Friday, January 02, 2009

Loving the sushi nazi

I just finished reading "Fish out of water," a glowing cover story review of Sebo sushi restaurant, in San Francisco Magazine. (Yes it's a rather upscale publication in its current incarnation; maybe next time we'll talk about the latest issue of Robb Report.)

Sebo sounds like a nice place, the folks running the place sound cool, and I'd like to eat there sometime. I hope the place does well, and the article (likewise an earlier Vanity Fair -- another refined pub, kinda? -- piece on Tsukiji) is a really interesting, thorough exploration of the sushi-industrial complex.

This part got me a giant-geoduck-clam-sized head slap, though:
Few cuisines are as bound by custom and etiquette as sushi. Plug the word into any search engine, and you’ll come upon dozens of sites listing rules for eating it: Don’t rub your chopsticks together; dip the fish, not the rice, into the soy sauce; put the nigiri into your mouth fish side down and eat it in a single bite. It doesn’t help that chefs at some of the more traditional sushi bars often take a defensive stance against their customers (...) There are plenty of people who relish the intimidation and enjoy the challenge of mastering a purposefully opaque food culture. Me? I’d rather order a pizza.
Gah. Of course it's intimidating. It's, like, foreign. And the sushi chefs have pride.

Take an average Japanese person and imagine how intimidating a formal Western dinner would be to her: Do I sit down from left or right? Can I break the bread with my mouth? Can I pour ketchup on that fish? Is slurping OK? The last I checked, L'atelier de Joel Robuchon in Tokyo does not hold customer hands through these questions.

Actually that's a totally dumb comparison, because an average Japanese person would probably have done lots of how-to research before going into that Michelin 2-star, so it's a nonissue. You just don't hear about gauche Japanese behavior perpetrated upon Western restaurants nowadays, and that speaks volumes about their attitudes about foreign customs and how they embrace them in appropriate situations.

Sushi has been popular in the West Coast for, what, like 30 years now? How is it that we still hear these provincial complaints about how opaque and difficult its surrounding customs are? Why *are* people still rubbing chopsticks together?

I, for one, welcome our ganko overlords. User-friendly is for P.F. Chang. (The article also refers to a recent WSJ coverage on sushi bullies, another fun read.)

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