Market Watch

What's the Deal with Sushi Rice in Houston?

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.

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."

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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Katharine Shilcutt