18 Ways to Spot a Fake Sushi Restaurant
Sushi is everywhere these days, and the downside is that for each chef that's dreaming like Jiro, there's probably another sushi joint that's just a total nightmare.
To help decipher the differences between an authentic sushi restaurant and a place where you're likely to get burned by a raw deal, we spoke with Marco Moreira, owner and executive chef behind Michelin-starred New York sushi destination 15 East. He's worked in the world of sushi for more than 20 years and consulted for everyone from small traditional restaurants to big grocery-store sushi operations, so he knows both the peaks and valleys of quality. Here are his 18 red flags that should tip you off as to whether you should order another piece of nigiri or just roll out of there.
The tuna is too dark
"Once you cut the tuna and it's exposed to oxygen, it becomes very bright. But after that brightness goes away, it starts getting really dark and oxidized. That's an example of a fish that you can see as a red flag."
It uses leftover fish
“When you see two or three different white fish mixed with pickled vegetables, that's all about using the leftovers.”
It has only one variety of each fish
“At my restaurant, we normally have three or four choices of sea urchin. I'm hoping that you're gonna have two or three types of tuna, salmon, whitefish, shellfish, scallops, shrimp. What's fun for me is to try them side by side to see which I like best, and challenge myself to understand the different nuances. It's almost like tasting wine. If you're not able to try to taste these nuances, that's a red flag.”
The shrimp is pre-cooked
"Some of the places will pre-boil the shrimp and pickle them with vinegar and salt, so it's not really about the beautiful flavor of the shrimp. It's not gonna be a clear, beautiful taste of sushi. We cook them to order if people want, but we'd never cook a few days in advance."
The fish looks wet
"The number one enemy for fish, or any kind of meat really, is moisture. We try to take the moisture away from the fish so bacteria don't develop and multiply. We wrap our tuna after it's cut in a special paper that's highly absorbent. It's almost like a little sponge that sucks all the moisture and keeps it dry."
The rice is packed too tight
"It needs to be packed just tightly enough so that it holds its shape. You don't want it to be pressed too hard. As you chew your sushi, it needs to be a good balance of the fish and the rice. You shouldn't be fighting the texture of the rice."
The rice is too cold
"You want the rice to be approximately 90-100 degrees. If it's ice cold, that's sacrilege. It becomes gummy and a different thing altogether."
The seaweed is soggy
“We don't do handrolls in the dining room because they're meant to be prepared and served immediately. The textural aspect is extremely important. The seaweed should be crispy and toasty and almost cracks as you bite into it. If it's soggy, that means it's been sitting."
The display case looks sloppy
“The biggest red flag for me is the display case. Everything should be very neatly displayed.”
Crab sticks are prominently displayed
“They're just make-believe sushi.”
It's got the temperature of the case wrong
“It should be cold and look like it. Most keep them at 35 degrees, so if you see that it's higher that could be a red flag."
The server doesn't know the menu
"Chefs and restaurants are always looking for amazing ingredients. If that's not part of the staff's DNA, it's a red flag in the sense that it just isn't going to be an amazing sushi dining experience."
You don't see sushi knives
"It would be a red flag if you see a sushi chef using a regular chef's knife. A sushi knife enables you to choose the thickness of your cut to be very, very thin. You could do it with a regular chef's knife, but it would have to be super sharp."
The place smells fishy
"Absolutely this is a big red flag. It means the place is not being cleaned properly."
The ingredients aren't what's showcased
“A good sushi restaurant is all about the main ingredients and elevating them. We enhance them by giving them the best possible seasoning. The focus should be just the fish and the rice.”
There are mayo-heavy sauces everywhere
“When people put mayo sauces and a bunch of garnishes on the sushi, it's one of the things I really don't like. The focus shouldn't be the sauces.”
There are too many rolls
“A lot of these fusion, non-traditional restaurants will have 50 choices of rolls they've created -- with cream cheese, caviar, all kinds of stuff you wouldn't necessarily want to eat if you're really a sushi fanatic.”
It's about filling you up
“Sushi can be more like a traditional fine-dining restaurant. You're eating small, little dishes and you're not going to be completely full. It's more about the experience and quality. Nontraditional places are more about filling up bodies.”
Dan Gentile is a staff writer on Thrillist's national food and drink team. He studied English in college, so he knows all about questions of authenticity and also cheap sushi. Follow him to spicy tuna dilemmas at @Dannosphere.