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R&IEditorial Archives2004 — March 15 — Food

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Traditional or contemporary, sushi’s appeal grows beyond its ethnic origins

Steaks, burgers and other pub-style fare are expected at an operation called Manayunk Brewery and Restaurant. Less likely are sashimi and other Japanese raw-fish specialties.

“When you first see the sushi bar, it makes you look twice. But now that people are used to it, they order sushi right along with rotisserie chicken and the more traditional food we serve,” says David Wiederholt, executive chef of the Philadelphia restaurant.

Classic sushi is rolled or wrapped (top), but modern takes include Stacked Tuna Sashimi-Avocado Napoleon (above) served at @SQC Restaurant Bar.

He acknowledges that the menu mix seems incongruous, but it caters to his core clientele: 20- to 35-year-olds seeking a blend of familiar yet trendy fare.

Younger diners are a driving force in the growing availability of sushi in its many forms. Glistening sashimi from worldwide waterways and maki rolls filled with cooked or raw seafood and seasoned rice have become a category of cravable food. Sushi’s healthy profile, the ease with which it can be served meatless and its ability to pack a wallop of flavor fit the dining preferences of college-age and young-adult consumers.

But another common scene playing out at restaurants such as Japonais in Chicago is middle-aged businessmen and women sidling up to the sushi bar. The cuisine’s appeal cuts a wide swath, allowing almost any operator to include it on the menu.

To meet growing demand for sushi, Philadelphia-based Aramark established a partnership with a national supplier to provide trained and certified sushi chefs at account locations.

“We see sushi all over—in colleges and business dining especially,” says Doug Warner, Aramark’s manager of corporate communications. “But it also makes appearances in sports stadiums, convention centers and hospitals. We’ve even seen it at schools.”

At its most basic, sushi begins with the highest-quality fish and seafood. Properly cooked rice seasoned with correct amounts of sugar, vinegar and salt also is paramount. Maki with cooked or raw ingredients may be the most popular variety, but restaurants are casting wider nets to offer more-exotic sashimi. Tasmanian sea trout with marinated kobu and red snapper from Japan are among the nigiri choices at White Lotus in Los Angeles. At Masa’s in San Francisco, kanpachi is served sashimi-style with dry Japanese seaweed and fresh wasabi.

In the spirit of American innovation, chefs eye sushi as a vehicle to transport popular ingredients and flavors, Japanese and otherwise. When Wiederholt was hired last year at 400-seat Manayunk, he revamped the menu to reflect his style of cooking. To complement hand-cut pappardelle with locally grown wild mushrooms, he installed a brick oven for house-made bread and signature pizzas topped with duck confit or beer-marinated sausage. Wiederholt also hired Fa Young Huang as sushi chef; today, his menu includes 25 varieties of sashimi and maki such as Philadelphia roll (smoked salmon, cream cheese and green onion) and Boston roll (poached shrimp, Japanese mayonnaise, cucumber, red leaf lettuce and green onion).

“I used to hear, ‘I don’t eat sushi—I don’t like raw fish,’” says Wiederholt. “Today sushi is so mainstream that I rarely hear that anymore. People are open to different things and sushi has become more than raw fish. Plenty of our customers order sashimi but our best seller is the Philadelphia roll.”

Young appetites
At many universities, sushi helps stem the tide of students leaving campus for more-adventuresome meals. Two years after sushi bars were added to student dining halls at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, California rolls (crab, cucumber, avocado and seasoned rice) and other cooked seafood and vegetable maki continue to be a big draw. California and vegetable rolls also are popular at Miami University in Miami, Ohio, where they share space with sandwiches and salads at retail outlets. A sushi program at the University of California at Santa Cruz exceeded expectations.

“Today’s students grew up eating food like sushi that was once considered exotic,” says Kenneth Toong, director of dining and retail foodservice at the University of Massachusetts. “Now they are their comfort foods.”

Fish lures
It’s not surprising that many settings for strong sushi sales are lively place-to-be-seen operations. Asian fusion concepts such as New York City-based Sushi Samba, Miami’s Doraku and Chicago’s Japonais offer traditional sushi, such as sashimi and nigiri, but also serve flashy interpretations that match the tenor of the concept.

The Basil Mozzarella and Squid Ink Crpe Tower (top) that Executive Chef-owner Michel Richard serves at Citronelle in Washington, D.C., exemplifies sushi's modern possibilities. More traditional is the Sashimi Madai (red snapper) at Chicago's Japonais (above).

The Doraku Kamikaze roll, for instance, brings together jalapeo, conch, octopus, squid, whitefish, ikura, cucumber and kimchee sauce. At Sushi Samba, El Tampo unites salmon, onion, jalapeo, shiso leaf and fresh mozzarella.

“The great thing about sushi is that it can be as simple or as complex as you want it,” says Ken Aioki, director of marketing for Doraku.

Hotels such as the Park Hyatt Chicago, the Four Seasons in New York City and The Ritz-Carlton Philadelphia started giving sushi special treatment in recent years as a way to please Japanese clientele. But they found that the sushi bar in the lobby lounge or a spot on the menu devoted to raw fish won more fans than just guests from the East.

“People know that they are getting the freshest, highest-quality fish,” says Lawrence McFadden, corporate executive chef for The Ritz-Carlton Hotel Co. “They also may feel more comfortable at a hotel restaurant than at an actual Japanese operation where the menu and the surroundings are unfamiliar and a little intimidating.”

Partnering sushi with familiar food, such as steak and traditional seafood, also is proving to be an effective way to indoctrinate diners. It’s a particularly sensible segue for seafood concepts already purchasing and serving high-quality fish. Anthony Ambrose, chef-owner of two Blackfin Chop House & Raw Bars (Boston and suburban Hingham, Mass.), augments the menu with sushi. Toro, maguro, yellowfin maguro, salmon and hamachi are among choices for the menu’s raw bar platter that includes oysters and cherrystone clams.

“It made perfect sense for us,” says Andreas Georgakopoulos, executive chef at 220-seat Finn & Porter, which opened a year ago in Alexandria, Va., specializing in steak, seafood and sushi. To maximize appeal, sashimi and maki rolls are among the choices served at the 22-seat sushi and crustacean bar.

Eastern influences
The popularity of sushi has not escaped chefs whose enjoyment of raw fish and Japanese flavors influences their cooking. Scott Campbell of @SQC Restaurant Bar in New York City serves Stacked Tuna Sashimi-Avocado Napoleon With Cucumber-Seaweed Salad. At Masa’s, the menu is French-inspired though Chef Ron Siegel’s travels to Japan exert a subtle influence. He has been known to serve a sliver of salt-cured foie gras on seasoned rice with ponzu gelee or toro sashimi with cucumber gelee.

“We don’t do traditional sushi—there are four or five sushi places just down the street,” says Siegel. “But I like and appreciate the flavors and enjoy working with sushi ingredients. We’re fortunate that diners are more adventuresome today because it allows us to be more creative and do more.”

Laura Yee is a Chicago-based freelance writer.

  • Stacked Tuna Sashimi-Avocado Napoleon With Cucumber-Seaweed Salad

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