In the 2011 documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi, a cerebral and tasteful (get it?) tribute to the renowned sushi master Jiro Ono, making sushi is presented as an art form that demands rigorous training, years of apprenticeship, and decades to perfect. I must admit, I was a bit skeptical at first–for example, does massaging an octopus for forty-five minutes instead of thirty actually make a difference? But gradually, as you listen to Ono’s detailed processes and techniques, and as you learn of his humble beginnings, you begin to believe in his logic simply out of respect. His personal story in particular resonated with me: He left home at the age of nine, worked tirelessly at restaurants despite beatings from his bosses, served in World War II, then opened his restaurant, which eventually won 3 Michelin stars. Maybe massaging an octopus for those extra fifteen minutes doesn’t sound as unreasonable as it seems, after all.
The film left me hungry (I did it again!) for not just the sushi, but also for Jiro’s old-school life philosophy. Equally as intriguing as the tempting dishes featured in the film is the man himself. I’m glad that the film doesn’t idealize Ono, who calls himself a rebel towards the film’s end, because that would be glib. On the other hand, the food itself, a natural extension of Jiro, is presented as some experience that no words can reach. The film made me wonder if I’d ever enjoy a chirashi bowl or salmon sashimi again, knowing that Jiro’s sushi existed. It was like his sushi constituted some Form of Sushi that all other sushi could only aspire to.
So what is good sushi? What is great sushi? Jiro, as well as other sushi chefs, mentioned the rice. Here are other criteria. But how do you explain a place like Sushi.Com–yes, you read that right–which meets fewer than half of the aforementioned criteria and yet, in my opinion, still makes “good” sushi? Admittedly, I shouldn’t compare apples and oranges, and it’s not my place or within my ability to answer such a question. But I will, at least, try to explain my love for mall court sushi.
I had no expectations for Sushi.Com when I discovered it by accident a few years ago at the food court in the Broadway Mall on Long Island. Located between Charley’s Philly Steaks and Chinese Gourmet Express, this mom-and-pop is run by a small staff whose efficiency has never wavered all the times I’ve been there. The food is incredibly affordable by New York standards, considering that it’s sashimi and fresh Japanese hot dishes. For example: $9 gets you a generously sized chirashi bowl (with 10 or so pieces of sashimi and plenty of vegetables). Most dishes come with a side of miso soup or a can of soda/bottle of water. Party platters are also available.
Nothing about this place is pretentious, from the food to the people to the atmosphere. The owner is a middle-aged Korean woman who doesn’t say much, but does remember my order each time I go. The entire meal is placed on some disposable styrofoam serveware, which is then presented on a plastic tray that I take to one of the food court’s many flimsy aluminum tables, most of which are strewn with used napkins or smeared with some unknown sauce. I try to tune out the middle schoolers eating McDonald’s next to me, or the squealing children who are having the time of their lives in the ice cream truck kiddie ride several feet away.
The first dish I ever tried was the chicken teriyaki bento ($9), which consists of four California rolls, several pieces of vegetable tempura, a mixed lettuce salad with miso-ginger dressing, and a full breast of chicken teriyaki laid over rice. The quality of the lettuces and vegetables in the salad exceeds that of more pricey salads I’ve eaten, and perhaps even more fresh and crisp. I love the dressing–it’s flavorful, a bit savory, and has a slightly pulpy texture that I enjoy. The California rolls are nothing to write home about, but they’re as good as I’ve ever tasted. The ratio of rice to filling in the rolls seems just right, and the rice itself is well-seasoned and cooked so it is evenly done. The teriyaki sauce slathered on the chicken can cloy a bit with its sweetness, but somehow the meat’s smokey flavor (the chicken is grilled) balances it.
Out of all the dishes I’ve tried, my favorite is the chirashi bowl–a small vessel of sushi rice topped with a variety of sliced fish, asparagus, avocado, and seaweed salad. The fish at Sushi.Com is consistently good (I’ve ordered almost the entire menu). I’ve tasted fish that was more buttery and contained more umami, but for $9, I’m happy with the freshness and cleanliness of the fish. Everything else in the chirashi bowl added some crunch which complemented the fish nicely.
So: What would a purist like Jiro think of a place like Sushi.Com? I’d be curious to hear his opinion on the increasingly commercialized production of sushi. Even still, Sushi.Com has impressed me in every way. I can’t recommend their vast selection of rolls and bento boxes enough. I can honestly say that I enjoy everything I order at Sushi.Com, and it doesn’t hurt that it’s a 2-minute walk from Target.
Featured Image: Think Draw from Dubai, UAE