Why do people sit at the sushi bar in a sushi restaurant? Should I? Is there better fish there? How can I get the best fish in the restaurant? How and whom should I tip?
--Befuddled O'Bemused, Bemidji
The above isn't a real letter, but it expresses the gist of reader letters I get all the time lately. And with a new sushi restaurant opening every nanosecond, questions about sushi bars, sushi tipping, and sushi etiquette have never been more pressing.
The problem: Sushi bars are different from other restaurants.
But I think what throws people is the variety of ways they're different. Consider: At a sushi bar you face a guy who's pretty busy. But he's more your server than the person behind you bringing drinks. He's also the keeper of the vault, as far as fish. And the keeper of the magic and skill, as far as sushi. You want to make him happy.
Yet, in America, we only tip people who are below us on the social hierarchy: We tip the flight attendant but not the pilot, the housekeeper but not the hotel manager, the guy who delivers the couch but not the person who sold or designed it. In some situations, proffering a tip can even be seen as an insult, or at least impudent: You'd never slip a twenty to your son's kindergarten teacher, your senator, or your anesthesiologist, no matter how great the customer service. So what is the sushi chef? He's clearly the most important guy in the room, which in our culture generally means it would be an insult to tip him. Yet he's also serving food, which in our culture means you must tip him. Is he a server? A chef? A bartender? Or what?
Add to this puzzle two more diffuse and confusing factors: one, in consuming sushi, we seem to be negotiating in some satellite of Japanese culture--even if the chef is from Laos and studied with Koreans and we are French Canadian by way of Minnetrista Two: the mystery regarding that tip line on the credit card receipt. Who gets that money? Does it go only to the server? After all, that's how it works in other restaurants.
The more I think about it, the more I see that sushi bars are a perfectly logical place for a spazz-out of social anxiety, before you even take into account that it's all about that most perishable of all scary foods, raw fish.
But here's the inside dirt you need to successfully navigate this perplexing cultural site.
First, please know that every sushi restaurant has its own policy regarding tips. For example, I talked to managers or owners at three top local sushi spots--Minneapolis's Sushi Tango and Fuji-Ya, and St. Paul's Katsu Sushi--and learned that at the sushi bar at Fuji-Ya and Tango they pool every single tip--cash over the bar, credit card receipts, whatever comes their way--and redistribute it by set percentages. This percentage varies between restaurants, but, basically, everybody gets some: sushi chefs, servers, chefs you can't see (like the grill and tempura folks), and even dishwashers. Which is to say, when you're seated at the sushi bar, no matter where you put your twenty--in cash over the bar, on the receipt, whatever, the same portion of it will always go to the parties involved. (It varies, but figure the sushi chef is getting somewhere between 40 percent and 60 percent of what you leave. At the restaurant tables that are not the sushi bar, everything is different. There servers keep the vast majority of the tip money, and "tip out" the sushi chefs, the same way they do their assistants (busboys of yore), giving them a percentage of their take for the night. "At the end of the night there are tips flying all over the place--it's a team effort, from chef to dishwasher," explains Tom Hanson, owner of Fuji-Ya."
But like I said, all sushi restaurants have their own policies, and at Katsu Sushi, the tip jar on the sushi bar is exclusively for the chef, and anything on the credit card receipt is split 50/50 between the the sushi chef and the server who brings your hot food, drinks, and such. That is, unless you specify otherwise: Laurie Malmgren, manager at Katsu Sushi, says it's not uncommon for people to write on their credit card receipt "$20 for sushi chef, $10 for server," or what-have-you. And you listen? I ask. "Of course! Absolutely," says Malmgren.
One of the surprising things I learned in asking these questions is that people at each sushi restaurant assume that we all know that every restaurant's tipping policy is slightly different, and that we'll know to ask.
Take all the social anxiety outlined above and compound it with questions? About money? Are you mad? Are we not Minnesotans? If you prick us, do we not quietly go off and take care of it ourselves? Ask Asian people handling raw fish about the money we are going to give them to express approval? There are not enough smelling salts on the earth. "Oh yeah, ask us anything, we're right here!" says Teng "Tengo" Thao, legendary sushi chef and owner of Calhoun Square's Sushi Tango. "It's okay to ask anything. It's not like you're dumb if you ask--you just don't know, and we deal with this all the time," says Laurie Malmgren of Katsu Sushi. "We wish people would ask more questions," says Tom Hanson, of Fuji-Ya.
Questions like: Why are we rubbing our chopsticks together? Hanson says he first noticed this peculiar behavior about a year ago, and it has lately become epidemic. "Americans sit down at the sushi bar, and the first thing they do is unwrap their chopsticks and start rubbing them together," says Hanson. "But it's actually an insult to your host; it means your host is giving you slivery chopsticks. We don't use cheap, slivery chopsticks. We use bamboo ones, and they're really nice and smooth." What you're supposed to do, says Hanson, is remove that wrapper, and, if you don't have a chopstick rest, fold up that chopstick wrapper to make one. "And for heaven's sake, don't jab the chopsticks into your rice," adds Hanson. That's a gesture done only solemnly, when you're honoring loved ones who have passed on. So keep your chopsticks on the side of your plate, or on a chopstick rest, or on your wrapper. But don't set them on the bar! That's bad too. (Another insider tip: Fish is delivered to local sushi bars on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and, depending on any number of variables, either Friday, Saturday, or both. Everyone I talked to said the best sushi in the Twin Cities is made for people who sit at the sushi bar on the slow nights of Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays. Now you know.)
And now that we've grappled with such uncomfortable subjects as money and bad manners, how about we get into something even touchier, here in our land of egalitarian meritocracy: Will you get better sushi at the sushi bar? Hell yeah. For about a dozen reasons. Start with the most pedestrian facts of human nature, like, ever notice how if your mom is watching you, you'll do a better job painting the fence? Well, likewise, any chef who sees you watching him is just going to do a better job. Move on to matters of taste: If the chef sees that you love something crunchy like octopus, he might be inspired to turn you on to something crunchy, but sweeter, like an unusual sea clam. Finally, figure that the entire psychic dynamic just changes: It's the difference between recorded and live music, between an out-of-town boyfriend and a local one--pick your metaphor. "I wouldn't say it's better fish at the bar versus the table," says Teng Thao. "I try to give out the best that I can from my case to everybody. It's just that because you're right in front of the chef, the mentality is changed." Change the mentality, and you change everything.
Everything changed for Kristin of Minneapolis, who wrote to me awhile ago and--a miracle!--acted on my advice, thus earning that rarest and most precious of prizes here at Dish--namely, the last word.
I went to the bar at Origami and had a fabulous time. I've avoided the sushi bar out of nervousness for a couple of reasons, and your e-mail spurred me to just get over it.
I felt like the sushi was much better at the bar. I could see it all in front of me and judge that the tuna and salmon both looked bright and shiny while others did not. I found it useful to be talking directly to the expert, so that if I didn't like one thing, then he could suggest another. I also ended up trying different items than I usually did, e.g., raw scallop for the first time.
I felt slightly less comfortable at the bar than at a table, since there's much more interaction with the sushi chef than there is with a server and it feels less private. The other reason that I've avoided the bar is that I have trouble both hearing over bar noise and deciphering accents, so I often have to ask to hear something twice or even three times. This makes me feel very self-conscious. But etiquette is all about having rules so that everyone involved feels less self-conscious, so we went early before the noise rose too high; and I asked politely for a repeat as needed, which our chef graciously did. Going early also helped in that our chef was more available to answer our questions and to give suggestions. If I'm going out for sushi for two, then the bar is the place to be.
3001 Hennepin Ave. S. (in Calhoun Square)
600 W. Lake St.
465 Wabasha St. N.
St. Paul, 651.310.0111
30 N. First St.