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Uh… You're Not Japanese… Are You?

You'll never be able to get good sushi out there.

That was the general reaction from all of our friends in San Francisco when we told them that we were moving back east to Hartford. Of course, most of the people making this statement had never been to Hartford before, but they brought up a good point. Over the last five years, we had become quite the sushi conniseurs. Janet and I made a point to go out for sushi at least once a month, and had tried over 20 sushi restaurants since we first arrived in California (over 10 in San Francisco alone&#41.

That's not all. When we would go out to sushi, we were at the bar for at least two hours at a time. Between our college Japanese classes and the time we spent with our friend Toshi, we knew not only how order in Japanese, but we could carry on a conversation with the chef and even knew enough of the customs so that we didn't come off as ignorant gaijin. We were sushi fanatics, but now we were moving to a uncharted sushi territory. Would we be without our favorite food now that we were moving to the East Coast?

When we first arrived in Hartford, we made a point to immediately start our search for a good sushi bar. The first restaurant that we tried was Osaka in West Hartford Center. Osaka had been around for 8 years, so we figured that it would be a safe choice. We were mistaken.

The first problem was the music. For some reason, they were playing Indian music. Usually, a Japanese restaurant will play Japanese music… or at least classical music. But when you hear Indian music at a Japanese restaurant, you feel like they're trying to pull one over on the white folk. Still, it wasn't a clear sign that the meal was going to be a disaster.

When we sat down at the bar, they presented us with a full menu and a little check-sheet ticket for the sushi. Two bad signs in a row. First, when you sit at a sushi bar, you should only be eating sushi, soup or a light appetizer like chawan-mushi (egg custard with tuna&#41 or hamachi-kama (salted broiled yellowtail neck&#41. You shouldn't ever order cooked food like chicken teriyaki, as the smell of the sauce overpowers the fish. So, if the restaurant expects people to order that kind of food when they sit at a sushi bar… there's a problem. The sushi ticket was a bigger problem.

The interaction between the sushi chef and the customer is an integral part of the sushi experience. You're supposed to order a couple of pieces of nigiri, then wait for a little while… ask what else is fresh, maybe buy the chef a beer and then order your next round. You're supposed to develop a rapport with the chef. Places that use the "card" method where you're instructed to just check off the fish that you want are usually suspect.

I addressed the chef in Japanese and asked if we could just order piece by piece. He didn't understand me. Figuring that I was speaking with a horrid American accent, I asked him again in English and he said that we could order piece by piece from him.

As we continued with the mediocre meal, I noticed that the chefs were speaking in something other than Japanese. I knew I had heard that language before… what is it?

Shit. Cantonese. I was in a Chinese-run Japanese restaurant that was playing Indian music. I wasn't speaking poorly, they just didn't speak any Japanese. A few directed questions confirmed that the chefs had never worked for a Japanese chef before, or had even gone through any formal sushi training. They were just ordering "sushi grade fish", using a cookbook recipe for sushi rice and were making a go of it. That's why their fish was not prepared properly. I don't know what offended me more: Chinese chefs impersonating Japanese chefs, or the fact that the patrons never knew the difference. Our usual two hour sushi meal was concluded within an hour.

Disappointed but still optimistic, we tried another restaurant the next weekend: Fuji. When we walked in, we were greeted with the traditional irasshimase and were immediately seated at the bar… which was a good sign, and hopefully a good omen. The chef then directly greeted us with a konnichiwa (good day&#41, to which I responded konbanwa, o-genki desu-ka (good evening, how are you&#41? He immediately started speaking to us in Japanese. A good sign.

After we were seated, the waitress asked for our drink order and passed us a menu and one of those check-sheets. The chef immediately told us that we didn't need to use check-sheets and that they were there to make it easier for people who had never been out for sushi before. The menu was there in case we wanted appetizers (we ordered the edamame (boiled, salted soybeans&#41&#41, but it was expected that we were not going to get any cooked food. The edamame was fantastic, and the first round of fish was excellent.

Still, something seemed a little wrong… but I couldn't put my finger on it. I asked the chef what his name was, and he responded "Ko"… which is not a traditional Japanese name. I asked what prefecture (state&#41 he was from, and he said that he was from China.

My heart sunk. Were there no Japanese owned sushi bars in Hartford? What were we going to do? I mean, the fish was good, but if the chef wasn't trained in the traditional Japanese manner, the fish selection would probably be hit or miss. Ko continued as I wracked my brain in a mild sake-induced panic, saying "but I apprenticed for five years in Nagoya" which is the town in Japan where our college Japanese instructor was from. He went on to say that he lived in Japan, went through the standard apprenticeship and was a licensed sushi chef in Japan. He was fluent in Japanese, had a Japanese wife and was working in Boston as a sushi chef until 1998, when he bought Fuji from the retiring owner. Ko had his fish delivered in by his personal fishmonger that he used when he was a chef in Boston, and went up there occasionally to work in his friend's sushi bar, Yama (which has a phenomenal reputation&#41.

Over the next few hours, we ate and talked and listened to his stories of trying to educate the locals about good fish. When we left, we were ecstatic. The food was great, the chef/owner was superb and the experience ended up being as good as any place in San Francisco.

We went back to Fuji Friday night for a two hour meal of sushi, sake and biiru (beer&#41. We ate and ate and drank (Ko even let us buy him a beer&#41 and put ourselves in his hands as he created some oishii (tasty&#41 and kawaii (pretty&#41 dishes that he knew we would appreciate. Once it was ika (squid&#41 sashimi with cucumber, another time it was chopped tako (octopus&#41 with salmon roe. He even brought us a broiled sake-kama (salted salmon neck&#41 which was the best I had ever eaten.

But the most touching part of the evening came when we asked for the check. Ko gave us one of the check-sheets and asked if we remembered everything we had eaten and then to mark our orders down on the sheet. The fact is, he trusted that we were going to mark down everything honestly… and when I told him that we marked down everything that we could remember, he told us that we were his friends and that it he was sure it was close enough.

I now have a favorite sushi restaurant in Connecticut… and it only took two tries to find it.

Posted in Smirks.

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