutes and in my opinion way too long to serve one person out of half a dozen customers, most of them already on their way to the register. I could tell right away that the fish was spending way too much time in the hands of the chef, and it smelled and tasted faintly of other types of fish — meaning he wasn’t doing a good job of wiping his hands in between orders. After a few pieces, I decided to cut my visit short and finish up with a piece of sushi that I thought no sushi place could get wrong — maguro nigiri (tuna sushi) — but again they failed me. Despite a 3-4 minute wait (now being the only customer in the shop), the maguro was frigid and was still frozen in the center despite being handled for so long. I paid my (short) bill and left vowing never to return (I wonder if the 6 or so patrons before me were thinking the same thing as well…).

Some points to take away from this experience:

  • A sushi restaurant should not smell especially fishy as that either means the ingredients are not fresh, or they’ve (unlikely) overstocked on oily fish like mackerel or (low grade) salmon.
  • Residue from overuse of cleaning chemicals interferes with your sense of smell, partially ruining the sushi’s taste — giving those part-timers extra cleaning duties throughout the day didn’t pay off.
  • Sushi that spends too long in a chef’s hands runs the risk of coming into too much contact with heat from the chef’s hands and human body oils, which can reduce the freshness of the fish and interferes with the overall taste of the sushi. It might have been fresh at one time, but it only took 5 minutes to ruin it.
  • Sushi ingredients with the exception of bintoro (bincho maguro) should not be ice cold because not only is it akin to eating a sashimi popsicle, it brings into question the freshness of the ingredients (if it’s still frozen, it was not procured anytime in the near past).

“Bad” Sushi Bar 2: An even smaller place in Shinagawa, Japan stuck out as having a fresh made-to-order menu at a reasonable price. I gave it a shot but was turned off for different reasons from “Bad” Sushi Bar 1. For example, shortly after ordering, I could see the sushi chefs who were on standby smoking in the kitchen. Just imagining the tobacco smell and nicotine stains on the fingers that prepare my sushi was enough to make me a bit wary of what I would soon be feasting on. I also noticed that all the fish to be used for sushi was pre-sliced and placed on metal trays in the transparent refrigeration units on the bar. I thought this a bit of a let down as I want to make sure the fish is taken from a fresh “slab” of tuna and so on.

My customized sushi platter was made in record time and was picture perfect. While I appreciate speed when being served at a restaurant, I also know that it takes skill and care in handling the ingredients to produce a good product. The sushi looked like works of art, but they were very fragile. The rice fell apart at the slightest touch and no mastery of chopsticks or later efforts by hand could keep my soy sauce dish from filling up with rice grains. It was a real hassle to eat. Also, the cut fish looked like it was sliced hastily and some pieces were lopsided, which affected its taste as it blended with the rice inside my mouth. That’s another place I won’t be going back to.

  • Pre-sliced fish, though not having any immediate impact on taste that I could tell, looks like it was cranked out of a machine.
  • Sushi should not only look appetizing, but should also maintain its shape with little effort from the eater.
  • Sushi takes time to make, but that time should be devoted to skill and care. “If it looks like sushi, then it is sushi” failed here.
  • While many “fast-food sushi” shops exist, it will take quite a few visits and many let downs to find that perfect spot.

“Good” Sushi Bar: A memorable experience in Fukuoka, Japan at a sushi bar that was very crammed but very good and worth the 20 minute lunch rush wait. The shop was clean and smelled of tatami and vinegar rice. The lone sushi chef had mastered a simple 5-step nigiri (molding) process that limited contact with his hands, wasted no movement, and kept the finished product from tumbling into one’s lap. The fish for each piece of sushi was professionally sliced as each order came up and it was an enjoyable sight watching his knife-work. The highest level of freshness and consideration of the customers’ needs was very apparent and the chef, even during slow periods, did not take a smoke break or anything that might diminish the quality of his sushi. A glass of water and a moist towel seemed to be the only objects he needed to keep himself going.

Probably the most memorable thing about being served by this chef was that after eating his sushi, he would ask, “How is it?” He engaged with me and wanted me to critique his work, a sign that he not only cares about how I felt about his sushi, but tells me that he wants to improve — one of the fastest way to improvement as a sushi chef is hearing directly from the customer.

  • A chef’s appearance and manner while at work is a clear sign of how good your sushi will be. Clean and disciplined chefs seem to make better sushi. Dirty and smoky chefs might not be giving you their best (as was with the cases above).
  • The sushi chef should make it clear to his customer, who in a sense is his “audience”, that his performance is going to result in high quality sushi, from slicing, to molding, to presenting it.
  • In many cases, price and speed are reduced to give a customer just the bear minimum of what he or she needs — fast food does this very well. However, this should not be the case with sushi — the best sushi chefs skillfully balance time with effort, action with results and most importantly, they balance your expectations with their abilities.

When searching for your next fine sushi destination, it helps to take notice of the above points. Some points cannot be noticed simply from one look, but inquiring via word-of-mouth or checking restaurant reviews online or in the papers can hopefully assist you in making a good decision. The next time you pass a sushi bar, take a peak through the window and watch the chef mold a few pieces of sushi. Does he take (much) too long? Does he rush from piece to piece? Does he smoke? Does he engage with his customer? All these things can be observed and noted, so that when you finally enter the shop, you can have a general idea of what to expect.

*The experiences above may differ from yours, but if you feel that any information is in error, please don’t hesitate to contact the author.

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