Sushi – The Good, The Bad, and The Homemade (feat. Hana Japanese Restaurant & Sushi To Dai For)
For those of you following my blog week to week, this is probably the entry you have been waiting for. I am a self-proclaimed sushi aficionado, but in comparison to the many talented Japanese sushi chefs in the world, I would probably still be considered a newbie. For an American, though, I would say I know quite a bit.
A little on my background in sushi…
According to my parents, I started eating sushi at around three years old. Sushi was frequently a reward for good grades growing up. I honestly don’t remember when I realized how much I loved it, but I think it started with my love for raw fish. When I was young and my parents took me out for sushi, I would order nigiri (nigiri is fish/other ingredient over a ball of rice) and just remove the fish from the rice and eat the fish by itself until someone pointed out that I could order sashimi (Oh…). One of my parents’ favorite stories to tell people about me, an event that I do not remember at all, is that when I was just a kid (not sure what age), my mom was making some sort of salmon dish for dinner. I was ecstatic because I loved salmon… raw salmon. When I discovered that she had “ruined” the salmon, I exclaimed in a horrified tone, “You cooked it!” If you’ve been reading my blog entries, you know that even today I’m not a huge fan of cooked fish.
For awhile, I was only interested in sushi that had raw fish (No smoked salmon on a deep fried shrimp roll!). I would definitely eat the fancy non-authentic rolls, but only if they had raw fish. My college years were when I really started to appreciate traditional-style sushi, like nigiri and very simple maki (rolls). That is when I realized that most sushi restaurants do it all wrong. So many sushi restaurants create absurd combinations for rolls (most rolls served in the US are not authentic at all) and have no concern about quality of fish or rice. In the “sushi snob” community, we refer to these fancy rolls as “gloop”, since they are usually drenched in some sort of sauce, most often unagi sauce. Don’t get me wrong; I find “gloop” to be very delicious when done well because I love items bursting with flavor. That’s why I love curry. However, fancy maki is in a genre of its own, different from nigiri and simple maki (like a non-spicy tuna roll). And when something is deep fried and drenched in sauce, it’s really difficult to detect quality. This is why most sushi restaurants don’t do it for me: they focus on their fancy maki and not enough on quality of ingredients. Good sushi tastes great with just the basics: fish, rice, and a dab (not a pond) of soy sauce (do not dip the rice side into the soy sauce, dip the neta (topping) side!).
I want to believe I’m easy to please, because there are only a few things I require when eating sushi:
- Perfectly-cooked-and-seasoned rice – Sushi rice is made with short-grain rice and rice vinegar, sugar, and salt for seasoning. But most sushi restaurants do it wrong. The rice is bland or too sweet or overcooked or undercooked. Sometimes it even has a weird sandy, grainy texture. Bleh! Rice should be a little sweet and a little sour, sticky enough to stay together, but not so wet that it’s mush. And it should be soft enough to bite into!
- High-quality fish – With the exception of the fish that have a naturally oily/fishy flavor, like saba (mackerel) and iwashi (sardine), fish should not taste fishy. When I’m trying a new restaurant, the first item I order is typically the hamachi (yellowtail) nigiri. No, not the miso soup, no, not the edamame, and no, not the California roll. I have found that the hamachi is usually a good indicator of how much the restaurant really cares about quality because good hamachi is a rarity. Good sake (salmon) can be found at many sushi restaurants, but so many restaurants have fishy hamachi! It should taste like butter melting in your mouth, not like a canned sardine!
- Good fish-to-rice ratio for nigiri – I cannot tell you how many restaurants get this wrong. I suppose it could be preference, but I consider anyone who disagrees with me to be a nutcase. Okay, maybe that’s a tad harsh. *blush* But I do not want a mouth just full of rice with a sliver of fish!
In this entry, I will discuss what sushi should look like, what it should not look like, and our home attempts at making it.
Let’s just get the bad out of the way.
I have been to most sushi restaurants in Sonoma County. Yes, I’ve been to Haku. Tozai? Yup. Sushi Hana? Yes, but long ago enough for me to try it again. Paradise Sushi and Grill? Ugh, yes, and ew. No offense, but ew. And there is only one Japanese restaurant in Sonoma County that I actively try to eat at, and that is Hana Japanese Restaurant in Rohnert Park. More on them later.
Recently, Dana’s dad and step mom took us to Sushi to Dai For in Santa Rosa for Dana’s birthday. We actually used to think Sushi to Dai For was really good, but we were proven wrong this time around.
On this trip to Sushi to Dai For, I had some escolar (I rarely eat this because it’s not great for one’s digestion), salmon, and yellowtail nigiri. The salmon was pretty average. The yellowtail was bland and fishy, which was so disappointing because I remember enjoying the yellowtail at Sushi to Dai For in the past. And the escolar was not fishy, but bland! I’m used to escolar with a bolder, buttery flavor.
In addition to the fish being sub-par, the rice was also bland. Dana’s father and stepmother both had sushi combos which included nigiri, and though mine at least looked nice, theirs was a mess! Way too much rice in the nigiri! How can a restaurant be that inconsistent?
The spicy tuna roll was also so bland… Not to sound too American, but put a little mayo in there, would ya, To Dai For? Flying spaghetti monster knows the sub-par fish needs the cover up.
Let’s move on to the homemade, shall we? Dana and I frequently make sushi at home. Ken Tominaga of Hana posted a sushi rice recipe online, and I use it every time I make sushi. It is very important to be precise about sushi rice. If you want to make sushi rice and you do not have a rice cooker, you should get one ASAP! Another very useful tool is the hangiri. Unlike a glass bowl, because of its flat shape, the hangiri allows you to easily and evenly distribute the vinegar seasoning in the rice. In addition, the hangiri absorbs moisture.
I usually make the sushi rice, and Dana usually puts everything together. Occasionally we will make vegetable maki, but usually we make just nigiri and some sort of spicy maki (using Sriracha and Kewpie mayo for the spicy sauce).
Please enjoy the hideous but delicious display of our homemade sushi:
Now, I would like to rave about Hana Japanese Restaurant. This is my favorite sushi restaurant in Sonoma County, as I made clear above. I am their biggest fan. Usually, I eat there about once a month or so; sometimes more often. However, I can’t really afford to go out to eat every week for my blog and go to Hana as frequently as I usually do.
The reason I love Hana is simple: their fish and rice is substantially better than anywhere else in the county. It’s a little pricier, but a couple extra dollars here and there for very high quality ingredients is money well spent, at least in my opinion.
My favorites to get at Hana? The nigiri… almost any nigiri. I guess I have preferences for certain kinds of fish, but every piece of nigiri is worth eating, even the ikura (salmon roe).
I’ll list out a few of my favorites for you:
- Hamachi (yellowtail) – Unlike most restaurants in the area, Hana’s hamachi isn’t fishy! The difference between fantastic hamachi and even mediocre hamachi is night and day. Hana’s hamachi is like butter!
- Shima Aji (striped jack)
- Kanpachi (amber jack)
- Aji (jack mackerel)
- Uni (sea urchin roe)
- Akami (bluefin tuna)
- Toro (bluefin tuna belly)
- Sake (salmon)
- Hotate (scallop)
- Iwashi (sardine)
- Saba (mackerel) – Saba almost always has a naturally oily/fishy flavor, but some saba is way fishier than others. Hana’s saba is oily, but not very fishy! I will not order saba anywhere else.
- Shiro Maguro (albacore)
- Tamago (sweet egg)
- Ankimo (monkfish liver) – Another item that is not served on most everyday menus, ankimo is a must try for any liver lover.
In addition to their large regular selection, Hana almost always has specials, such as copper river salmon, gizzard shad, and more!
The following are photos I’ve taken of my food at Hana over the last few years:
See how the fish to rice ratio is perfect? And the maki still looks simple unlike the messy “sushi” you see at most restaurants.
Even though I prefer nigiri, I also enjoy some non-traditional maki from time to time. Something I like about Hana’s rolls is that they are not “overdone”. The rolls, though they contain more ingredients than the nigiri, are still simple and the flavors actually work well together; none of this smoked salmon and mango nonsense.
Some maki that I do enjoy at Hana are:
- Ken’s Roll – Spicy Tuna, on Prawn Tempura, Avocado
- Kamizake – Spicy Tuna Handroll. I like mine with oshinko (pickled daikon) and shiso leaf
- Negitoro – Tuna Belly, Green Onion
There are many other rolls I do enjoy at Hana, but those are my favorites. And if the rolls listed above didn’t get your mouth watering, don’t worry; they have something for everyone!
If you’re looking for a good sake to pair with your sushi, just ask Stuart, Hana’s very own sake sommelier. He always chooses the perfect sake for your dinner and will tell you all about what you are drinking!
I cannot say enough good things about this restaurant. They have treated me very well throughout the years, and I have yet to find a place in Sonoma County that serves better sushi. Their fish and rice just blow their “competition” out of the water. Because this blog entry is about sushi, I am not going to talk much about their kitchen items, but those are great too! Definitely order some maitake mushroom tempura!
I don’t know if I have to say much more about Hana to convince you to go. I think the photos speak pretty well for the restaurant, and once you go, the food will speak for itself. If you haven’t been, go. If you have been and prefer somewhere else in the area, you’re crazy! …. No offense.
Hana is #1.