"What kind of fish is this?" I ask a Hispanic woman in chef's whites behind the counter, as I point to a mystery roll topped with finely chopped fish.
"I don't know," she says with a smile and a shrug of the shoulders. I get the feeling she doesn't eat the stuff.
A T-shirt at Rick's on the Bricks, a Fort Worth bar and burger joint, reads, "In Dallas they call it sushi; in Fort Worth we call it bait." Indeed, only the finest of lines separates the delicacy we call sushi from the stuff we hang on fish hooks.
They never quite got the hang of sushi in Cowtown. But here on the Gulf, as well as in California, sushi restaurants are among the fastest-growing categories in the food service industry. I find myself writing about sushi restaurants a lot because so many new ones open every month. In fact, restaurant industry prognosticators have declared that "sushi is the new pizza."
But with our growing familiarity comes a tendency to take sushi chefs for granted. Fishermen brag about slicing chunks of sashimi off just-landed red snapper and eating it right on the boat. That's a great way to learn more about exotic tropical diseases. Ocean fish are host to a wide variety of marine parasites and are unsafe to eat raw without proper preparation (see "Side Order of Worms," March 29, 2001).
Top-ranked maki makers are valued as much for their fish-handling expertise as for their culinary creativity. Many varieties of sushi fish must be briefly flash-frozen or cold-smoked to kill the parasites. And the raw fish is suitable for sushi only briefly, even when refrigerated.
I want to shake hands with the person who prepares my raw fish. And I want him to fill me with confidence. Which is why I have a hard time with all-you-can-eat sushi buffets like Todai's. How long has this stuff been sitting out here? Is anybody keeping track? And if the lady behind the counter doesn't know what kind of chopped fish it is, then who does? These are a few of the questions that swim through my mind as I fill my plate.
My skepticism increases after I sit down. At the table, I closely inspect a slice of salmon sashimi. It is inedibly riddled with white sinew, so I push it aside. The tuna sashimi is fresh and tasty. The half-dozen king crab claws are excellent. But the fish tempura and several sushi rolls turn out to be filled with cream cheese. A too-thick piece of octopus sashimi looks good, but it turns into chewing gum in my mouth. Despite a steady application of my molars, I make absolutely no progress. I can't chew it and I can't swallow it. Disgusted, I grab a napkin and spit it out. Meanwhile, across the table, my 15-year-old daughter is wolfing down unagi rolls with a big smile on her face.
"You really like this place?" I ask her.
"I love it," she says.
"Why?" I wonder.
"All-you-can-eat sushi, dude!" she replies remedially.
On our second visit, I decide to try a new strategy. Todai calls itself a Japanese seafood buffet, so while my daughter concentrates on the sushi, I will roam around looking for alternatives. Lots of people seem to be pigging out on nothing but king crab claws, so I go to get some. But the woman behind the counter tells me they've run out. That leaves dumplings, noodles, cold salads and a hot food counter with spaghetti and seafood, fried rice and tilapia, among other things.
The restaurant is fairly crowded, and a large percentage of the patrons are Asian. Some other minority groups, including guys with tattooed heads, obese buffet fans and teenagers, are also well represented. You eat free at Todai on your birthday (with valid ID), so count on hearing "Happy Birthday" sung at least once per visit.
The restaurant's design is whimsical. The huge high-ceilinged room sports an enormous hanging sculpture of a series of fish in decreasing sizes about to eat one another. The exterior entrance is a sea shell made of industrial steel webbing, and once inside, you walk through an aquarium shaped like an archway.
There is a sign at the entry that says something like: "Due to a shortage beyond our control, we do not have any lobsters today." I wasn't terribly disappointed about not getting any lobster the first time I came here because I never knew they had any in the first place. But now I feel simmering resentment.
"No lobsters! And no king crab legs either! This is an outrage!" I want to shout. Besides, I just had lobster elsewhere last weekend. So I suspect the "lobster shortage" is bullshit.
When I get home I call Jasper White, the author of Lobster at Home and the owner and head chef of Jasper's Summer Shack restaurants in Boston. "Is there a lobster shortage this year?" I ask him, telling him about the sign at Todai.
"No," he says. "It was a cold winter, so the season started a little late, but there is no shortage. Their sign ought to say, 'We don't feel like paying eight bucks a pound for lobster.' "
With a few luxury items like lobsters and king crab legs, you feel pretty good about shelling out $20 or $25 for Todai's buffet. (The price varies according to what day it is.) Take away the lobsters and crab legs and it's not much of a value. I end up eating a bowl of noodles, a bunch of dumplings and five or six pieces of unagi. I could have gotten better food for less almost anywhere.
My daughter eats two plates of sushi and then goes to the dessert station for a fresh-made crepe stuffed with whipped cream and topped with chocolate and caramel. None of my complaints or reservations makes a dent in her enthusiasm.
"Wouldn't you rather go to a regular sushi bar?" I ask her.
"No way," she responds. She says she feels guilty when she gets a lot of sushi at a regular restaurant because she knows it costs a lot. Here she doesn't have to worry about how much of my money she's spending. There's also a wider variety, and you can see it all right in front of you instead of wondering what the foreign words on the menu mean.
But the most attractive thing about Todai, she finally confesses, is its location in the Marq*E Entertainment Center, a teen mecca complete with skatepark, electronic game arcade, offbeat clothing stores and a megaplex. Which evidently makes it a great place to check out boys. No wonder she encourages me to have a beer in the sports bar while she plays a few video games.
I recommend you go to Todai only when they have lobster and king crab legs on the buffet line. She recommends you bring your teenagers.