The challenge in reviewing Sushi Jin, the stellar Japanese restaurant on Memorial at Dairy Ashford, is finding new adjectives to describe how fresh the fish is. I've already said the fish at other sushi places around town was fresh, really fresh and really, really, bright-and-shiny fresh, so now what do I say?
My first visit was for lunch on a Friday. I had chirashi sushi, or "scattered sushi." This dish is my favorite measure of a sushi chef. It is actually the simplest of all sushi dishes, because it's just pieces of sashimi (traditionally nine kinds) spread on a bed of rice. But the aesthetic of positioning the fish is akin to flower arranging.
At first I was disappointed, because the presentation at Sushi Jin was nothing special. At Kubo, the chirashi is a landscape in three lacquered boxes. At Sushi Jin, the chirashi was just a lot of pieces of sashimi leaning against each other in a ceramic bowl.
But oh, what slices of sashimi. The white stripes of fat in the salmon were so wide, it looked like an orange-and-white candy cane. The quality of all the fish we were served on that visit was noticeably better than what we were used to getting in Houston sushi bars.
Which is why my sushi-eating buddy John Bebout and I returned for dinner a few Fridays later and ended up searching for new adjectives over a bowl of the best yellowtail sashimi I have ever eaten in Houston. The pieces of hamachi, as yellowtail is known in Japanese, had faint traces of fish skin along one edge that seemed to accentuate the incredible flavor. The texture was creamy and slick. Bebout and I kept smacking our lips over the stuff.
We were discussing the unusual way the yellowtail was cut when Bebout noticed our cute young Asian waitress was wearing an Aggie class ring. The girl had graduated from Texas A&M in the last few years; Bebout, on the other hand, left the place several decades ago. But somehow they had all kinds of things to talk about, like dorm number three and dorm number seven, and all that inane Aggie blah-blah-blah.
As it happened, the restaurant's owner, Bill Nakanishi, was seated at the booth right behind us. He must have overhead the conversation, because he came over to our table and introduced himself. As luck would have it, he went to A&M, too.
"If you're an Aggie, where's your class ring?" Bebout challenged him.
"I took it off because I had to wash some dishes," Nakanishi said.
"Well, go put it back on," Bebout commanded, as if the guy was standing there naked. The weird thing is that the owner of the restaurant actually turned around, went to the kitchen and came back wearing his stupid ring. "That's better," Bebout said. (Is there a law that Aggies have to wear class rings so you don't mistake them for normal people?)
I complimented the sushi bar owner on his spectacular hamachi and asked him why it was so fresh. And he promptly solved my adjective problem. It turns out that Nakanishi also owns a seafood importing company called Prime Sales and Trading Ltd.
"It's so fresh because I buy it at the Tokyo fish market the day after they catch it and put it on an Air Japan flight to Houston," Nakanishi said. The hamachi is only two days out of the water when it arrives. The salmon is flown in from Alaska. It takes a little longer, maybe three days, he said.
So how about we call the hamachi at Sushi Jin "just-flew-in-from-the-Tokyo-fish-market" fresh? Or maybe "48-hours-out-of-the-water" fresh?
Nakanishi got really animated when I asked him if he sold fish to other sushi bars. He said he sells fish to a lot of high-end restaurants, but not to Houston sushi bars. They don't want to pay for it, he said. They make sushi out of whatever fish they can find cheap. Many Houston sushi bars are owned by Chinese or Korean people, Nakanishi said, and they don't make classic Japanese sushi. That's why he opened Sushi Jin, which employs four Japanese sushi masters.
Bebout asked Nakanishi for some recommendations about what we should order next time. "The best stuff isn't even on the menu," the owner said. "Go sit at the sushi bar and tell the itamae (head sushi chef) to make you dinner. C'mon, I'll introduce you." The two Aggies went over to the sushi bar and yucked it up with the sushi chef for a while.
No doubt the itamae had taken off his Aggie class ring so he didn't get any hamachi on it.
Bebout and I returned on a Monday night, sat at the sushi bar and put ourselves in the itamae's hands. The first dish was exquisite; it was a bowl of lightly seared tuna slices in a pool of yuzu sauce topped with white radish sprouts. Yuzu is a tart Japanese citrus fruit that combines beautifully with soy sauce and oil to create a wonderful dipping sauce for sushi dishes. The baby radish crunched as you chewed it, adding a pungent accent.
Next we got grilled Japanese eggplant slices in a bowl of soy miso broth topped with fine, white fluffy stuff that looked like parmesan cheese. The topping turned out to be dried bonito, a strong-flavored member of the mackerel family that is quite overwhelming all by itself. Dried and shaved sparingly over a bland food like eggplant, it tasted fantastic.
Next, the sushi master sent us a whole grilled yellowtail fin garnished simply with a couple of lemon wedges. The falling-apart, tender bits of meat had to be coaxed out of the nooks and crevices of the fin bones with chopsticks, but it tasted sensational with a barest bit of lemon juice squeezed over the top.
"That's my favorite," the sushi man smiled. I suspected that he had given us the piece of the hamachi that he usually reserves for himself.
But by now, we were beginning to wonder why the hell he wasn't making us any sushi. Bebout asked him about various pieces of fish, and he finally agreed to give us some sushi. We sampled some spectacular silky-smooth scallops, some tough and flavorless flounder, some droopy salmon and some awful, watery Alaskan king crab.
For the first time at Sushi Jin, I was disappointed by the raw fish. Suddenly Anthony Bourdain's famous warning from Kitchen Confidential popped into my mind. "I never order fish on Monday," Bourdain wrote. "The fish markets are closed on Saturday and Sunday. Your fish purveyor might deliver on Saturday, but it's stuff they got in on Friday."
I'm not sure when Nakanishi's seafood importing company is open and when their flights come in from Japan, but I suspect they are on the same schedule Bourdain wrote about. Well, it can't stay fresh forever, I guess.
Thank goodness Nakanishi told us to order from the sushi chef. By preparing grilled, dried and seared fish, the itamae managed to serve us a spectacular meal despite the fact that he didn't have much to work with.
Sushi Jin is currently my top choice for classical Japanese sushi in Houston. But I think I'll visit on Tuesdays through Saturdays from now on.
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