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  • Rob Hale

The 5 Problems With Utah Sushi

I am probably going to get into some trouble for saying this, but I have beef with Utah Sushi. I know, most people don’t think of Utah when they think of great sushi, I mean we are a landlocked state after all, but that doesn’t mean we can’t have great sushi, not when they are flying fresh fish in every single day. I have been a Sushi chef in Utah for the past 15 years, and in that time I have prepared a lot of great sushi. I was trained traditionally through an apprenticeship and have worked on the front line of some of Utah’s finest sushi restaurants. There are a lot of talented chefs out there, but Utah sushi suffers from a few regular weaknesses. What bothers me most, is that these can be easily overcome with a little care, education, and insistence on quality.

1) Frozen Fish

Just because we have the greatest snow on earth, doesn’t mean we have to eat frozen fish. Freezing fish fundamentally changes the color, texture and most importantly the flavor of fresh fish. Take a tuna for example. Tuna should be a deep red and have a supple tender texture and rich yet subtle flavor. This is why we eat sushi, for the direct natural flavor of good fish. You can spot cryovac tuna from a hundred yards. Look for bubble-gum pink color (that comes from CO2 being pumped into the package). The texture is spongy, or watery, like deli meat, and the flavor is anemic and just a shadow of what it should be. Of course I know why restaurants do it, they can buy it in bulk for less money. But every day fresh fish is flown into Utah. If you care enough to open a sushi restaurant, then you should insist on fresh fish. When I prepare for a party or dinner, I personally visit one of our fresh markets and personally pick out the fish and the cuts that I am looking for.

2) Sauce Overload

Fish are meant for swimming, but not in sauce. Wouldn’t you be suspicious of the burger if all you could taste was the mustard? If Architects hide their mistakes with bushes, Sushi chef’s hide theirs with sauce. I like to play with sauces, from my wasabi guacamole to a citrus soy, but if you can’t find the fish in the sauce, you are at the wrong restaurant, or you have ordered the wrong roll.  A sauce should compliment and enhance your experience, not be the centerpiece. Whenever I am served a roll soaked in spicy mayo, I have to wonder about the quality of the fish. Sure I believe in experimentation and trying new things. This isn’t strictly about tradition, and I am not against sauce, but too often I see sauces used to hide a substandard cut of fish. When I work with my clients, I often create rolls that are for people that don’t love a fishy roll, and I love to develop new and unique sauces, but I try to focus on the star of the dish, which should never be the mayo.

3) Carbon Copy Menus

There are a few restaurants that have a great menu and are trying new things, and on the other hand some of the finest sushi restaurants have made a name for themselves for preparing a traditional menu and executing on it with perfection. The issue here is that so many of the restaurants have the same Utah-centric rolls that barely have any fish.  These deep-fried cream cheese centric rolls have a place on the menu, perhaps for those that don’t love the traditional. But if you are going to break from the traditional why not make your own roll rather than a carbon copy of menu down the street. I have served up plenty of Vegas rolls, playboy rolls and rolls named after mountains, but I take pride in the fact that I can  build a menu tailored to your tastes and serve you rolls that you have never tried before.

4) Empty Bars

This might be a customer issue, and sure we don’t have a lot of drinkers in the state, but the sushi bar should be prime real estate, and it has nothing to do with the beverages. From a practical standpoint, why not eat where you get a dinner and a show. When you are dining with a chef who knows his fish, you can have access to years, if not decades of training. You can see the fish before it is rolled and get eyes-on quality control. You can get direct response to what you are eating and what you want to try next. A good chef wants to please his customers and that hard working professional behind the counter wants nothing more than for you to enjoy your meal. In a huge dining room with rolls pouring out of the kitchen there is little if any opportunity to create a relationship between chef and diner. That might be one of the things that I love the most about being a personal sushi chef. In fact I usually bring the bar with me. Not only can I develop a relationship with the diners, but I can truly cater to their palettes. The evening is no longer work when I am making friends, and making friends happy with the food I serve. I honestly love it.

5) Happy Hour or Discount Sushi

This might be my least popular opinion, especially in a state that loves a bargain. But if my food isn’t good enough to serve at full price, it’s not good enough to serve. Flying in fresh fish is not cheap, but that is the price of being a chef in Utah, if you really care about the quality of your dishes. The only people who can offer half price days are people that are serving substandard fish, hiding it in sauce, or are pricing their regular dishes through the roof the rest of the week (hint: it’s usually not that one). You shouldn’t have to pay an arm and a leg for sushi either. My private dinners are comparable (if not more affordable) than what you would pay a caterer for overcooked chicken cordon bleu and a baked potato. There is a difference between expensive and over-priced. I like to think that I am neither. You should be able to taste the difference in every dollar spent.

As a state, we have a few good Sushi options, but we also have a lot of bad habits. I am writing this not to wag my finger and say “shame on you”, but to say, we CAN do better and we SHOULD do better. These are the reasons why I decided to become a private sushi chef, so I can provide my customers with the greatest value and the highest quality sushi.

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