Even if you're an experienced sushi eater, ordering can be a very intimidating process. Half of the menu is in Japanese, there's a ton of etiquette rules you probably don't understand, and, should you offend one of the chefs, there are plenty of very sharp knives handy.
To pull back the veil on the ordering process, we polled a group of industry vets to share some tips that'll help novices look like they know what they're doing when they sit down at the bar.
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1. Sit at the bar 90% of a sushi chef's work happens before the restaurant even opens. For a chef, the prep is the practice, and the service is the performance. It's best to get a front-row seat rather than slumming it in the nosebleeds. You'll get a stronger appreciation of the care that goes into your food, and no one has more knowledge of the menu and freshness of the fish than the chef. Also, a few friendly questions and a genuine interest will likely earn you free food.
2. Trust your server It is their job to make sure you have a good experience, so don't make it hard for them. If you're feeling brave, then order "omakase" style ("I'll leave it to you") and let the chef make the decisions. But whether you're ordering a la carte or letting the chef pick, offer your server suggestions of what you like in terms of texture and intensity. If you're not into creamy, rich fish, you probably won't want to end up with a mouthful of urchin genitals.
3. Don't be afraid to ask questions Odds are your server didn't know anything about sushi when they started working in the industry, so don't feel embarrassed if you don't have a nuanced understanding of the difference between blue and yellowfin tuna, or don't have three semesters worth of Japanese language classes under your kimono.
4. Don't order everything at once Rattling off a super-complex order of sashimi and nigiri might make you think you look like a pro, but it isn't how pros actually do it. Order a few things at once, and your honest reactions will help guide your server to make sure you're getting flavors that match your palate.
5. Don't ask for soy sauce and wasabi if they're not served Most sushi chefs aren't too into the idea of you giving their carefully made creations a bath in a pool of soy sauce. It overwhelms the flavors, and chances are the chef already gave it a delicate brush of soy. Wasabi and ginger are used as palate cleansers, not entrees.
6. Avoid flashy rolls Rolls with lots of different kinds of fish or rainbow sauces are generally frowned upon by experts because it's hard for the individual flavors to shine. The chef we talked to recommends basic tekka maki (tuna roll), umeshiso maki (a roll with plum paste and shiso leaves), or a California roll with real crab.
7. Seek out the specialties Ask what the restaurant is known for, or if there are dishes that are particularly indicative of the restaurant's style. It will be viewed as a sign of respect and also allow the chef to put his best foot forward.
8. When in a traditional sushi bar, sashimi should be ordered before sushi This comes from Morimoto camp, so you know it's ironclad. Work your way up to rolls: they're considered the main course. And while it seems like you might want to start with a bowl of miso, traditional chefs would serve this last.
Dan Gentile is a staff writer on Thrillist's national food/drink team. He has eaten more grocery store spicy tuna than he would like to admit. Follow him to dreams of sushi at @Dannosphere.