Masayoshi Takayama is an unassuming manquiet, prone to big grins that furrow his forehead, and partial to soft-hued shirts that hang off him like monks’ robes. But last year, his warmly lit temple of sushi worship in Manhattan’s Time Warner Center ran off with a four-star rating from the New York Timesthe only Japanese restaurant to do so in more than 20 years. Lunch or dinner here costs a non-negotiable $350, and is “worth every penny,” according to Kitchen Confidential author Anthony Bourdain. When I ate there recently, the only sound was of wasabi roots being dragged against sharkskin graters. Masa, as both chef and restaurant are known, made his sushi one piece at a time, literally handing it to me before he’d move on to the next fish. I ate squid that I didn’t have to chew. I ate toro that melted away like foie gras. I wondered what else I’d been missing all these years. Quite a few things, it turns out.
It’s been two decades since The Breakfast Club, when Bender watched Claire pop open a bento box of raw fish and had this to say about it: “You won’t accept a guy’s tongue in your mouth and you’re gonna eat that?” Now even the Benders of the world are downing unagi during detention. But something went wrong along the way. We never really learned what good sushi is. We don’t even know what to do with it when we find it. That paste we mix out of (fake) wasabi and soy sauce? It’s the equivalent of stirring salt into your ketchupthe Japanese never do it. Sanding your chopsticks against each other is a great way to tell the chef he’s too cheap to buy the good ones.
Finally, though, a silver lining has appeared in the mainstreaming of sushi. Transcendental, authentic restaurants are starting to rise out of the background noise. Go to places like Masa or Mori Sushi in Los Angeles with all the bad habits you’ve acquired eating mediocre maki and you’ll look like a rube. It’s time we all learned to take our sushi know-how to a higher plane. This, grasshopper, means clearing the canvas and watching the brushstrokes of a studied master.
Sushi is such a simple equation that every variable has to approach perfection. The rice itself is a careful exercise in balance. It should be short-grain, a little sweet from sugar, a little sour from rice vinegar, and with just a whisper of sea salt. By the time it gets to you, it should be close to 98.6 degrees, “So when you eat it, you don’t feel any cold or hotjust smooth,” Masa explains. “If something cold, tongue reject.” The grains should melt away even if you don’t chew. This is partly why sushi chefs can’t stand to see Americans dunking the rice side of their sushi in soy sauce. They’ve engineered it to come apart in your mouth, but the same thing will happen in the soyand you just ruined that precarious balance of flavor. If you really want to get under their skin, use your chopsticks to pick up all those little rice grains that fell in there when you drenched it.