What's the Deal with Sushi Rice in Houston?

Categories: Market Watch

Sushi King.jpg
Photo by Katharine Shilcutt
The Imperial sushi platter at Sushi King.
Eating sushi after watching -- no, experiencing -- Jiro Dreams of Sushi on Friday night was clearly a fool's errand. But watching Jiro Ono make piece after magical piece of nigirizushi with gentle and practiced hands gave me a sushi jones the likes I've which I've never before experienced.

I headed first to Kata Robata, but was chagrined to find that half the theatergoers I'd just seen at the Museum of Fine Arts had the same idea I did; there was an hour wait, even just for a single diner.

Starving by this point, I headed across Kirby to Sushi King and found an open seat at the sushi bar. I enjoyed a bottle of nigori sake, the live piano music and a conversation with the gentleman who made the nigiri on my $37 plate of "Imperial" sushi.

While I do love Sushi King's happy hour (mostly for the Americanized rolls and agedashi tofu), I did not enjoy the actual sushi itself.

It wasn't just the fish, which was cold to the touch, or the imitation crab and wan shrimp topping two of the less appetizing pieces. Mostly, it was the rice.

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Photo by Katharine Shilcutt
Hon wasabi - the real deal stuff - grated on shark skin at Soma Sushi.
Sticky to the point of being gummy, the rice stuck fast to the plate when I went to grab each bite of nigiri. Eaten on its own, the lack of seasoning was madly apparent -- there was no subtle bite of vinegar here, no warmth of mirin at all to the bland, gummy mess under each flaccid piece of fish.

That's no surprise, though. Just as it's difficult to find real wasabi in America, it's equally difficult to find good sushi rice. It's a shame, too, as most experts agree that the rice is every bit as important -- if not more -- than the fish in a piece of nigirizushi.

In Jiro Dreams of Sushi, master sushi chef Jiro Ono gives as much credit to his rice -- and his rice vendor -- as anyone else. Ono and his team have developed a method of high-pressure cooking that they say elevates and distinguishes their rice from their competitors. It's served at body temperature, kept warm after cooking and seasoning in large bamboo containers that spill forth with fat, plump, barely sticky, nearly translucent grains of Japanese short grain rice.

But just as Americans tolerate bad risotto in one Italian restaurant after another, we tolerate bad sushi rice in nearly all Japanese restaurants.

"Most chefs get used to merely 'making the rice' like 'making the donuts.' The skill is lost," says Carl Rosa, president and founder of the nearly 4,000-member Sushi Club of Houston. "So it's rare when I find someone in Houston who truly cares about it."

Says Rosa: "If I find a sushi chef who has the talent and care to ensure that both the rice and fish balance in flavor, it's a rarity. The fish should not 'overpower' the rice and the rice can't dominate the flavor of the fish."

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Photo by Jason Armstrong
Nigirizushi with good rice at Kata Robata.
It was after a lunch with Rosa several months ago at Zushi that I complimented head chef Christopher Nemoto's rice after eating a few beautiful pieces of nigiri. And a dinner with sushi chef Shinobu Maeda, who is now the sushi mastermind behind Louisiana Foods, revealed equally good rice at The Blue Fish downtown. At both places, I asked the chefs for their sushi rice secrets; at both places, they demurred coyly. I haven't been to either place in a while, but I remember the rice -- not the fish -- as if it were yesterday.

It's not that either place is necessarily getting better rice than any other; good Japanese sushi rice is fairly cost-prohibitive for American restaurants. And even if you find a good vendor -- like Ono's rice vendor in Jiro -- they may refuse to sell it to you.

It's that both places actually take the time to properly cook and season their rice. There's more to it than just boiling water or placing the rice inside a pressure cooker. There are recipes for the perfect seasoning ratios, calling for a delicate balance of rice vinegar, salt, sugar, mirin, konbu, sake and more. And there are techniques for mixing the seasoning liquid into the rice at just the precise temperature and blending the rice for just the right amount of time.

Good rice takes a lot of work. And at a time when so many restaurants -- especially the sushi joints that crop up in strip malls and grocery stores -- cut corners, it's no surprise that cutting down the amount of time it takes to make the rice is one of the first corners to go.

"When it comes to sushi rice," says Rosa, "it is a pass/fail litmus test. The stickiness or the rice and shiny coat is one factor. But it's the temperature and flavor that is the key." And the more you expect out of sushi rice in America, the more likely you are to be disappointed -- but the more likely you are to find a terrific sushi place in the same token, says Rosa.

"When you become sensitive to it, you can easily tell who is attempting to take sushi seriously (referring to the chefs) and who isn't. For me, it's a big deal."



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Location Info

Kata Robata Sushi & Grill

3600 Kirby, Houston, TX

Category: Restaurant

Sushi King

3401 Kirby Drive, Houston, TX

Category: Restaurant

Zushi Japanese Cuisine - CLOSED

5900 Memorial, Houston, TX

Category: Restaurant

The Blue Fish

550 Texas St., Houston, TX

Category: Restaurant


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25 comments
Analog Girl
Analog Girl

Happy to see you cover this topic as it's one I've talked about for several years living here. 

James
James

I was at the Friday showing of Jiro Dreams of Sushi and thought it was INCREDIBLE! =)

Joie
Joie

I work and live near Miyagi. I hardly ever eat sushi anywhere else since I first had Miyagi-san's sushi 2 years ago. 

Jalapeno
Jalapeno

I had lunch at Blue Fish Washington Ave location.  They have a diverse and interesting lunch menu and the rice was perfect.  Warning:  on the 2 for 1 lunch sushi specials, you will be charged for waste, such as leaving that rice on your plate.  No joke, printed warning.

Corey
Corey

Uh maybe because 2/3rd's of the time they're using cruddy Calrose rice?  And or have no concept of technique, and or no appreciation for good rice, this isn't an issue elsewhere.

Dustin Kalman
Dustin Kalman

Why would a rice vendor refuse to sell someone their rice?

Steph D.
Steph D.

Sand worm is just a troll, all blogs come standard equipped with at least one.  The trolls would never say these things to your face, and are only here to stir shit up.  Wouldn't surprise me if they were hired by the editors sometimes.  Gets the comments rolling, thus creating more of a buzz...and more readers.  

Your column was very well written and I'm jealous of how many words they gave you to write about sushi rice.  What is that - 600?  With pictures?  Nice.We even have retched blog trolls in the Pacific Northwest, where sushi rice is (by the way) excellent.

sand worm
sand worm

to answer the question posed by your headline:

1) most sushi chefs in Houston, and Houstonians, would know proper sushi rice if they tasted it .2) most of the sushi rice in the western hemisphere is inferior; not the real deal.

But of course, you see one hipster foodie indie film and you're suddenly a sushi rice expert

Yumyum
Yumyum

It may not be the "Best" but I like the rice at Sushi Miyagi.  Miyagi makes his rice slightly sweet and salty and not starchy.  If you like sushi rice his Chirashi bowl is my favorite Yumyum!!!

Guest
Guest

I can't believe Zushi was given as an example of good sushi.

Try Sasaki or Sushi Miyagi, instead.

MadMac
MadMac

Well written and informative.

Carl Rosa
Carl Rosa

Glad you enjoyed in Katharine.

Carl Rosa
Carl Rosa

Ironic you would mention Blue Fish on Washington.  I reviewed that restaurant when it first opened and found the fish itself to be very good while I found the rice to be substandard.  I plan to return to give it another review.

Katharine Shilcutt
Katharine Shilcutt

Ha! That reminds me of an insane sushi buffet I used to frequent fresh out of college. If you left even one grain of rice on your plate, they would charge you for it. And they watched you like a hawk to make sure you weren't slipping the excess rice into balled-up napkins, too.

Carl Rosa
Carl Rosa

The committment to a higher standard in Japan can occur even if business suffers.  Quite common.

Carl Rosa
Carl Rosa

sand worm,  the rice isn't just about taste.  There's much more to the rice than just the flavor.  The temperature, portion size, stickiness and luster are just as important as the flavor.

Katharine Shilcutt
Katharine Shilcutt

Although I've only been to Zushi that one time -- and admittedly need to get back there -- I was very surprised by the quality of the food we ate that day.

And I adore Miyagi. In fact, I reviewed it in August 2010: http://www.houstonpress.com/20...

Carl Rosa
Carl Rosa

Sasaki?  You and I could not disagree more.

Carl Rosa
Carl Rosa

Katharine is quite the asset to the Houston Press.

Carl Rosa
Carl Rosa

and James.  :).  Glad you enjoyed it as well. 

sand worm
sand worm

ok, fine.  most sushi chefs in Houston, and Houstonians, wouldn't know proper sushi rice if they tasted it, TOUCHED it, SMELLED it, SAW it – or shoved it up their asses

the point is, b/c shillcut saw a movie, she;s suddenly an authority

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Guest
Guest

Typical Japanophile.

Carl Rosa
Carl Rosa

My - that's an impressive writing style you have.  You should write children's books.  I don't believe that she is stating she is an authority.  She's a writer.  She completed her research on a topic, asked local authorities for their opinion and wrote an article.  I don't understand how that is so bad or irritating.

Katharine Shilcutt
Katharine Shilcutt

I never claimed to be an authority on sushi rice, but my appreciation for it extends beyond a single viewing of Jiro Dream of Sushi. Thanks for reading, though.

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