Fishy Follies

The real bargain sushi in Minnesota isn't in grocery stores; it's hiding in plain sight

Welcome to this paragraph, where we get drunk. Or rather, we drive ourselves to Surdyk's, to confront their marvelous new investment in sake architecture, and their largest-in-town selection of premium sakes. What's that, you ask? Well, it seems that Surdyk's got to noticing that there really isn't anyone in the Midwest selling the rare and interesting sakes that have devoted fan bases in coastal cities with large Asian populations, and, bless their little hearts, decided to invest in the massive refrigeration system necessary to sell such a thing.

"Good sake wants to be kept chilled," Noel Nichols, the wine consultant who has been overseeing this project explained to me. "I don't have anything against warm sake, but if you want that, you can buy the inexpensive stuff. Nama sakes, however, the draft, unpasteurized sakes, have to be refrigerated when they leave the sakery in Japan, and then they have to be refrigerated every step of the way until you drink them. We get them from a refrigerated produce truck driven in specially from Los Angeles.

"You can only find Nama sakes in Vancouver, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Miami, and a few other coastal cities," Nichols continued. "Unfortunately, we discovered that a lot of what they send to the rest of the country is, well, let's say not fresh. It actually took a lot of arm-twisting to get [the importers] to sell it to us at all. They were lukewarm, at best, to the idea of that sake in the Midwest. They thought we'd sell it spoiled, and ruin their name."

Hey--what are we, 16-year-old kids trying to borrow dad's Cadillac? Who's not sophisticated enough to... those are fighting words! Well, if you want to show those importers who's sophisticated, then rush right on up to Surdyk's and try one of their premium Nama sakes, such as the Ichinokura Junmai Nama sake ($28.99) or Ohyama Nama sake ($25.99; these two Nama sakes come in 720-milliliter bottles; just a fraction smaller than a standard bottle of wine.)

Surdyk's also invested heavily in a variety of other sakes: They now carry about three dozen ultra-premium varieties, many of which are of far higher quality than the top-priced glass-pours in most local Japanese restaurants. So, that's a major advantage to saving money and eating in--you can drink much, much better.

Now we head home, to make sushi. You'll need instructions, of course, so you had better consult the World Wide Web. Ideally, you will be so busy with various things that by the time your friends arrive, you will just start looking online for directions. So, your friends will be hanging out, drinking your premium sake, and you will be cursing your computer's connection speed in another room. Sooner or later, you'll get to making the rice. The rice! Your goal from this point forward is to keep sushi rice out of your computer keyboard.

Remember the first time you ever heard about sushi rice? "In Japan," someone probably told you, "a sushi chef spends a whole year as an apprentice doing nothing but making rice." Sushi rice, like the making of a good baguette, is really, really hard to do well. Sushi rice is basically super short-grain starchy rice, well washed, coated with a vinegar mixture which both keeps it pliable and, with the same logic by which we add lemon juice to dishes to "brighten" them, or drink acidic wine with meals to enhance them, heightens the taste of the fish that accompanies it.

Sounds easy? Ha! I've done it maybe a dozen times, and it's never quite right. It's invariably too sticky, too dry, too vinegared, or not vinegared enough. The best part about making sushi rice is that it makes you into a great appreciator of real, accomplished sushi rice. The other best part is that if you really screw it up once you start trying to roll it, you might just end up with hands encased in gargantuan white lumpen starch mittens of drying rice. Play your cards right and you might be able to both frighten children and destroy the paint job on your walls.

My friend Sasha, who left town years ago, used to throw make-your-own sushi parties. They were the best. He'd spend all week on the phone with the folks at Coastal Seafoods assessing the sashimi-grade fish market, he'd shop, we'd arrive around 8:00, and we'd start drinking. He'd start the rice at around 9:00, we'd realize it wasn't cooling quickly enough around 10:00, so we'd stick it out on the fire escape in the snow. Then at around 11:00 we'd remember that we were actually there for dinner and go dump the snow from the rice.... From there it was rice mittens, sushi rolls that looked like they had been run over by Zambonis, and slices of fish that looked like they were cut by a chimpanzee during an earthquake. They were great nights. They also left me with a lifelong appreciation of real sushi chefs.

On the other hand, you can get first-rate takeout from most sushi bars for just a little more than you'd pay for grocery-store sushi. My best budget advice is to get "chirashi" sushi takeout. Chirashi sushi is basically a variety of traditional sushi ingredients, both fish and other things, like the sweet egg custard tamago, cut into slices and served on a simple bed of sushi rice.

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