Like everyone else the world over these days, I love sushi. Today, children happily munch on maki rolls, but my first opportunity to try it wasn't until I was 18, working in New York City. Since then, sushi has become a global phenomenon. You can find sushi restaurants from Peoria, Illinois to Warsaw, Poland. In Fairfield County, I'm often asked, "Where's the best place to get sushi?"
But before I tell you that, we can't ignore the devastating consequences of our love of sushi. It's driven overfishing of blue fin, big eye and yellowtail tuna. Stocks of these species are half what they were 50 years ago, according to a report published in the National Academy of Sciences in 2011.
What can we do? Honor it by eating it less frequently. And I'm going to start thinking about what fish I eat. The Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch has a Consumer's Guide to Sustainable Sushi that lists "Best Choice," "Good Alternative" and "Avoid." The website has an interactive sushi menu. My virtual order immediately included four "Avoids": octopus, freshwater eel, farmed yellowtail and toro. Best choices included long-line caught yellow tail, Alaska wild salmon and oysters.
Connecticut's sustainable sushi mecca is Miya's in downtown New Haven. Irrepressibly creative, Bun Lai uses local fish, invasive species, and Seafood Watch Good Choices.
Sushi is an art form. If you want to understand what sushi was before it got fancy and super-sized, go to Kotobuki in Stamford, sit at the sushi bar and order omakase. In Japanese it means I trust you, and Masa Soto is a man to trust. He is a master. His decade-long traditional apprenticeship left him with a belief in simplicity and subtly.
He started us with sashimi. I've always loved the cool, clean richness of raw fish, but eating Soto's sashimi, I was struck by the range of flavors and textures. Yellowtail — yes, the paragraphs that follow are rife with Seafood Watch "Avoids" — tasted clean and silky. Raw squid was soft, yet crunchy, and sea-flavored. It was rolled around orange roe that popped in our mouths. Delicate snow crab filled coiled ribbons of cucumber. Fluke fin had a chewy texture. Seared Spanish mackerel had a surprisingly delicate flavor for an oily fish. Soto prepared sushi next. The tuna rested on airy pats of vinegared rice (at the perfect neither-cold-nor-hot temperature). It melted in the mouth in a harmonious balance.
If you're eating at a sushi bar, there are a couple of things. Don't overdo the soy! Turn the sushi upside down (using your fingers is fine), and lightly dip a portion of the fish into the soy. And before you go nuts on the wasabi, try a piece of sushi. Don't muck up the soy with wasabi; place small bits of it on your sushi. Use the ginger as a palette cleanser, rather than stacking it on the sushi.
Soto wouldn't serve fancy rolls, that Western and increasingly over-the-top creation, for years. We'd told him we wanted traditional sushi, but now he slyly served us his "No Name" roll of spicy tuna, mayo, crunchy tempura flakes, avocado and sweet miso dressing.
Kotobuki is my first choice for sushi in Fairfield County. I'm not a big fan of Asian fusion in general, but I was pleasantly surprised by Tendga in Stamford, where I tried the simplest appetizer on the menu — thick slices of yellowtail sashimi topped with slivered rounds of jalapeño, resting on yuzu-soy sauce. The Magical roll was awe-inspiring in size and intricacy of layers of rice, nori and seafood — spicy tuna, eel, shrimp avocado and roe.
What's that glowing blue restaurant on the Route 1 in Southport? WaFu Asian Bistro has a fun, over-the-top atmosphere of white leather banquettes and crystal chandeliers. Chef Salmon Chen, alum of Masa and Nobu in New York City, makes fancy rolls as tricked out as the décor. But should a roll really contain pineapple, asparagus, avocado, salmon, eel, yellowtail and blue fin tuna?
In Newtown, Toro is a fusion place popular with the locals. I popped in recently and sat at the sushi bar, but the sushi chefs never spoke to me. I asked the waitress for tea, assuming it would be green, but it was black tea that tasted like it had been brewed hours before. Sounds of a kids birthday party in the hibachi room, emanated from upstairs, and I envisioned the chef flipping pieces of zucchini into their open mouths. I tried the fatty toro, kampachi (Almaco Jack farmed off Hawaii) and the freshwater eel. I was surprised there was no horseradish in the sushi.
In Westport, Matsu Sushi caters to American voraciousness with "American cut" sashimi and sushi. Yup, it's bigger. (They offer "Japanese cut" as well.) I enjoyed the Jasmine roll, which combines glazed, grilled eel, avocado, spicy chopped tuna and crunchy tempura. In Fairfield, Shiki Hanna is a low-key favorite of Chef Matt Storch of Match. I've dropped in for lunch a couple times for the sashimi lunch special ($9.50). The fish is delicately proportioned.
Great Sushi in Fairfield County (or nearby)
68 Howe St., New Haven, (203) 777-9760, miyasushi.com
457 Summer St., Stamford, (203) 359-4747, kotobukijapaneserestaurant.com
235 Bedford St., Stamford, (203) 353-8005, asianbistrogroup.com
WaFu Asian Bistro
3671 Post Road, Southport, (203) 254-2288, wafuasianbistro.com
28 Church Hill Road, Newtown, (203) 364-0099, toronewtown.com
33 Jesup Road, Westport, (203) 341-9662, matsusushi.com
222 Post Road, Fairfield, (203) 259-5950, shikihanafairfield.com