A Seat at the Bar
Tradition Versus Creativity at Connecticut’s Best Sushi Bars.
Jason Tay of Miso makes mini works of art inserting gold-flecked tempura shrimp heads into cucumber cups.
Every serious sushi chef will tell you: sushi is best at the bar. Raw fish should be eaten immediately, yes, but sushi is an art of balance and detail. At the sushi bar you get the ultimate experience. You can watch the chef, ask questions, learn, taste and eat. As sushi has become increasingly popular in the U.S., the simplicity of traditional preparations has been overshadowed by Western-style fancy rolls and contemporary creations inspired by famous chefs such as Nobu Matsuhisa of Nobu and “Iron Chef” fame. Below are some top picks in Connecticut where you can belly up to the sushi bar for omakase (“I trust you”), where you place yourself in the hands of the sushi chef to explore the world of sashimi (slices of raw fish), nigiri (raw fish on oval pats of vinegared rice), maki and fancy rolls. After tasting their remarkable creations, you’ll never go back to supermarket sushi.
Masa Soto has stood behind the sushi bar at his small, modest restaurant in Stamford since 1986. He was raised in Brazil and Tokyo, where he did a traditional 10-year apprenticeship. A traditionalist, Soto refused to serve brown rice or fancy rolls for years, and still says no to customers who ask for sushi to take on planes or boats. It’s not to-go food, he says. His omakase (oh-mah-kah-say) might begin with a traditional sashimi plate revealing a range of flavors and textures: yellowtail (clean and silky); tuna (rich and round-flavored); fluke fin (chewy); raw squid (soft, crunchy, sea-flavored) rolled around mouth-popping salmon roe; snow crab rolled in ribbons of cucumber; seared Spanish mackerel (unexpectedly delicate). Next up, sushi. Melt-in-your-mouth tuna resting on light ovals of sticky rice. “Nothing must overpower,” he says. Soto has yielded to modern tastes. His ironically named (and most popular) “No Name” roll combines spicy tuna, mayo, crunchy tempura flakes, avocado and sweet miso dressing. Kotobuki, 203/359-4747, kotobukijapaneserestaurant.com
Miso, New Haven
Jason Tay has a ready laugh and avid fan base. Originally from Malaysia, he’s been a sushi chef for 23 years, and trained under masters in New York. About five years ago, he landed at Miso, the stark 11-year old Japanese restaurant in downtown New Haven, where he works with the precision of a surgeon, using metal-tipped chopsticks. “We educate the customer,” says Tay. His tasting plates move from mild to stronger flavored fish, from silky smooth to buttery, rich textures. “I spoil them,” he says of his customers.
His omakase might begin with modern sashimi plate à la Nobu. Amberjack, a mild fish from Australia, thinly sliced and laid out like a flower, brushed with citrus-soy sauce, garnished with paper-thin slices of jalapeño, and touched with fish roe. Next, live scallop, just opened, still “pounding like a heart,” thinly sliced. With it comes “salad” of crunchy sliced scallop muscle, soft seaweed and julienned cucumber in rice vinaigrette. Then, raw sweet shrimp and tempura shrimp heads, antennae flecked with edible gold. Tay also offers “old school” sushi not found on many menus, like fermented soybean rolls, and he imports fresh Japanese horseradish. Miso, 203/848-6472, misorestaurant.com
Go Fish, Mystic
Jerry Kodama made his first sushi roll 50 years ago. He grew up in Honolulu. His mother made maki rolls at home. Sixteen years ago, when his brother, John, opened Go Fish, the big, contemporary fish restaurant in Mystic, they included a 65-seat sushi area with a 12-seat bar. Though he’d been making sushi for years at private parties, Jerry returned to Hawaii to train with a master. (Today, Go Fish’s most popular roll, the Sansei, pays homage to him. It’s a spicy crab roll with veggies, cilantro and sweet Thai-chili sauce.)
Properly cooking, storing and forming the rice is essential, Kodama says. Sushi rice should be served “cooler than warm, but warmer than cool,” he says. Forming it, a chef’s hands move quickly and gently, keeping it soft and airy. (Never squeeze!) The rice stays together to lift to the mouth, where it releases the perfume of rice and sweet rice vinegar. Customers’ biggest mistake? Using too much soy. Think of it as a condiment, like salt, not sauce, Kodama says. Go Fish, 860/536-2662 gofishct.com
Chef Michael (Yi Ge) Ma grew up in Shanghai. He came to Toshi 10 years ago, where former owner Toshi Saki taught him to cut fish at the correct angles and thickness to highlight flavor and texture so it’s not too fishy, firm or chewy. Ma became the restaurant’s sushi chef four years ago and recently bought the place and gave it a facelift. His menu contains many contemporary dishes. Spicy tuna tartare, for one, a layered round of rice, tuna, avocado, crunchy tempura flakes, topped with chopped scallion and black caviar. His best-seller is the Toshi roll, a quilt of salmon, tuna and avocado wrapped around nori, spicy tuna and crab. Toshi Izakaya, 860/677-8242, Toshi-Izakaya.com