So Americans are stuck between chef-driven omakase meals at elite restaurants that cost a fortune and the cheap, predictable fare at our neighborhood places. Both extremes have deepened our dependence on tuna — at the high end, on super-fatty cuts of rare bluefin; and at the low end, on tasteless red flesh that has often been frozen for months and treated with chemicals to preserve its color.
What we need isn’t more tuna, but a renaissance in American sushi; to discover for ourselves — and perhaps to remind the Japanese — what sushi is all about. A trip to the neighborhood sushi bar should be a social exchange that celebrates, with a sense of balance and moderation, the wondrous variety of the sea.
I suggest that customers refuse to sit at a table or look at a menu. We should sit at the bar and ask the chef questions about everything — what he wants to make us and how we should eat it. We should agree to turn our backs on our American addictions to tuna (for starters, try mackerel), globs of fake wasabi (let the chef add the appropriate amount), gallons of soy sauce (let the chef season the sushi if it needs seasoning) and chopsticks (use your fingers so the chef can pack the sushi loosely, as he would in Japan). Diners will be amazed at how following these simple rules can make a sushi chef your friend, and take you on new adventures in taste.
In return, the chefs, be they Japanese or not, must honor the sushi tradition and make the effort to educate us — no more stoicism. They must also be willing to have a candid conversation about the budget before the meal; it’s the only way American diners will be willing to surrender to the chef’s suggestions. Sushi should never be cheap, but it also should never be exorbitant, because that makes it impossible to create a clientele of regulars.
Fraternizing with the chef may be a tough habit for Americans to take up. But we’ve had sushi here now for four decades, and it’s time for a change — both for our sake, and for the sake of the embattled tuna. Let the conversation across the sushi bar begin.