Something fishy

I must sheepishly admit, I’m a fairly new arrival to the sushi party. I’ve always been intrigued by sushi in theory, and the creations I’ve seen in person have been nothing short of gorgeous. But, like many folks of the Midwestern persuasion, the thought of putting a slab of raw fish in my mouth, chewing and swallowing it kinda grosses me out. I usually prefer my fish cooked through and well done, thank you very much. I’ve had a hard time bringing myself to really give sushi a fair shake.

You’d have thought I’d learn to love sushi after spending nearly two years in Los Angeles. My La-La Land sushi introduction took place at an all-you-can-eat buffet and, sadly, it was not a very happy one. As I might have mentioned a time or two before, I’m not really a buffet gal. I’d much rather order a plate of something I know I’ll enjoy than sample a dozen or so different things and come away wishing I would have just gotten a full serving of the one or two items I liked best. Such was the case here.

My uncle, with whom I shared many great dinners during my LA days, took me to a sushi buffet place he liked. Imagine a Golden Corral serving sushi with a Korean barbecue section thrown in for good measure and you’ve pretty much got the idea. Instead of savoring the meal, we basically rushed through the line with my uncle loading me up with a roll here, a bite there… by the time we sat down, I had no idea what was on my plate. I ate tentatively; none of it struck me as particularly fresh or memorable, and I came away feeling disappointing.

I mean no disrespect to my uncle; I certainly appreciated his generosity in including me for dinner, as he did on a regular basis, and I hope he’s not offended if he reads this.  I guess I was just hoping for more of a leisurely, sit-down experience at a high-quality sushi bar where I could just trust that the chef would serve us whatever he’d cut and rolled fresh on the spot. On this night, though, it was not to be.

I’ve always been open to trying sushi again, but the only fish my husband will consider eating comes battered, fried and served with chips, so I’ve been dangling out here on my own for years, waiting for someone to come to my sushi rescue. It wasn’t until a few months ago that a couple of my sushiphile friends took me under their generous wings and eased me into giving it another shot.

These two lovely ladies and I convened at Sakura here in Indianapolis for dinner and I put myself in their capable hands. I was a little nervous about the idea of diving right into the deep end of the pool; little did I know about the sheer number of sushi options that don’t involve raw fish. I was pleasantly surprised (and a little relieved) to discover shrimp tempura roll, asparagus roll and the item that would deliver a powerful punch of love at first bite – the spicy soft shell crab roll. Rounded out with a bowl of edamame and a plate of light-as-a-feather crispy tempura vegetables for sharing, it was an unexpectedly filling repast. I loved the ritual of pouring the soy sauce and mixing in the wasabi with your chopstick, and the delicate skill required to use chopsticks in first place. There’s something sort of mad-science, techy cool about it.

I did taste the (raw) spicy tuna roll, but it wasn’t my favorite of the choices. The raw concept is still going to take some getting used to for my palate, but I’m off to a good start. Honestly, it’s really just a mental hangup and has nothing to do with taste or texture. I’ll get there. Someday. Until then, I’m happy to play the field.

I’ve been back to Sakura a few times since, mainly for lunch, although I’m perfectly open to trying other sushi restaurants on for size as well. Every now and then, I’ll even think to myself “Mm, sushi sounds really good right now.” Actually, I’ve been nursing a soft-shell crab roll craving for about a week now, but just haven’t had a chance to indulge it. I was thrilled beyond belief when my friend Christina sent me a text late this morning telling me not to eat lunch, that she was bringing over some Sakura take-out. What a thoughtful pal! (Thanks, girlfriend!!!!)

Sakura’s California roll and soft-shell crab roll

Would love to hear recommendations for other entry-level sushi rolls I should try — sound off at will, fair readers!

Oh sushi. I think this could be the start of a beautiful relationship.

All you can eat

My husband hails from Europe and is constantly pointing out the cultural differences between his homelands and mine. (Really, he’s always bragging about how much better Europe is than America, but that’s another blog entry entirely…) One item we often discuss is the general weight and health of Americans as compared to Europeans. If you’ve ever read “French Women Don’t Get Fat,” you know what I’m talking about. The puzzling conundrum that allows these svelte ladies to regularly consume wine, cheese, cream sauces, foie gras, croissants and creme brulee in bulk, yet still manage to look like they just stepped off a fashion runway. 

The keys, my fellow foodies, are all things in moderation and building more physical activity into our lifestyles. It’s simple advice and we’ve all heard it before, but how many of us really adhere faithfully? The American foodscape makes it difficult, to say the least.

My dad, bless his heart, is old school in his thoughts on food. When he goes out to eat, it’s all about getting the most bang for his buck, and anything over $10 a head or so is stretching his tolerance. For him, that means quantity, not quality. We almost dread his invitations to go out to eat when we visit because this invitation will mean one of two establishments – Golden Corral or the local Chinese buffet. If it’s really a special occasion, possibly a place called Welliver’s that offers a more upscale buffet including endless peel-and-eat shrimp, but it’s got to be something fairly extraordinary to merit such an upgrade (I’ve been to Welliver’s two or three times in my entire life that I can recall). My dad also hits KFC every Tuesday without fail because it offers a $2.99 country-fried steak dinner special. He considers this a healthy meal. Sadly, I’d venture to say my dad is in the majority of most Hoosiers, if not Americans, when it comes to his views on food.

It must run in the family – my brother will always groan and roll his eyes whenever my dad suggests Golden Corral, but he will always go along and eat like it’s his job, coming home saying “never again.” Until the next time. For my crazy uncle Dave (my dad’s brother), eating is barely short of an extreme sport. He dines out constantly, can put away an alarming amount of food in an alarmingly short amount of time and make it all seem funny. And no matter how much he’s had to eat at a restaurant, he will come home and polish off a pint of ice cream. When I was living in Los Angeles, Dave decided to introduce me to sushi. I knew this was going to be a mistake of monumental proportions when we pulled up to a sushi buffet. We sped through the line with Dave throwing things on my plate right and left – “try this! Ooh, you’ve gotta have a couple of these!” By the time I sat down and unwrapped my silverware, Dave had already finished his fish and was up for round two. I have no idea what I ate that night, but it didn’t taste terribly fresh or good, and I haven’t been for sushi since. 

At the risk of sounding like food snobs, hubby and I cannot for the life of us understand the fascination with all-you-can-eat smorgasbords. What’s the point in loading up your plate with a bite or two of a dozen different foods (half of which will be mediocre at best); forcing yourself to eat two or three such plates to get your money’s worth; then go home complaining about how sick and stuffed you feel? Personally, I’d rather pay more for one decently portioned plate of one good-quality item I know I will enjoy. Anyone who takes me to an all-you-can-eat buffet is going to lose money if they’re expecting me to make two or three trips to the trough. Every time, I will select one salad, one entree, a couple sides and possibly a small bite of dessert. That’s it and I refuse to apologize.

Several years ago, hubby and I completed a 12,000 mile road trip around the U.S. on a target budget of $100 a day. During this trip, I must mention that on several occasions, we actually sought out Golden Corrals because we knew that a) we could at least get a salad there and b) it was relatively cheap and offered plenty of choices. It was on one of these visits that hubby coined the phrase “salad dodgers.” Looking around, we observed that the majority of diners in these establishments are overweight, if not obese. We also observed that even though there are healthy items available on the line, these items are often avoided entirely in lieu of the bad-for-you stuff. No joke, on one of these visits as Patrick and I ate our salads, we glanced over at the rather robust couple at the next table over. Not a veggie in sight, they were each working their way through plates filled to nearly overflowing with chicken wings and unrecognizable greasy deep-fried badness. As an appetizer. For the sake of research, we subtly kept an eye on our fellow diners throughout our meal, and hardly any ventured anywhere near the salad bar the entire night. Take a look around next time you’re at one of these places, and you know you will be. You’ll see what I mean.

My question is this: Why is it so difficult to get healthy food at a competitive price in America? Why is it so much cheaper and easier to swing through a McDonald’s drive-through than it is to hit up somewhere you can get a fresh salad or grilled meat and two veg? And don’t tell me that McDonald’s sells salads and such – when’s the last time you thought about ordering anything at McDonald’s without fries? And what does it say about our collective mentality that we think all-you-can-eat buffets are the be-all, end-all of dining out? 

Ok. I’ll get off my soapbox now. On this point, I must admit, hubby’s got a point. Score: Europe 1. America 0.