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Or, How to Spot a Mediocre Sushi Restaurant
The recent heat wave has driven me to spend even more time in air-conditioned bars and restaurants (mostly bars) and to consume lighter and cooler food. This craving for “cool and fresh” brought to mind sushi and led me, on a sweltering afternoon, to Nguyen Seafood and Steakhouse in Uniontown. Nguyen (pronounced “win”) is located in a small, bland strip mall on Pittsburgh Street and is marked by a modest, unimposing sign. The modest exterior should not be taken as a predictor of the interior, as inside you will find an immaculate and sophisticated décor. The name Nguyen is Vietnamese which should raise a red flag. Rule #1: Eat sushi in a Japanese restaurant, not some other nationality. The tiny (5 seat) sushi bar is located immediately inside the entrance of the restaurant, which raised another red flag. Rule #2: A sushi bar should have a serene, relaxing atmosphere. Although it was the middle of the afternoon, even the limited traffic in and out of the front door was distracting. I can only imagine how it would be on a busy night or perhaps a January evening when the wind is gusting. I took a seat at the bar and was informed the restaurant was BYOB, so I went back to the car where I just happened to have a six of Labatt Blue chilling on ice. I would have preferred a Sapporo, but any beer with a clean finish is my preferred choice to drink with sushi. A perusal of the sushi display case raised more red flags. Rule #3: Seafood displayed in the sushi cooler should be look appealing and fresh. In this case, some of the fish were lacking the gloss of super fresh fish and the asparagus spears were either badly cooked or had sat too long as they were not bright green and were wrinkled. In addition, although I’m resigned to the fact that most restaurants now use surimi (fake crab) for Kani (crab), why do they have to advertise the fact by displaying it? The disposable pens on the counter were another bad sign. Rule #4: Good sushi bars do NOT have you place your order on a slip of paper. A good sushi experience is about building a relationship with your Itamae (Chef), and together you manage the ebb and flow of the meal. By being forced to order the entire meal at once, and doing it through a waitress instead of the Itamae, completely removes a major element of the sushi meal. In addition, having all of the sushi on the plate at once means that by the time you get to the final pieces on your plate they will likely no longer be at the proper temperature. A scan of the order sheet raised even more red flags. Rule #5: A good sushi restaurant doesn’t offer more cooked items or non-traditional items (Volcano Rolls, California Rolls, etc.) than they do raw. This restaurant offered 11 raw items if you count the Ikura (salmon roe) and Masago (flying fish roe). Compare this to a whopping 32 non-traditional items and you’ll get a sense of the kind of customers this restaurant attracts. In spite of all the red flags, I checked the little boxes, sat back and waited for my meal. I started with a bit of goma wakame, or seaweed salad. These bright green threads of wakame seaweed are combined with chiles, sesame seeds, rice vinegar and sesame oil. Since this item can be bought commercially prepared, it is difficult to tell whether it was prepared in-house. This version tasted the same as most of the others I’ve eaten, but the portion size was about double. I’m not usually one to complain about larger portions, but in this case I would have been happy with a bit smaller portion, as sesame oil has a way of sticking with you. The back of the sushi counter was very high, making it impossible to watch the Itamae prepare the meal, which removed one of he pleasures of sitting at the bar. When the food arrived, I was surprised to see that I had inadvertently ordered sashimi instead of sushi (Damn those order sheets!), but the beautiful presentation gave me some hope I would have a successful meal. The three raw items I ordered were presented in cucumber cups and were folded to resemble petals of a flower. Julienne strips of cucumber and sprigs of celery tops were placed to resemble the flower’s stamens. At first glance the presentation was successful, but closer examination revealed some flaws. The celery tops were not properly washed, leaving them marred by black specks. The wasabi was too dry, making it look like a ball of clay (complete with finger prints) and also difficult to disperse in the shoyu (soy sauce). Maguro (tuna) was the first sashimi I tried. It exhibited the clean taste you’re looking for with a clear even color. Sake (salmon) was next and although the taste was rich, I found the texture to be a bit flabby. I finished the raw fishes with the stronger tasting hamachi (yellowtail). It was a touch on the dry side, but the bold flavor you look for in hamachi was not marred by any fishiness. All three fishes were acceptable but all were served a touch too warm, a result of placing the order all at one time. I ended the meal with an order of unagi (eel) and here we had real problems. Unagi is grilled fresh water eel served with the skin on and is served hot. By the time I ate through the raw sushi the unagi was only luke warm. Even worse, the skin was no longer crisp as it should have been. I couldn’t really tell if the lack of crispness was due to improper cooking or if it simply lost it due to sitting skin side down on the plate while I ate the raw sashimi. Either way, it was a long way from proper. Overall, this was not bad sushi, but it was a bad experience. The ordering method completely ruined the ritual of eating sushi and removed the essence of the experience. In this case, the confusion of the ordering process kept me from tasting a wider range of items. If you’re looking for sushi as an appetizer before a meal, Nguyen is acceptable. However, if you want a real sushi experience look elsewhere.