June 15, 2009

sushi snobbery

So, I seem to have incurred some wrath by daring to criticize local favorite Sam's Sushi on twitter today:

it's really hard to take a place like Sam's Sushi seriously after the place i went to in SF. sushi nazi? really? newsflash, you're INLAND

Nick called me out in particular:

@cwage Dude, I love Sam's Sushi! You've adopted "other cities are cooler" syndrome. I'm betting the SF places are also more $$$.

Now, the disclaimer I have to immediately throw out is that I've never actually been to Sam's. But it has nothing to do with the fact that it's in Nashville, or even that it's subpar sushi in exchange for cheapness. It's because of his reputation for being a "Sushi Nazi" on top of that. For one, I don't really care to get yelled at. I try to get paid to be yelled at, not the other way around. Possibly I'd consider it, if it was supposed to be some amazing experience, or something -- but everything I'm reading seems to indicate that it's a pit. This review is particularly brutal:

The first thing I noticed was how sloppily it was assembled. Sushi is one of those culinary niches that takes pretty exacting technique and attention to detail. It takes practice and focus to make tight, neat maki, which is why it isn't something delegated in kitchens, but reserved for a specific sushi chef - a guy who knows what he's doing. Sam, with way too much rice spilling out of his maki and his loose wrapping, clearly does not know what he's doing.

...

I tried another piece of nigiri, no soy sauce this time. I nearly gagged. The fish was not only at room temperature (which was warm, considering the place had no a/c or circulation), but also was very, very obviously not fresh.

Before I totally gave up (and because I was hungry), I tried a piece of crunchy shrimp roll. The shrimp was bland, the tempura not at all crispy or light and once again it was definitely not fresh seafood. The biggest offense with his roll, however, was the rice. The grains seemed bigger than they should be, making me think he was using regular long grain white rice, instead of the slightly more expensive sushi rice. Additionally, I found out part of the reason why his rolls are so sloppy, other than the over stuffing. When my roll fell to bits when picked up and when I tasted the rice, it was clear there was no vinegar in it, meaning it was not prepared correctly for sushi and therefore, not sticky rice in the least. Let me reiterate, this guy has no idea what he's doing.

Granted this review is flanked and outnumbered by plenty of other positive reviews, but they all seem to amount to variants on a theme of: "it's cheap!!!!" or "you get a ton!!!" or others that don't seem to indicate a vast familiarity with sushi. This really has nothing to do with whether or not it's in SF, or some sort of elitism. Even Koto and Ichiban (to name the closest downtown sushi alternatives) I know are great places that do a pretty good job for a sushi restaurant in Nashville, despite some obvious limitations. This isn't because Nashville is some backwater hole. It's because we're not coastal. There's just some stuff you don't get here. That's life.

I can understand a restaurant being cheap, mediocre food. Sometimes you just want something cheap on the go. I've eaten sushi from Kroger before -- I'm no elitist. I can also understand the appeal of a haughty "Nazi" serving finely crafted food at the expense of condescension and beratement. You know, if you're into that. But you can't really mix the two. You're gonna yell at me as you serve me your mediocre sushi? Uh yeah, I think I'll pass?

Incidentally, the place I went to in SF is Hama Ko. Yes, it was expensive. But it was also one of the best sushi meals I've ever had. And I didn't get yelled at -- I got served warmly by a charming old Japanese couple. I had the opportunity to try sea urchin, which was incredible, and unfortunately something that would probably be a bad idea to try around here, even if you could find it.

  • http://www.cwmphoto.com chad McClarnon

    Why do you need to get yelled at when there's the Wild Wasabi, Ru Sans, and Samurai Sushi all right here in town? I went to Sam's once years ago and wasn't overly impressed.

  • http://fishwreck.com fishwreck

    Sam's is about value (i.e, quantity for the price) and atmosphere (the risk of someone getting yelled at). I've been there lots of times and, most of the time, there's no yelling. Just lots of happy customers. But Sam is a little cranky and he definitely has his rules. I can't say I didn't enjoy the time I saw him kick out a group of college aged guys for being noisy and milling about instead of getting to a table and ordering (clearly they were not familiar with how things go at Sam's) or the time he locked the door to keep the place from getting too crowded right after I walked in but before my friends had arrived. I've had plenty of fun times at Sam's and always enjoyed the sushi, even if it wasn't the fancy stuff. It's basic, it's cheap, it tastes good and it comes with a side of entertainment. And at least his health score is higher than Ru Sans where you're pretty much risking your life for more creative fare.

  • jscheel

    I've had sea urchin here in Tennessee; it was ok, but nothing earth-shattering. Of course, Tennessee isn't really the place to order sea urchin, like you said. I used to frequent Sam's, when our office was on 2nd, but I never expected great sushi. Heck, I knew it was mediocre, but jeez, you get like 2 pounds of sushi for five bucks!

  • http://LannaeLong.blogspot.com Lannae

    Is Sam's sushi good, not really, but it is not bad either. It is definitely not fatty calories I can feel healthier eating. Do I occasionally buy Sam's Sushi sush, yes. Do I know sushi, yes, after growing up with sushi in L.A. starting in the 1960s. I do eat Sam's sushi because it is damn cheap when I want something healthier than many downtown alternatives that are fried, heavy in cheese, or just plain bad. I have actually talk to Sam, and I really like him. I guess I am his Kramer as Krammer is to the Soup Nazi. Sam is a very environmentally and waste conscious guy. If you come in together, write on one ticket to save paper. He also has a lot of knowledge about the wider environmental issues Nashville, TN and the USA are facing. He likes a good value, and he will tell you where you can get your own sushi grade fish and make your own sushi at home on the cheap. He lives close to his shop so he walks to work, and doesn't have to use a polluting car. He likes that he wastes no time commuting. We both don't understand how many downtown employees make an hour+ commute everyday. I really enjoy my time talking to him and I learn something from him every time I go there. Oh, and he won't take a tip. The $5 you pay includes the cost of food and tax and tip. I kind of miss the efficient attitude you get from some L.A. and Boston sushi chefs, and that is what Sam has. When I go in there, I somehow feel transformed back into a little hole in the wall dive place in another city I have lived. I enjoy that feeling, a suspension in time for me. Then, when I leave to go back to work, it is just back to reality. I can see where people don't get Sam's at all, and would not like it. It is the same as how I can also see people disliking Nashville, my new hometown, it is just not for everyone.

  • http://chris.quietlife.net Chris Wage

    I get the impression that he's a good guy (most people are), and probably even an interesting guy, with good intentions -- maybe even enough to get me to check out his restaurant. But, probably not.