Chef Karen Crumley learned her sushi skills at Nama Sushi Bar back when J Cooney was head chef. Today, she holds "make your own" workshops at Avanti Savoia at 7610 Maynardville Pike to help people make high-quality, fresh sushi on their own. She holds restaurant sushi to the same high standards, and says that the consumer can improve a sushi experience just by keeping these seven tips in mind:
1. Don't be afraid to talk to the sushi chef. "Go sit at the sushi bar. That's the guy who's going to know what's good and fresh. There are times when I don't want to sit at the sushi bar; I'm not feeling that sociable. But the first few times you eat at a place, sit up there and find out what's good."
2. Expect some questions. "If you ask for suggestions, the chef should have a couple of questions for you. Do you like a certain type of fish? Do you like sweet, or savory, foods? Hot or spicy? If you don't know exactly what you want and no one asks you any questions, it's probably not going to be a good experience." Avoid a place where the sushi chef is not friendly, says Crumley. "I have sat at a sushi bar where the chef looked terrified I was sitting there—I had to wonder, ‘Why are you out here?'"
3. Sniff the fish. "If it smells like fish, it's probably a little old, not fresh. It should smell like the ocean. And the fish in the case should look not wet, but not dry either. If it's dry around the edges it's probably been in contact with the air a little too long, and maybe you don't want to go that route. Ask the chef for a better option if the fish you want looks too dry or too wet."
4. Don't rule out frozen fish or cooked eel. "There are certain types of sushi fish that American digestion systems can't handle unless they've been frozen. An example of a fish that needs to be frozen first is salmon. As for eel, it is already cooked and your sushi chef will warm it up again to put it in your roll. But there is a point that even cooked eel is not going to be good—if it's a couple of days out of the package, it's going to have a too strong smell."
5. Beware pre-made sushi. "If it's not about room temperature, it's a good clue it's been previously made. If it's cold, or the rice is cold and hard, it's probably been made at least earlier in the day, and maybe before."
6. At a new restaurant, try a roll you're familiar with. "Each is going to have a little variation on a lot of different rolls, but if you eat something you've had it's easy to evaluate. Everyone does a California roll, for example, but some people put whole crab in it, some make salad..."
7. Take leftovers, but order less next time. "If you have leftovers, you probably ordered a little too much, but sure, take what's left. You don't want to leave the leftovers in a car and go to a movie, but they're fine after a few hours in the fridge. Keep it as cool as possible until you eat it, but remember cooler sushi is not going to taste the same as when it was served."
Along with seeking out good service and fresh ingredients, make sure to take care of the chefs at a place that's doing a good job, says Crumley. "If you feel up to it, go in and say, ‘I don't care what you make me, make me some sushi!'" she says. "They get to be creative, and that's wonderful."
And make sure to tip amply: "Ask yourself, was the food excellent, was the chef entertaining? That's also part of sitting at the sushi bar, being entertained, and I'm not talking about song and dance, but interacting. I always leave a couple of bucks for the sushi chef, and if they're entertaining and all that, at times I've left $5 or $10."