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  • Writer's pictureCarl Rosa

Some Sushi Bars: Style...Not Substance.

Updated: Feb 28

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I've been a sushi instructor and tour guide to Japan for more than 18 years now. My appreciation for quality sushi (and adherence to the Japanese mindset) runs pretty deep. But now, in the United States, sushi has become eclectic - to the point that it's being seen as 'exclusive' and snobbish. In my opinion, this is merely an attempt to elevate consumer expectations in order to justify outrageous profits. It's no mistake that there's more than 100+ sushi spots in the greater Houston-area alone. Popular sushi spots earn serious cash.

Keep in mind, I'm not mocking a profit. I own and operate my own business. You can't function without a suitable profit. In fact, I encourage profit. Who wouldn't? What I do not encourage is an effort to justify unreasonable prices to the consumer while providing them with lackluster value. The value and price of the sushi must correlate to the quality. And when it comes to sushi, I see scams all the time.

It reminds me of the YouTube videos of a leather expert who dissects a brand-name luxury leather handbag that sells new for $7,500 from an exclusive designer boutique in Paris, only to find that the cost of materials and labor is about $410. Why does it sell new for $7,500? Because people are willing to believe that anything sporting a certain label clearly reflects superior quality. They see a logo and instantly think "premium and exclusive." But in reality, the snazzy boutique is selling an item that's worthy of your local high-end shopping mall. Why do they do this? Because they have convinced people that their brand is worth the cost. Does the company care? Not at all. Let's be brutally honest...if the boutique could walk to the Dollar Store, purchase items for .99 cents and re-sell them for $1699.99, they will do it without blinking an eye. For them, it's not really about quality. It's not about the customer. It's not about offering a reasonable value for the price advertised. It's about profit. In this situation, you're a 'mark.' A target.

The equation for sushi is the same. Some Japanese restaurants in the United States have learned four things about the common sushi lover: (1) Like most restaurants, a contemporary and artistic interior denotes class, (2) Adding menu items such as 'Fois Gras', 'Black Truffle' and 'Kyoto-based garlic-infused, marinated fatty tuna served in a 6th century monastic vase' leads consumers to believe that they specialize in the premier selections. (3) Loading their sake selection with labels that boast 'Junmai' and 'Daiginjo' ensures that people who know nothing about sake will trust the restaurant that offers an $99 bottle of sake (that the restaurant purchased for $23) must be worth the purchase. (4) Doubling the prices while offering tiny portions. Just like the boutique, it's a fantastic con-game. Less is more. High price indicate quality. Skimpy portions are now 'eclectic.' Oh...let's add #5: ensure the word 'Omakase' is displayed everywhere in their advertisements. Everything Omakase.

Not that long ago, I was invited to a super-exclusive sushi experience in Austin, Texas. It was advertised as a Sushi Omakase. When we arrived, it was obvious that elegance was the word of the day. The atmosphere was dark and subtle. The background music was techno-funk, playing softly in the background. The menu was eclectic - "...rubbed with dark Himalayan Pink Salt, soaked in a broth of semi-sweet uni-based duck foam...." The sushi - tiny portions, room-temperature rice, flavorless and unimpressive. I also noticed they offered a 'phenomenal sake' named Yoshi No Gawa Junmai for $119 per bottle. Spec's in Houston sells it for $29 retail. The cost per person: $299. The bill for all four of us (after adding alcohol/tax/gratuity): slightly over $1400.00. A lackluster omakase dinner for four was a solid mortgage payment. I can say with absolute confidence that the meal wasn't worth $60 per person. We paid the bill, smiled at the chef, exited the building and all agreed that we would never return. Never.

This is all too common. I experienced something similar in Dallas as well. And Chicago. And San Diego. Need I go on?

If you're seeking a top quality sushi experience from a chef that truly cares about your time and expense, I recommend following my advice.

  1. Order an iced tea with lemon. Take the lemon wedge off of the glass and place it on the table. When you receive nigiri, the lemon wedge should be significantly smaller than the nigiri portion. If the lemon wedge is similar in size, you might be dealing with a sushi bar that works hard to keep you hungry so you need to keep ordering in order to satisfy your appetite. It's a scavenger mentality.

  2. The sushi rice (the sushi itself) should never be cold or flavorless. If you're sitting at the sushi bar and the sushi rice isn't body-temperature (or at the very least room temperature) and flavorless, stop ordering. Pay the bill and go elsewhere. Spend $35 on a large pizza and a mediocre bottle of wine. It's a much better deal.

  3. Tamago-sushi. Top quality sushi spots offer tamago sushi. If not tamago sushi, then tamago by itself. Quality tamago is offered as an impressive menu option. Americans are unaware of it...but top quality tamago is a skill that takes lots of time to master. In Houston, Texas there is one sushi spot that most foodies rave about. Tamago isn't even offered on their menu. But, they probably offer some form of sake-infused, crusted tuna fin offered with a side of Osaka-cultured minced jelly that was stolen from a monk in the mountains of Koya-san...and it's likely to be $59 per fin.

  4. Avoid sushi spots that pride themselves on the freshest fish. Fish that is remarkably fresh is too chewy and hard to enjoy. Quality fish that is used for sushi is properly aged and typically flash-frozen to ensure it's safe for consumption. The freshest fish isn't the best. It is the opposite of quality. If a sushi bar is offering - 'Only the freshest options'....again, get a pizza.

One thing is for sure - if a sushi bar realized that their own vendor tripled-charged them for a substandard item because 'hey, it's only business', they'd have a big problem with it. Imagine an air conditioner repairman charging $499 to replace a $7 air vent filter. If the restaurant manager noticed this overcharging, he/she would be irate beyond measure and rightfully so. But when you are seated at the sushi bar, you're the only person looking after your best interest. Keep in mind that to some eclectic sushi spots throughout the United States, you're a target.

Look past the fluff. Stop paying attention to the buzz words. Ornate crown-molding and flower arrangements never guarantee quality sushi. Subtle tones of jazz music playing in the background doesn't ensure the sushi rice is worthy of a $199 dinner. Do your best to wipe the idea of 'expensive menu items are hallmarks of quality sushi' out of your mind. Sushi bars in the United States know what they are doing. They aren't new to this game. They know what most people know and don't know...and some spots will use it against you for the sake of profit.


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