Interpreting is a dangerous business. My trusted friend Hisashi (whom you've met before in this column) recently spent a lot of time following the baseball wonder boy Nomo around for Japanese television. He endured the day-from-hell at Arlington Stadium and he says it's absolutely true that Nomo's interpreter either didn't have a clue what Nomo was saying or didn't want to repeat it.
So I hope what Hisashi interprets for me is true--he says, for instance, that the Korean owners of the Japanese restaurant and steakhouse Sumo are the same as the old owners of Sakura, which was in the same location. And looked the same, too, upstairs in the sushi bar and tatami rooms, and downstairs in the dining room where we sat and had a little of everything.
Translation is a tricky thing. And translating food is as difficult as translating words. Our enjoyment of food is so dependent on manners--the communal dipping of chips, sharing a drink before a meal--that moving a cuisine from its native country to another is as complicated as, oh, moving baseball from America to Japan.
At Sumo, dinners came with sushi, tempura, sukiyaki--a little of each, if you like, because this is Japanese food Bennigan's style--there's something for everyone. In Japan, you'd go to a noodle shop, a yakitori place, or a sushi bar. Sumo, American-style, offers a full democracy of choices. So we ate tempura, sushi, teriyaki, soba and sukiyaki all at one table and sometimes from one plate. There's even a diagram of the bento box so you can identify everything on your plate for the Grand Champion lunch or dinner.
All this is for translation purposes--to make Americans feel at home with Japanese cuisine, to make it more like American food without actully being American food. But you can't avoid the matter of Japanese manners, which still make eating Japanese food difficult.
Chopsticks are one thing--I can handle the sticks. But the rest of it I wish I didn't know anything about, since to know something is just to know that you don't know. I know you're supposed to slurp those soba, but it's hard for me. Visions of my mother arise, not to mention my grandmother, and daily dinnertime battles over eating noisily or sloppily. I know you're supposed to eat your sushi in a single bite or two--but unlike a nacho glued together by cheese, it's hard to take a bite of a piece of sushi without it disintegrating into its components, mostly rice, most of which fall in your lap. Unfortunately, it's also hard to eat it in big bites--because sushi is not quite bite-size. I wish sushi was the size of a fifty-cent piece. As it is, I'd probably be happier eating it in private.
That's not to say I don't forge on. And we started with sushi at Sumo: stellar cucumber rolls, the perfect food for hot summer; tamago, faintly sweet, tepid omelet; and tobigo, tiny roe that pop in your mouth as you chew. You're not supposed to douse your sushi with soy or wasabi--it's an insult to the chef, but since we were sitting at a table instead of the sushi bar, he would never have known. Who would be tempted, anyway? A touch of the hot green horseradish is just right to set off the pristine sushi.
Of course, we had miso soup, which could be translated as the Japanese breakfast of champions--I can't see Starbucks picking it up, but I'm told that, in Japan, miso in the morning is as common as Kellogg's is here. It's easy to like chicken yakitori--after all, grilled chicken is universally accepted, the lingua franca of the dinner table. Sumo's yakitori was the same bird as the teriyaki chicken, which came with tempura, too, a huge slice of carrot, and a round of zucchini. The chicken was excellent, tenderized by its marinade but not too sweet.
Gyoza were disappointingly greasy. You could order the salmon sauted or cooked in salt; of course I had to try the salt version because it was unfamiliar and because I remembered when it was a big production to cook beef in salt some years ago (they used to bring a hammer to crack it out of its salt glaze) and I wondered if the salmon were similar. Not really. The waitress tried politely to discourage me and it was saltier than most things except cheap caviar. The salt had leached a lot of the juice out of the fish, so the flesh was dryer than you're used to, but it was interesting. Tempura shrimp, big things in light-as-air batter, came with the cold soba noodles, which I tried to slurp. The hot pot was the last thing to arrive at our table, mysteriously, since it's delivered uncooked anyway and our waitress poached the tofu and vegetables in the broth as we ate.
We declined dessert, since green tea ice cream is untranslatable in my opinion, and cappuccino ice cream is all too understandable.
By the way, in case you wondered, I have no explanation for the restaurant's name. At a time when everyone in the marketing universe is obsessed with "lite" and "fat" has become a dirty word, why would you name your restaurant "Sumo"? Anyone who's ever watched that strange sport, or even heard of it, will agree that this is not perhaps the best image to sell a restaurant. What can I do but slurp my noodles and shrug?
Sumo Sushi, 7402 Greenville Ave., 987-2333. Open for lunch 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m. daily; for dinner 5-10:30 p.m. Sunday-Thursday, 5-11 p.m. Friday-Saturday.
Tempura shrimp $4.00
Sushi 2 for $2.00
Yakitori (lunch) $3.50
Hot pot (dinner) $29.95 for two
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