Sushi unplugged

With sushi restaurants multiplying like fast-food joints, a good sliver of fish is hard to find

Raw fish. Raw fish eggs. Raw marine sex organs. Think about it. Putting these things in your mouth is extreme. Raw fish is scary.

Well, it used to be, anyway. Now it's so commonplace that it draws yawns. Sushi restaurants are popping up with the speed of facial zits before prom. Raw fish has gone mainstream. The fright factor has dissipated.

But why was the stuff so frightening in the first place? I know why I thought so. When I first heard of sushi, I vowed I would never go near it. And I've pinned down the source of this revulsion to a childhood trauma: Friday fish night. The practice had nothing to do with religion, nutrition, or anything wholesome like that. It had to do with bowling. Friday night was my father's bowling night, and he hated fish. Wouldn't even consider a Mrs. Paul's thickly breaded fish stick. He'd rather eat fried liver sausage than dine on something that didn't even have the decency to move with hooves. So my mother used his absence as an opportunity to ply us with seafood.

I'm surprised the rest of us didn't share his revulsion. My mother started Friday fish night early in the afternoon by thawing a pair of rectangular, half-pound fillets over soggy paper towels on the counter. When I got home from school, the house was filled with a grievous stench.

But somehow I was able to force the stuff down--once it was broiled and drowned in butter and lemon--as long as I didn't think about those blocks thawing on the counter. And, I have to admit, the fillets tasted good.

When I first heard that sushi is raw fish and that people put it in their mouths, chewing on one of those stinky, just-thawed fillets immediately came to mind. The thought was compelling in a precarious digestive sense. And this is not irrational. Fish is frightening stuff, a substance that rapidly descends into the irrevocably icky. Unlike other organic matter, seafood is susceptible to rapid, malodorous decomposition. Fish digestive enzymes, which enable big fish to digest little fish whole, rapidly invade and break down the flesh upon death. Then there are the pathogenic bacteria that lie in wait outside the fish and in its digestive tract. These microbes thrive in the cold. Even at temperatures below 32 degrees, bacteria that attack fish are far more active than those in beef. And fish are rich in unsaturated fats, which go rancid at a greater clip than the saturated fats in beef, pork, or lamb.

Fresh fish smells like a sea breeze, a scent you should get at a sushi bar. Fish just slightly older reeks of ammonia and sulfur from the secretions of bacteria chowing down on the easily digestible fish fats and flesh.

So sushi is a culinary trapeze act. And these trapeze acts are multiplying like hamsters, to the point where it's getting difficult to find stuff that is consistently served fresh and at the right temperature, and is prepared by conscientious chefs with exacting standards.

This phenomenon is not only hitting Dallas. On a recent trip to Vancouver, I visited a sushi restaurant that drew raves from friends. But when I walked into the place, it reeked mercilessly, like my mother's kitchen on Fridays. And the sushi, while not as bad as the smell, certainly was not fresh. The preparation was sloppy. Maybe the global proliferation of sushi restaurants is making it harder to find snappy fresh fish. Maybe restaurants are resorting to staffing their bars with sushi chefs certified through 12-week correspondence courses.

In Dallas, more than a few sushi spots are OK. But it's been a long time since I've sampled stuff that's made me sit up and take notice. The spread seems to have dumbed down the quality a bit, or at least wreaked havoc with consistency. And without hyper-fresh fish and meticulous preparation, what is there to set these places apart?

Sushi Inaka, located well into the Plano hinterlands, is a case in point. The sushi is generally mediocre, and the items that could have made this restaurant interesting have been eliminated. A paneled wall with protruding nails behind the sushi bar serves as a hanging apparatus for boards upon which the day's specials are written in green marker.

On one visit, I sampled a pair of specials from those boards: seaweed salad and squid salad. Both were distinguished little bowls of freshness. Seaweed salad, green threads of sea plant speckled with sesame seeds, was crisp and tidy, leaning delicately into a sea-washed sweetness. Cool, fresh squid salad, with slices of resilient marinated strips of flesh crowded with green beans and shiitake mushroom, was clean and brisk. Other things followed suit. Generously thick slices of hamachi sashimi (yellow tail) bristled with satiny nuttiness. A tempura roll with a warm core of sheathed shrimp was fresh and provocatively delicious.

Yet Inaka's tempura appetizer lumbered. A bowl of shrimp, broccoli, sweet potato, and zucchini, the stuff was insufferably dull, chalky, and wracked by flavor deficits. Sushi sank too. Tako (octopus) was spongy and soppy instead of immaculately firm and buoyantly chewy.

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