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Fishy Math

December 16, 2011

There are a lot of things I’m unwilling to do.

I will not wait in a line to get into a bar. I will not ruin someone else’s meal or otherwise make a scene by sending back food at a restaurant. I will not eat sushi in Albany.

Last night I broke one of my cardinal rules. Since arriving to this fair region, I entirely abandoned a category of food that I had previously enjoyed for decades. There are a lot of reasons for this. To be fair, I don’t think it is because sushi in Albany is uniquely bad. Frankly, despite its prevalence, it’s unreasonable to expect there to be great sushi in a market that’s outside the top 50 Nielsen DMAs.

At some point, though, it comes down to numbers. I’ll show you.

For the numbers to make any sense, we have to be on the same page about sushi, what it is, and what makes it so great. Because philosophically sushi is right up my alley. At it’s heart this mode of Japanese cuisine is all about quality ingredients.

Some may argue that sushi is all about seasoned rice. But the sliced raw fish takes center stage.

The idea is that the fish itself is so delicious, so fresh, and so remarkable on its own, that it needs little else to excite the palate. It’s so precious that you don’t get a lot. Just a bite or two to savor its flavor and revel in its texture. The argument also works the other way around. Sushi is raw fish, which can potentially be crawling with all kinds of nastiness. Don’t you want it to be the best raw fish possible?

Now here’s the question. How much of the fish that is sold every day qualifies for this superstar treatment? And remember, once a fish is caught it starts decomposing immediately. Every hour that goes by results in a less special specimen.

What follows is purely a work of fiction to demonstrate a point.

1) Let’s be generous and say 10% of the daily wild finfish haul is sushi worthy.
2) The majority of that will be sold in Japan, let’s say 60%
3) The rest comes into New York City and Los Angeles.
4) Top NYC tables have good access, but lesser NYC tables can get good deals.
5) The NYC market supplies top tables in Chicago, Philadelphia, Boston, Atlanta, etc.
6) Eventually sushi restaurants in smaller towns get the pick of what’s left.

The idea is that there is a finite amount of great fish. The diligence of the sushi chef, their proximity to market, and the price they are willing to pay for quality all play a role in what they can secure.

Anyone who suggests there is great sushi in Albany is quite mistaken.

Which isn’t to say it’s entirely unacceptable. It’s not. Personally, I have no interest in our most prevalent form of maki, which seem to be fanciful rolls served with a panoply of colorful sauces.

However, sushi in Albany is not inexpensive, despite its comparatively inferior quality. I’m willing to pay high prices on occasion for some truly remarkable fish, but I’m opposed to the idea of paying a lot of money for mediocre food.

This should be of no surprise to anyone who has read the FLB in the past.

That said, I do have a particular love of the grotesque. The deep fried buffalo burger at Swifty’s is a prime example. As is Chinese buffet. Somehow a grand variety of inferior food is a lot more fun than a few dishes of mediocre food.

And that is the pitch for all-you-can-eat sushi.

Last night I was compelled to join a group of friends, Yelpers and friends of friends at a place called Sushi X. Was any of the sushi good? Not really, but most of it was fine. A few pieces were particularly nasty. The tamago was insulting. But everything was made to order, and it was fun to keep sending the waitress back for more food. Sushi isn’t generally the kind of meal where one is immoderate.

But for $20 it was a good deal.

There is no mystery as to how places like Sushi X stay in business. Thin pieces of fish, lots of rice, preceding the fish with deep fat fried foods, and striking a deliberate pace. They claim to charge you for what you don’t finish, and that also helps people keep the pace in check.

If Mrs. Fussy get the hankering for sushi one day, this may be a good place to take her. But I got my fill. In another four years I may get the desire to go back there. But as fun as gorging on cheap versions of expensive food may be, I’ve gotten it out of my system.

We’ve got a lot of food here that is actually good. There is only so much time to revel in dreck.

10 Comments leave one →
  1. December 16, 2011 10:56 am

    I still haven’t made it back. I do hope you tried the rock shrimp appetizer. It’s nothing more than rock shrimp lightly floured, fried, and tossed in a sriachi/mayo mix, but it’s delicious!

  2. December 16, 2011 11:07 am

    Yeah, the experience of Sushi X is probably more interesting then the food. I too got a grand old kick out of the little sheets. Something about summoning food in this manner is appealing.

    I went with their straight tuna rolls which weren’t awful. Some of the stuff my associates ordered looked silly. I think mango was involved in one….

  3. phairhead permalink
    December 16, 2011 11:17 am

    now as a non seafood eater, I had to go w/ what Husband said & he enjoyed the atmosphere but I think he prefers the sushi at Bangkok Thai Bistro better

  4. Mr. Sunshine permalink
    December 16, 2011 11:22 am

    The story of sushi in the U.S. is fascinating. I never had raw fish until I ordered sashimi at Legal Sea Foods in Cambridge, MA in 1969. Yes, THAT Legal Sea Foods–at that time it was a paper plate take-out and market. Some time in the 70s or 80s, something called sushi began to appear around the country. It would be hard to imagine a less “American” food! Most Americans didn’t even like cooked fish, let alone raw. And now it is ubiquitous. What an unlikely ascent up the U.S. food menu.

  5. December 16, 2011 11:23 am

    Me thinks you are being too hard on Albany. I would be surprised if the fish that you see in Albany is more than 24 hours older than the fish they see in NYC. I’m not sure who – if anyone – took over for Cousin’s Seafood, but they used to pick up in NYC and deliver all over the Hudson Valley (and North Country) – the same day. The fish was sitting on the boat longer. And ~ all seafood served raw in restaurants must be frozen first , with the singular exception of tuna. (and hopefully you were not eating bluefin tuna)

  6. December 16, 2011 1:11 pm

    I don’t recall if I’ve had sushi outside of the Capital Region. I should probably make a point to try it in Manhattan for comparison the next time I’m down there.

    I can tell you that there is a noticeable difference in raw oysters that I’ve eaten on Martha’s Vineyard versus anywhere on the mainland. Considering the oysters I had over Thanksgiving weekend came out of the water only a few hours before I ate them, there’s just no way to compete with that. I will say that the oysters I had at New World Bistro were probably the freshest tasting I’ve had in the area.

  7. December 16, 2011 2:01 pm

    daniel you couldn’t be more right. once someone has a truly remarkable piece of fish or sushi/sashimi, its difficult to go back. Im sure you know what I mean when I say truly remarkable – not just great or fresh…but the kind that is so incredible you feel like you have never had that kind of fish before, you start stammering when trying to describe it while being on the verge of tears.

    @north country – you would be amazed at the difference 24 hours makes.

    • Kerosena permalink
      December 16, 2011 3:38 pm

      Greg, I had a piece of fish in Hawaii like that!

  8. llcwine permalink
    December 16, 2011 3:23 pm

    My husband and I went there last week using a gift certificate I had from my last birthday…you are correct about the fried foods, but Derry nailed it with the rock shrimp. I ate more than my fill of sashimi, thus very little rice…and it was ladies drinks night..so a $2.00 cocktail, albeit made with some cheap bar booze really hit the spot….My husband who abstains from eating raw creatures (aka- tartare’s carpaccio, mullosks or sushi) did try one of the rolls that did have some raw salmon on top and he declared it to be…surprisingly good.
    It is what it is, and for the price, if you order right…you can make out like a bandit.

  9. December 17, 2011 12:21 pm

    Mine and Chris’ favorite sushi restaurant is in Greenwich Village in NYC. We haven’t been in some time, as we don’t get to the city as frequently as we would like, and there’s just so much good food to be had that it’s difficult to choose among the options.

    There are a couple of sushi restaurants around here that we like, but often we only get a couple of pieces of sushi and otherwise stick to rolls. And we generally go if there’s a special being offered. (Such as, all-you-can-eat or half price, etc.) We tried Sushi X a while back, and it was pretty unremarkable even by Albany standards, but like you said, for the price not a bad deal.

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