So here I am sitting in a Japanese restaurant. Yes, there are discriminating palates in middle earth; it’s not all fried catfish, biscuits and grits here. Still, much of the food around these parts isn’t …well…good…nor necessarily good for you. I suppose after living in cities that featured well-known chefs and a plethora of fabulous eateries I am extraordinarily picky. And naturally, years of traveling overseas tends to expand the palate in a huge way.
Anyhow, this place just opened a few weeks ago and it’s two miles from the house. I’m with the GNO ladies (Girls Night Out). We meet every Monday for a happy-hour spirit (or two) and catch up on all the happenings in our lives. We talk about everything and nothing. It’s always a lovely hour—mostly we keep it to that—of camaraderie and laughter. Then we skedaddle home to get on with the rest of the evening.
This is the first time we are meeting at this place. One of the ladies wanted to try it out since her son just hired on as head chef. Naturally I wanted to support her…and the restaurant choice, but I’ll admit to being mighty apprehensive. For one, I’m not keen on sushi—or, more appropriately, sashimi: sliced raw fish which happens to be served as sushi, on a ball of seasoned sticky rice. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, I have been mighty disappointed with most of the restaurants in our fair town. We don’t have a plethora to choose from. We’ve got zero good Chinese restaurants, only two decent Mexican restaurants, and one good (but pricey) steak place (that would be Ruth Chris Steak House). As for Italian? You can imagine I’m hyper-critical given my heritage though we can get a fairly good pizza (no home delivery though) not far from the house.
“I’m not really one for sushi…or raw anything,” I admitted earlier to my friend Emily as we drove over to the restaurant. “I like my food thoroughly cooked. I do like California rolls though—they are made with crab meat, avocado and cucumbers and are delightfully refreshing. I’ll just have my usual… one glass of wine.” Emily echoed my sentiment.
We entered the restaurant which was simple and sparse in decor, true to Japanese minimalism and found that most of the other GNO ladies had already just arrived. We sat, joining in the conversation, listening to Tracey talk proudly about her son’s new job as head chef there. After we had ordered our libations (it was a Chardonnay for me this evening) we all fell quiet as we studied the menu.
Most of the time at GNO I simply order a single glass of wine and nothing else. But given that we were trying a new place everyone wanted to order something. As we studied the extensive menu I realized that nothing was remotely familiar to me. I felt relieved that most of the other ladies felt the same way.
“Hmm. I cannot seem to find California rolls on the menu,” I whispered to Emily. “Me either,” she replied. She pointed to an item on the menu. “What do you suppose this is? She asked. “Gosh, I have no idea,” I said with a slightly worried expression. “Really, I think they need to provide translations to these menu items,” I said.
Just then the manager of the restaurant stopped at our table. He’s checking in, asking how we are enjoying are dining experience so far. He’s a young burly fellow (I believe he said his name was Chris). He’s got red hair and a neatly maintained beard and mustache. He looks a bit out-of-place in a Japanese restaurant (but then again, I’m living in Alabama). Normally the shy one, I chimed right up saying that it would be helpful if there were translations of the menu items. I also added that I preferred cooked seafood, not raw.
“Are you afraid of getting sick,” asked Chris. “Oh no,” I said. “I just don’t like the consistency of raw food.
Okay folks. So, I lied. But only partially.
I absolutely do worry about the health implications of eating raw fish, (this coming from the gal that has…on many occasions, enjoyed raw chocolate chip cookie dough straight from the mixing bowl….but I digress). Still, as far as I am concerned, eating raw seafood is an open invitation to nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, not to mention the possibly acquiring some nasty parasite that can reside in fish.
“I can understand your apprehension but let me assure you all that we handle our seafood with strict adherence to safety standards, and we get it from a trusted and reputable source.”
He could see that I was not convinced.
“Have you tried raw seafood before?” he asked.
“I’m pretty sure I have not,” I say. Chris gives me a quizzical look.
“Oh, I lived in Okinawa as a child. I quite possibly could have eaten sushi then but my memory from all those years ago is sketchy. I just know that through the years since I have avoided raw seafood. I’m good with most cooked seafood though.” I thought it best to leave out: hell no… I am not eating eel.
“Well then now is the time to try something new. It’s part of what I love to do here…educating our customers, “ he said with a smile. “I’m going to bring you something to try, on the house.”
I tried to tell him no thank you—that I was blissfully content with my glass of Chardonnay. But to no avail. It didn’t help that the ladies were all were in agreement with Chris. In unison they sang out, as if we had all just bellied-up to the bar for a round of shots to the chant of “Go, Go, Go,” but instead it was, “try it, try it, try it!”
Within minutes Chris was back, placing in front of me a small white square plate adorned with one tiny scoop of sushi rice and a chunky strip of raw, pink salmon. “This is nigiri,” he said. “Let me know what you think.”
“Well, um…. It looks mighty pretty,” I offered as I turned the plate around for closer inspection. “I’ll try a bit of it. Would anyone else like to try some,” I asked with a hopeful look around the table.
“You have to eat the whole thing, yourself, in one bite…don’t cut it up” Chris said, adding: “It’s actually considered poor manners to do so.”
Aw man. Seriously? I actually thought he was trying to pull one over me but apparently not. I Googled it later. It’s terribly egregious…. akin to cutting the chef in two!
With all eyes on me I took a tentative bite and, immediately noting the smoked flavor of the salmon, I popped the rest into my mouth. “It’s smoked salmon,” I said, barely hiding my relief. “Yes, this is tasty. I’ve had smoked salmon before but it isn’t like it is raw fish.”
Chris thought he had me now and wanted to guide me towards ordering a dish.
Nope. Nice try. “Thank you for the sample, but I still don’t want to eat raw seafood. But I will order this next time if you’d point it out on the menu for me.”
I then asked him if he’d been to Japan since he seemed to know his stuff. “No, but it’s definitely on my list of places to go,” he said. “I’ve only been to England and Scotland.” He then proceeded to tell us all the story of getting stranded in a bar in Scotland during bad weather, with only one item: His bagpipes.
“Wow, you play the bagpipes?,” I said in awe. It’s not an easy instrument to play. I actually like the sound of bagpipes and I love the ceremony about it. Hmm….What an interesting mix…bagpipes and sushi. I wanted to ask how a young piper came to be running a Japanese restaurant in “middle-earth” Alabama but decided to save it for another day. Yes…imagine that….I will go back!
So folks, one parting Japanese etiquette tip-of-the-day: When toasting with a glass of wine, do not say “Chin-Chin” (to your health) as Italians do. The proper word is “Kanpai!” meaning to empty one’s glass. In Japan, chin-chin refers to a man’s penis. You can thank me for that tip, as in Domo Arigato.
Learn something new everyday.