Stars of Sushi

By staff April 1, 2007

It’s hard to imagine that not that long ago, most of us would have shuddered at the idea of eating raw fish. Now you can find sushi even in supermarkets, and as Americans have embraced this Japanese tradition, we’ve made it our own, creating variations like the foie gras and tenderloin sushi that’s the rage at one San Francisco hotspot. (Some young Japanese chefs are coming to the United States for precisely that kind of creative freedom; the Japanese are purists about their sushi, and it can take years for a novice chef in Japan to progress beyond the art of making the rice.)

Sarasota’s appetite for sushi in all its variations seems insatiable, with new places popping up all over town, each with its own passionate following. We decided it was time for a tasting to choose the most sensational sushi in town, and with the help of the Ritz-Carlton Members Beach Club, we did it Sarasota style—on a gorgeous stretch of Gulf-front sand, under a custom-created Asian-style tent, as the setting sun painted the sky a thousand shifting shades of purple and pink.

We invited eight of Sarasota’s leading sushi restaurants to prepare two different kinds of sushi for our distinguished judges. Their entries could be as traditional—or as Americanized—as they wished. While the chefs, their ingredients, knives and garnishes in tow, gathered in the beach club’s third-floor kitchen to put the finishing touches on their creations, the judges assembled on the beach.

Our eight judges brought a wide variety of experience and tastes to the judging table. Bird Key’s Brenda Johnson has tasted sushi all over the world on her travels with husband Brian Johnson, lead singer for the rock group ACDC. Public defender Laurence Eger is such an avid sushi fan that he was once told by a temperamental chef he had eaten enough for the night and would not be served any more. John Signorelli, executive sous chef at the Ritz-Carlton, Sarasota, who lived in Japan for a number of years and is married to a Japanese woman, knows an amazing amount about sushi ingredients and presentation and could even tell us about the various styles of cutting the fish. Pharmaceutical rep Emily Guttridge, a former Japanese exchange student, also brought Asian expertise to the tasting, while hip young downtown dweller and hairstylist Kelly Smith developed her love for sushi right here in Sarasota. Judge Rick DeFuria, who until now always avoided raw fish, bravely agreed to serve as our sushi virgin. And as SARASOTA Magazine’s associate food editor, I was there to taste, watch and record—but not to judge—as was editorial director Pam Daniel. We secretly agreed we had the best assignment of all.

While the judges settled onto their orange silk cushions and sipped white wine, I was in the Ritz-Carlton Members Beach Club’s kitchen with the sushi chefs, who were drawing numbers to decide the order in which their offerings would be presented. This was a blind tasting, so each entry was identified only by number to the judges, who scored each entry—which, remember, included two different samples of the restaurant’s sushi—on taste, presentation and use of ingredients.

As the judges readied their clipboards and pens, up in the kitchen the chefs, seven of them Japanese, solemnly bowed to each other. Then I joined the group on the beach, and two Ritz-Carlton servers followed me down, bearing trays filled with artful plates containing Entry No. 1—which, unknown to the judges, of course, came from Utamaro.

We all stole a look at Rick DeFuria as he picked up his chopsticks and gazed at the piece of yellowtail sushi on his plate. "I love fishing for yellowtail, so why not try it?" he said gamely. He dove into his first-ever piece of sushi and came up smiling. "It’s wonderful!" he said, and everyone applauded. This sushi was very spicy—too spicy for many of the judges, although Kelly Smith liked "the nice crunch" and Brenda Johnson decided "the intense after-burn" actually made it "outstanding." And everyone agreed that critical element of sushi—the rice—was wonderful.

Entry No. 2 came from the new kid on the sushi block, Roy’s Restaurant, which opened in Sarasota earlier this year. Everyone exclaimed at what Emily Guttridge called the "beautiful, modern presentation," with one of the rolls tucked into a pale pink wrapper. Smith raved over that pink wrapper. "How can any woman not love this?" she exclaimed. Chef Signorelli also admired the "beautiful presentation," although he found the rice a little dry.

Next came Entry No. 3, from Kazu’s. One bright orange and one mint-green roll took center stage on a plate with artful glazes of sauce, eliciting instant raves from the judges. And more raves followed once they tasted the sushi. "Dengaku [fabulous]," said Johnson. Guttridge ate hers slowly, saying, "I feel like I’ve been transported back to Japan." Eger’s comment was more succinct: "Winner." And Signorelli, with his years of living in Japan, pointed out some of the special touches, including a rare miso paste that was used to decorate the plate, saying, "I know these ingredients very well and I can see the refinement in this—this sushi was well-planned and very well-executed."

Entry No. 4, from Thailand Sushi and Steakhouse, came to the table in a beautiful wooden boat, filled with sushi and adorned with edible flowers. Johnson loved the "purity of ingredients, with simple, classic flavors," although Eger found the presentation "too busy." One of the pieces featured eel, which won considerable praise from the judges. Even DeFuria, who was taken aback when he was told what it was, pronounced it "terrific—as long as you don’t think of what the eel looked like."

It was time to take a pre-sunset break, stretch our legs and sample a Saktail from bartender Peter Whitely at the Ritz-Carlton, Sarasota’s Ca d’Zan lounge. This enticing creation blends passion-fruit sorbet and sake, and its light, tangy taste was just what the judges needed to freshen their palates.

Refreshed and invigorated, we settled back on our cushions for Entry No. 5, from Joto on Siesta Key. The ingredients in this sushi included shad and octopus, and Smith praised both the fish and the drizzle of delicate sauce that topped the octopus. "This was by far the most unique—I loved it," she declared. A few of the judges thought the cream cheese in one of the pieces was a bit overwhelming, but sushi expert Signorelli rated this entry high in every aspect. As for DeFuria, all he did was look up from his rapidly moving chopsticks and moan, "Where has sushi been all my life?"

Entry No. 6, Pacific Rim, stepped in next. "I love the fried panko on top, and the clean flavors," said Signorelli, who also praised "the creative use of colors." Guttridge also gave this sushi good marks, as did Johnson for "the subtle balance of fish and sauce." Smith loved the tuna—"it melted in my mouth." "

For Entry No. 7, Yume Sushi delivered a presentation that was bright and colorful, with refreshing, paper-thin cucumber slices wrapped around the bright-pink salmon in one piece. " When they made this dish they were not afraid to experiment with the color," said Smith. "As a hairstylist, I say yes!" Signorelli liked the "modern and balanced flavor" and noted that the rice in this sushi was "great."

Our grand finale: Entry No. 8, from Saijo. What a finish—two dramatic samples, one featuring fresh lobster tucked underneath cream cheese and succulent shrimp. Signorelli complimented this entry for the freshness of the ingredients, but like many of the judges found the sushi "a bit big," with lots of ingredients and flavors striving for center stage. But all agreed that the creativity and quality that went into these rolls were undeniable.

As the sun began to kiss the horizon’s edge, we gathered around the sake bar, sipping Asian pear sake and toasting to an outstanding competition.

And—drumroll with chopsticks, please—our three top scorers? In third place was Joto; in second, Pacific Rim, and in first, with near-perfect scores in all three categories, was Kazu’s. But we all agreed that this was one competition in which every contestant—and all of us in Sarasota, who can enjoy their stellar creations whenever we please—were truly winners.

Sushi Bits and Bytes

Sushi evolved from an ancient Asian practice of fermenting fish in layers of vinegar-soaked, salted rice. After weeks, the fish would be stored or eaten and the rice discarded. Once people discovered the rice was tasty, sushi was born.

Most Japanese chefs believe that one should never mix wasabi in the soy. Pickled ginger is considered a palate cleanser to nibble on between sushi courses.

Although you can make sushi at home with the right ingredients and a sushi roller, it can be hard to get the top-quality fish this dish requires. Several local sushi chefs will create a sushi party for you. Chef Kiyoshi, who makes the sushi for the Ritz-Carlton, Sarasota’s Sunday brunch, suggests serving five selections of fresh sushi and sashimi. The fresher the sushi the better, so make sure your sushi is prepared right before you pick it up, and serve it as soon as you get home.

A good wine for sushi is Oroya sushi wine from Spain, created to go with sushi and blended from three Spanish grapes. Unoaked, fruit-driven wines are also good with sushi.

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