Sushi is a combination of tradition, art, culture and taste

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What is 1,000 years old, considered a culinary art form, representative of a great world culture, a fast-food favorite of diners around the world, and does not feature tomato sauce or cheese? If you answered "sushi," you are probably among those already familiar with this Japanese phenomenon that is fast joining pizza as a worldwide fast-food staple.

Lake Fong, Post-Gazette
Head chef Tony Yeh prepares a special tuna roll along with tricolor and dragon rolls at Sushi Too, Shadyside.
Click photo for larger image.

KIKU

Station Square
South Side
412-765-3200
Hours: Lunch Tuesdays-Fridays 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m., Saturdays and Sundays noon-3 p.m.; dinner Mondays-Thursdays 5-10 p.m; Fridays 5-11 p.m.; Saturdays 4:30-11 p.m.; Sundays 4:30-10 p.m.

SUSHI TOO

5432 Walnut St.
Shadyside
412-687-8744
Hours: Mondays-Thursdays 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m. and 5-10 p.m.; Fridays and Saturdays 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m.; Sundays 1-9 p.m.

SUSHI TWO

2122 E. Carson St.
South Side
412-431-7874
Hours: Mondays-Thursdays 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m. and 5-10 p.m.; Fridays and Saturdays 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m.; Sundays 1-9 p.m.

SUSHI THREE

297 Beverly Road
Mt. Lebanon
412-344-7874
Hours: Mondays-Thursdays 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m. and 5-10 p.m.; Fridays and Saturdays 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m.; Sundays 1-9 p.m.

LITTLE TOKYO

636 Washington Road
Mt. Lebanon
412-344-4366
Hours: Lunch Mondays-Fridays 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m.; dinner Mondays-Thursdays 5-9:30 p.m., Fridays-Saturdays 5-10:30 p.m., Sundays 4-9:30 p.m.

SUSHI KIM

1241 Penn Ave.
Strip District
412-281-9956
Hours: Tuesdays-Thursdays 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. (lunch) and 5-10 p.m. (dinner); Fridays-Saturdays 11:30 a.m.-10:30 p.m.; Sundays noon-9 p.m.

CHAYA JAPANESE CUISINE

2104 Murray Ave.
Squirrel Hill
412-422-2082
Hours: Mondays-Saturdays 5-9:45 p.m. BYOB, no reservations.

UMI

5849 Ellsworth Ave.
Shadyside
412-362-6198
Hours: Tuesdays-Thursdays 5-10 p.m.; Fridays-Saturdays 5-11 p.m.
Reservations essential. Not wheelchair accessible.

So what exactly is sushi? This culinary art synonymous with Japanese culture evolved from a seventh-century recipe for curing and preserving fish. Japan being an island nation, fish was plentiful but required a means of preservation. The solution was to place cleaned raw fish between layers of rice and salt. After several months, the fermented rice was discarded and the preserved fish was used in various dishes. The result had a strong flavor that obscured its identity. A brave, iconoclastic Tokyo chef in the 18th century had the audacity to forego the "pickling" process and just use the raw fish. Thus was born modern-day sushi or nigiri sushi.

Many people think the word sushi means raw fish. It doesn't. Sushi refers to the vinegared rice that is the base of all such dishes. The rice itself is as important to the end product as the fish. A short-grained rice is cooked so that every grain is separate and the rice is sticky without being mushy. It must hold together when molded into an oval shape, which becomes the base for a perfectly sliced piece of the freshest possible raw fish.

I have read that until recently, Japan required sushi chefs to be licensed. To get a license, a chef spent seven years apprenticed to a sushi master. Three of those years are devoted to the making of sushi rice. The other four years are spent learning to select and prepare the fish. Today there is Sushi University in Tokyo, offering 6- to 12-month courses to students who come from around the globe to learn the art and return to their home countries to open sushi restaurants. It is important to remember that the sushi chef upholds the ideals of the samurai tradition. Sushi is considered an art, and to be a sushi chef is considered an honor.

The spread of popular sushi culture worldwide has introduced a fresh approach and experimentation to what was formerly a tradition-bound dish. The United States has contributed the now venerable California Roll, which contains avocados and imitation crab meat; the Spider Roll, which encloses a fried soft shell crab; Boston Roll, with scallion, crab and salmon; New York Roll, with apple, avocado and salmon; Philadelphia Roll, with smoked salmon, cream cheese and cucumber; and Texas Roll, with beef and cucumber. I hear that in Malaysia the local favorite is Mango Temaki, a cone-shaped piece of seaweed filled with rice, mango and eel. As long as the requisite vinegared rice is present, the possibilities are limitless.

The rolled sushi is called maki. It is normally made with dried seaweed on the outside with a layer of sushi rice between the seaweed and the center filling, which can be cooked, or raw fish or vegetables or a combination of both. An inverse roll has the rice on the outside with the seaweed sandwiched between it and the center filling.

Sashimi is a sushi sibling that is slices of raw fish served without the base of rice. More and more sushi lovers are turning to sashimi as they aim to lower their carb consumption. Like sushi, sashimi is served with wasabi (Japanese horseradish paste) and sliced pickled ginger. Sashimi produces the same pleasure as sushi of the raw fish on the tongue. Fresh raw fish does not taste "fishy."

Sushi is the perfect finger food, and, in fact, a sushi etiquette book suggests that eating sushi with fingers is preferable to using chopsticks. Because it is easily portable, sushi became a lunchbox staple for Japanese factory workers in the 20th century. In Japan, artfully wrapped boxes of sushi are sold in kiosks in train stations. In today's age of sub-par in-flight meal service (or in some cases, no meals) on airplanes, you can find take-out sushi bars in Asian airports. Sushi is fast becoming ubiquitous in the United States as well. From supermarket delis to college food courts to numerous restaurants, Pittsburghers are surrounded by sushi outlets.

I have sampled a number of local restaurants that serve sushi and below is a list (from the oldest to the newest) of my favorites. To get the ultimate sushi experience, I suggest sitting at the bar where you can watch the artistry of the chefs. If they are not too busy, it is fun to talk sushi with them. The beverage of choice to accompany sushi is beer or tea. Sake is usually available but is not part of the tradition. A bowl of miso soup is a nice way to begin the meal.

All of these restaurants also offer a full menu of Japanese or Korean specialities. They all accept Master Card or Visa and some take American Express as well.

KIKU

Kikuyama pioneered Japanese cuisine in Pittsburgh when he opened in 1983. Kiku, Station Square, has four Japanese chefs manning the sushi bar. Two are masters who were trained under the old seven-year apprentice formula. One of the masters, Gen Furuya has been making sushi for 45 years, and the other, Kunio Uchino, for 25 years. The third Kiku sushi chef has 11 years experience. This kind of knowledge and experience is unmatched elsewhere in Pittsburgh. Their sushi can stand proudly next to the finest sushi coming from a Tokyo sushi house. The sushi bar seats eight.

Nigiri sushi prices at Kiku range from $2 per piece for egg omelet or imitation crab to $4 per piece for tuna or sea urchin. The nigiri list numbers an impressive 26 varieties of fish. Maki sushi prices go from $4 for a simple Kappa maki (cucumber) or avocado maki to $5.50 for maki containing fish. Each maki is cut into six pieces. Reverse rolls (also six pieces) have seaweed next to the fish and rice on the outside. The prices range from $6.50 for shrimp and avocado to $7.50 for tuna, yellowtail or other fish possibilities. Temaki, one cone-shaped pieces, are $4.75 or $5. Japanese beer is $4.50.

Kiku is authentic and it is top-drawer for sushi. Go and enjoy a thoroughly Japanese experience.

SUSHI TOO, SUSHI TWO, SUSHI THREE

Sushi Too opened on Walnut Street, Shadyside, in 1991 and a few years later Sushi Two on Carson Street on the South Side was added. Sushi Three was born in 2002 in Mt. Lebanon. All of these outlets are part of the China Palace empire owned by Mike Chen, who also is the proprietor of My Thai on Walnut Street as well as several China Palaces.

Chen saw the tsunami wave heading in from the Pacific before most Pittsburghers. He recruited Tony Yeh, who trained for two years with a Japanese sushi maker in New York, as his sushi chef to open Pittsburgh's second sushi bar. As Yeh has trained more chefs, it has allowed Chen to enlarge his sushi net.

In addition to the three sushi restaurants, the Chen/Yeh team also have a chef making sushi at Benkowitz Fish Market in the Strip and at the Duquesne University food court as well as the CMU food court. In terms of volume, they must be the winners. Their sushi bars seat between four and eight diners.

Nigiri sushi prices are for two pieces. Egg omelet is $2.80. Shrimp is $3.50, and fatty tuna is $7.50. There are normally 20 fish varieties on the nigiri list. Rolled maki (six pieces) go from $2.95 for crab and avocado to $3.95 for California Roll and $7.50 for the Pittsburgh Roll (shrimp, crab, avocado, asparagus and cucumber). There is a separate menu for vegetarian maki. Japanese beer prices start at $3.50.

One of the cardinal rules of sushi eating is that no smoking is allowed. Unfortunately, due to the size restrictions of these restaurants, the sushi bar is in a smoking room.

LITTLE TOKYO

Little Tokyo is the creation of Frank Lin and his wife, Diane. They opened in Mt. Lebanon in 1996. Diane learned to make sushi from a Japanese gentleman when she worked at Shogun in Monroeville. She has trained Little Tokyo's sushi chefs.

The restaurant has a family-friendly environment. When I was dining there with a 4-year-old, Diane and Frank became patient grandparent-like caretakers for my young friend. When we left, the boy was sitting in Diane's lap while she read him one of the books he had brought to the restaurant.

Nigiri sushi is priced at two pieces per order. Egg omelet is $3, yellowtail and maguro tuna are $5. Shrimp or scallop nigiri is $4, making this the most reasonably priced of all the sushi houses I visited. On the maki list, imitation crab and cucumber roll is $3. California Roll and Pittsburgh Roll are both $5. Japanese beer is $3.50.

SUSHI KIM

Sushi Kim in the Strip has consistently been chosen among the 25 top restaurants in Pittsburgh by City Paper. It has a loyal following especially in the Korean community. The sushi chefs are all Koreans who have been trained in the United States. The sushi bar is the largest in Pittsburgh, with 14 seats.

The a la carte nigiri sushi list features 22 possibilities. Each order consists of two pieces. Egg omelet is $3.50, yellowtail is $4.75, and maguro tuna is $3.95. Maki are priced from $4.95 for California Roll to $5.95 for snow crab. Japanese beer is $3.50.

CHAYA JAPANESE CUISINE

Fumio Yasuzawa apprenticed in Tokyo for five years before coming to New York, where he worked for 20 years in Japanese restaurants and hotels. He retired to Pittsburgh in 1995. By 2001 he was ready to re-enter the work force and opened his own restaurant in Squirrel Hill.

Chaya was an immediate success. The only way to avoid a long wait for a table in this tiny venue with 25 seats is to arrive before the doors open. Chaya has a loyal following who are willing to wait for as long as necessary to enjoy Yasuzawa's great sushi. This place has the most authentic "feel" of any of our sushi houses. It is very reminiscent of San Francisco sushi houses in 1950. It is all about the food.

The nigiri sushi list has a standing list of 22 possibilities, but there are always a few more that are available as specials dictated by market availability. Per piece prices are: yellowtail, $2.50; eel, $2.25; maguro tuna, $2.25; shrimp, $2.25. Maki prices are $3.75 for California Roll, $4 for shrimp tempura roll and $4 for salmon and avocado. "Yasu" has not heard about Pittsburgh Roll, but he makes the most tasty of all the miso soups.

UMI

The big Burrito Restaurant Group added Umi to its Pan Asian Soba restaurant, Shadyside, when it discovered the extraordinary talents of Shyh-Dyi Shu. A native of Taiwan, "Mr. Shu" apprenticed in Tokyo for five years. He arrived in Pittsburgh via New York, where he worked in a number of restaurants. Pittsburgh magazine named him Chef of the Year for 2002-03. There is no doubt that he is a "blue ribbon" chef and that the Umi venue is the most impressive of all the sushi houses. The clientele tends to be young and trendy.

The sushi bar here is small and crowded, wedged in next to the bar. It deserves better. Umi serves a special sushi meal called omakase that is a seven-course showcase for Shu's talents. There is a two-person minimum and the price is $75 per person and worth it. You will leave with a solid sushi knowledge. A la carte nigiri is priced per piece and most are $3. Maki are from $3.50 for cucumber to $9 for soft shell crab.

Elizabeth Downer can be reached at edowner@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1454.



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