When sushi hit grocery stores a few years ago, reactions ranged from delight to disgust. People who'd never tried it took one look at those little plastic trays of shiny tuna slices atop rice footballs and thought, "No way," but big-city types who'd tasted sushi once or twice grabbed it for a quick, healthy treat.
One person who was less than excited about the prospect was Josh Sweeney, sushi chef at Jeff Ruby's South Beach Grill at The Waterfront.
"When people come in and I ask them if they'd like to try some sushi, the ones who say, 'I've had it before and it was awful!' are the ones who've eaten it at the grocery store," Josh says. "I have to get them to give it another chance, and that's not easy."
He effortlessly creates sushi art at his neon-lit station as I try to convince him to be my expert in a supermarket sushi tasting.
"Keep an open mind," I plead. "Maybe we'll try some really good stuff that will create sushi junkies, and they'll be your new customers!"
Obviously, Josh thinks I'm nuts. Nonetheless, he shows up at my house on Saturday afternoon with his dad, Ron, and my friend Kate Nguyen, both sushi aficionados. I've just run in the door from a massive sushi roundup, and they have some eating to do.
I managed to hit four sources in just over an hour: Kroger, Trader Joe's, Fresh Market and Wild Oats. My table runneth over.
Ron and I decide that Japanese beers are important to this scientific process.
Josh is already frowning. He and Kate are carefully looking at the sushi, and Josh explains that the fish, for the most part, looks like it's been exposed to carbon dioxide to keep its color intact. He likes the presentation of the Wild Oats spicy tuna roll ($5.95) ("If the lid hadn't squished it!") and Fresh Market's rainbow roll ($8.69) ("Good, even slices.")
I'm lucky to have Josh as a resource. The man has sushi credibility. At one point, he competed against two Japanese chefs for a position at JoAn and got the job. Now at The Waterfront, he has creative control and Jeff Ruby's purchasing power -- a good combination when it comes to buying top-grade fish and preparing it with style.
Both Kate and Josh are immediately skeptical about the small container of calamari salad ($4.49) from Fresh Market. "Octopus," they concur, but Josh is suspicious. "Why would they cut up octopus for this?"
I wish he'd not answer that question, but he does. "It might have been on its last day." But he sniffs approvingly when he opens the container and is pleased to find sea fern and pickled bamboo shoots, "Authentic. Very Japanese."
The taste? We all love it. We jab away with our chopsticks, fighting for the last bite.
Of course, the calamari salad has no rice, and as soon as we get to the rice things get sticky.
"This is against what sushi is," Josh says. "Rice should not cool down. Perfect rice is fresh and fluffy with individual grains that fall apart in your mouth. Cooled rice is almost always too dry. And this," he says, pointing to the Trader Joe's sushi, "is bad."
I look critically at the little tray of Cajun shrimp rolls ($3.69) that had seemed not bad just a moment before. He's right. I can see that the rice layer of the roll is one solid white mass with no visible grains. It looks like paste. I take a bite. It tastes like paste.
Kate is even less kind. She's looking for a place to spit hers out. Ron passes her an empty paper bag. I pour her some sake. "Bad," is her only comment on the sushi. "What's next?"
For the sake of science, we pick at the filling of Trader Joe's combo-pack ($3.79) -- faux crab and salmon -- and they're a little better. Luckily, there's one more choice to try: the Vietnamese spring roll ($3.39). Kate, our actual Vietnamese tester, approves.
"Not bad," she says, smiling.
Josh mentions that some Sriracha hot sauce would perk up the dressing, and I run for the refrigerator. "Red Rooster sauce!" I announce, returning triumphant, and we polish off the rolls. This is a tip to remember.
The Kroger offerings are up next. I had planned to run out to Jungle Jim's, since that's where supermarket sushi started in Cincinnati, but Josh explains that the supplier who started at Jungle Jim's now serves Kroger and the Remke Markets in Kentucky, where I've been known to grab sushi for lunch. When I see the familiar yellow trays, I realize he's right.
"The rice and seasoning are better," Josh says as we start on the Kroger selections. "But, boy, are they cheap with ingredients."
He laughs at the half-portion of crabstick in the combo ($5.45) and explains that it's about 3 cents worth. "I know they have to make a profit," Josh says, "but that's pathetic."
Ron can't taste the wasabi. Josh explains that it's old and has lost its bite. He then gives us a wasabi primer.
Apparently, no one uses fresh wasabi -- it's so expensive you'd have to charge as much for it as you do for the sushi. Everyone uses reconstituted powder, and the real pros pinch it into a pagoda shape.
"That's traditional," Josh notes.
Trader Joe's little plastic packets of wasabi paste, which I thought were an example of awful over-packaging, turn out to have the freshest flavor.
Soy sauce is another point of comparison. Everyone uses Kikkoman, except Fresh Market. The Yamasa soy they include is the same soy Josh uses -- the best. I can taste a significant difference between the two; Yamasa is much richer.
And as for ginger, the pickled ginger from Fresh Market is pink.
"Why would they use artificial color?" Josh wonders. "Most sushi eaters like things as natural as possible."
But the pink ginger looks lovely with my china pattern, so I approve.
Of course, with supermarket sushi, you miss one of the best things about restaurant sushi -- watching the preparation. The sushi chef has to have the knowledge, the skill and the personality to entertain guests while creating dramatic, edible art.
Fresh Market's sushi is a lot more artistic than the ones we've tried so far. We've already devoured the calamari, but when we start on the nigiri ($7.99) there's a high rice-to-fish proportion. It's the nicest presentation and best soy sauce, but the fish quality is just OK.
Best fish quality? Our award goes to Wild Oats. Everything we taste is fresh, although I feet the yellowtail is strong. A Hawaiian roll ($9.45) topped with golden fish roe and almond slices earns a verdict of "creative." The rice is still too sweet and gummy, but Josh rules, "If the rice had been better, Wild Oats would have been a champion."
Value-wise, the Fresh Market and Wild Oats products are not much cheaper than decent quality restaurant sushi -- so unless eating sushi in your jammies is important, go visit Josh at The Waterfront. But for a night on the sofa with a Kurosawa DVD and a bottle of sake, grab a few trays from our two top choices. And don't forget the chopsticks! ©
The Fresh Market
3088 Madison Road, Oakley
Rookwood Commons, Norwood
7788 Montgomery Road, Kenwood
4777 Kenard Ave., Winton Place
(Lots of other locations)