Fish for Days

Breaking the rules with a sushi guru.

The word omakase—牧曒盂 in Japanese—translates literally to “entrust” or “protect.” In the context of a sushi restaurant, it means “leave it to the chef.” Eating omakase, the diner relinquishes autonomy and allows the chef to serve a series of dishes of his or her design.

As with many social exchanges in Japanese culture, omakase involves a high degree of mutual deference. The diner entrusts the chef to customize the meal based on personal preference and market availability; the chef is tasked with winning the diner’s trust through his or her selections. Because it benefits from a diner’s pre-existing relationship with the chef, omakase is often off-menu, a codeword of sorts for those in the know.

At Mashiko in West Seattle, omakase is the rule of thumb. Not only because it’s right there on the menu—four different options based on price point and exoticness—but also because chef and owner Hajime Sato runs the place with an all-encompassing vision. By stepping through the door of Mashiko, you’re putting yourself in Sato’s hands. The 43-year-old, Japanese-born Seattleite and self-proclaimed “sushi whore” is part crusader, part comedian. His guiding principles: sustainability, entertainment and education.

More than anything, Sato wants you to know what you’re eating—the science, economics and ethics of your food. He’s intent on dispelling the many myths about sushi one meal at a time. The most taboo refutes the primacy of freshness: The truth is that that maguro you’re eating didn’t swim straight from the ocean onto your plate.

“Sport fishermen will say, ‘I caught the tuna and ate it minutes later!’ They’re tasting the blood and protein, nothing more,” Sato says. “Each fish has its own time to age to get the prime time to serve. It has to decay a little bit so the protein has time to change to amino acid. That’s what makes flavor. If you go to El Gaucho, they’re not gonna tell you, ‘We just slaughtered this cow this morning!’ They’re gonna say it’s dry-aged. It’s almost rotten, but it’s perfect.

“It’s the sushi chef’s job to know when fish is too fresh or not aged enough,” he continues. “I keep tuna for 10 days, salmon for three days before I serve it. But if I tell that to people they will complain.” So it’s a “white lie” he doesn’t share (unless you’re nosy.)

The protein structure of umi (sea urchin) and other shellfish breaks down incredibly fast, Sato says. He gets his directly from a guy in Port Angeles, a diver who’d come into Seattle early one October morning as urchin season was just getting underway, so that night umi featured heavily on the specials menu. Sato and 22-year-old protégé Keiko Rios served the soft, ochre-colored meat inside the half-bowl of a cracked urchin shell. It was the one item my dinner companions and I asked to be left out of our omakase.

“Have you tried it here?” Rios asked. We hadn’t. She insisted, serving tiny scoops atop homemade sesame tofu. None of us was convinced, but the challenge elevated the overall reward of our two-hour-long dinner. Mashiko’s aura of expertise suspended our suspicion and widened our comfort zone. This is enlightenment.

“The other day I tried a wasabi milkshake,” Sato says. “It was so horrible! We tried it and it’s gross. But every day you have to try something.”

Photo by Dylan Priest.

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