Cheap sushi is bullshit.1 Sushi's about what's freshest,2 what's most reverently handled, what's going as expeditiously and cleanly as possible from the ocean to your mouth. I've been a sushi whore;3 I've eaten at every supposedly great, cheap sushi place in Seattle, from Wallingford to the I.D. to Broadway, and I've gotten sick and I've gotten disgusted. Sometimes good and inexpensive just don't go together. Save up your money4 and your mercury load,5 and do it properly.
Sitting at a table at a sushi restaurant is also bullshit. The sushi bar is where the fun is: the bonding with your sushi chef and barmates, the watching of rolls being rolled and live prawns being beheaded and fish being deftly seat-belted to rice with strips of seaweed, the sake toasting and storytelling and getting what's insanely fresh.6 Ask for something weird first to indicate your spirit of adventure—uni (sea urchin, the creamy, off-orange sea mousse that's either so gross it's great or tastes like the ocean vomited in your mouth) or live abalone (crunchier than, possibly, its own shell)—then transition into urging your chef to give you whatever he thinks best.7
A side-by-side-by-side comparison of the three sushi places commonly considered top tier8 in Seattle found the fish itself to possess only minor variations in quality (which is both reassuring9 and disappointing10). The sushi chefs at all three places respect their raw material and prepare it with care. The differences in décor are negligible. The experience is another matter.
Shiro is the man. It is worth waiting an hour to worship this entirely wonderful yet dictatorial sushi master at his counter (and customers do wait for seats before him specifically). He laughs gleefully as you eat your uni, chortling, "Chocolate from the sea!" He tells you how much soy sauce to apply to individual pieces of fish, and, in some cases, how long to chew them. Additional wasabi is not provided; a woman who asked for it was told in no uncertain terms that the correct amount already dwelt within her sushi. Shiro uses a little blowtorch to sear a tortoiseshell pattern atop an amazing scallop, then hands it to you, crowing, "Sweet and soft!" Shiro agrees that unagi, the sticky-sauced dessert fish, should be saved for last ("Like a candy! Sushi sayonara!"). Those seated at his bar compulsively tell him how they know each other, how long it's been since their last visit, how fantastic everything is. So the paint's a little scraped on one wall—whatever. Feel the love.
Nishino: sushi for the Martha Stewart set. This Madison Park establishment makes you feel like you've been shot in the neck with a tranquilizer dart. The (Caucasian) flesh-colored walls, the women aging supremely well with enormous diamonds strapped to their ring fingers, the satisfied murmur—everything's just so, and, frankly, just so boring. (It's the only sushi place where I've ever seen a kids' table—all the children blandly well behaved, chopsticking like little pros.) The deferential chefs wear nametags and say little. I was given some white salmon here that ruled the world; asking for a special roll resulted in a mango/spicy crab/cilantro extravaganza that some would consider transgressive, others creative. (I am in the former camp.)
Hello, Saito? The bar's got tall stools, cylindrical lights, a serene bamboo wall, and a Tinker Toy–like partition; stacks of plates and platters of many sizes and materials promise impending bounty. Slightly less rice is deployed in the nigiri here, letting the fish dominate. Saito himself, possessed of a calm demeanor and wry smile, is hot in an ineffable way; his place has long been my favorite. On this last visit, though, the waitress asked me to order my sushi from her—twice—in order to expedite matters (which I truly didn't want to do). Saito was busy as hell on a not-too-packed night (as another sushi chef appeared and disappeared). Also, my tea went unrefilled: sad. I felt entirely like an imposition: not fun.
So for your best experiential sushi value, I must direct you to Shiro's (though Saito's deserves another chance, I believe).11 Arigato.12
1. With apologies to Ms. Angela Garbes, who will unerringly guide you to the best-possible thrifty sushi experience to your right.
2. Actually all fish to be eaten raw in the U.S. is supposed to be frozen at some point, per FDA stipulations, to kill parasites (according to the New York Times). This is not widely enforced. Yum.
3. While according to conventional wisdom, real whores balk at kissing, eating a piece of nigiri or sashimi bears a resemblance to it: tongue of fish, anticipation, moments of lost-to-the-world, exploratory bliss. To overextend the Frenching/sushi-eating metaphor, you might have a kissing bandit phase, in which you'll go for five minutes in the closet with anyone at the party; then you develop some standards, some instinct about who's going to be good at it, a little concern about getting ill or having miscellaneous regrets. Eventually, you choose quality over quantity. Right?
4. At the places mentioned here, $30–$40 per person ought to do it, not including beer or sake.
5. My original orgiastic plan for this article was to eat sushi every day, lunch and dinner, for a week, getting my mercury level tested before and after. Hilarious, right? Not so much, particularly if I ever wish to have offspring of optimal intelligence. If you want to freak the fuck out, check out the mercury calculator at www.gotmercury.org. If you really, REALLY want to freak the fuck out, talk to Steven Gilbert, Ph.D. toxicologist (www.asmalldoseof.org), who will tell you that eating a tuna steak is like playing Russian roulette. To my potential future children: Sorry. To Japan: Good luck with that. To us all: We are doomed.
6. You can and you should be the best possible version of yourself at the sushi bar—patient, relaxed yet zealous, a little tipsy yet hyperaware. Brief, effusive greeting of your chef is in order upon arrival; likewise, timely, well-put, enthused praise along the way. Offer to buy him sake. Don't play with your chopsticks or rub them together (the implication that you're sanding away splinters is insulting); swipe your nigiri just briefly fish-side down through soy sauce (the rice absorbs too much, and this makes your sushi chef die a tiny bit inside); go easy on the wasabi. It's perfectly acceptable to use your fingers if you're differently abled chopstickwise.
7. This is called omakase, but if you say this word at some places, like Nishino, you might as well empty your wallet on the bar.
8. Some would argue that a few neighborhood spots, like Toyoda in Lake City and Mashiko in West Seattle, approach this level. I would beg to differ. Shiki on lower Queen Anne is a contender, though, and they sometimes offer tiny, whole, flash-fried crabs, which are what popcorn should be.
9. Because there's a standard for quality and seasonality; in one week, I had excellent uni at Shiro's, where I was informed the season was almost over; then it was available but not recommended at Nishino; then at Saito's they said nope, the weather'd gotten too warm.
10. Because nowhere is the fish transcendent, and because problems recurred at more than one place, like slightly striated, sinewy hamachi (yellowtail, or I Can't Believe It's Not Butter).
11. All this being said, someone asked me yesterday where to go for special-occasion sushi, and I said, without hesitation, "Tojo's in Vancouver." There you may expect a full-body high from your sushi experience. You may also expect to empty your wallet or maybe your bank account on the bar.
12. "Thank you."
Shiro's 2401 Second Ave, 443-9844 Mon–Sat 5:30–10 pm, Sun 4:30–9 pm. Nishino 3130 E Madison, 322-5800 Mon–Sat 5:30–10:30 pm, Sun 5:30–9:30 pm. Saito's Japanese Cafe & Bar 2120 Second Ave, 728-1333 Mon–Fri 11:30 am–2 pm & 5–10 pm, Sat 5–10 pm.