What It Is (and isn’t!) and Where to Go When You Want To Treat Yourself to the Best
Amin Chlache, manager of Tenmaya Japanese Restaurant, knows sushi. He has to: Fifty percent of his clientele are Japanese. The restaurant, in Vienna’s 1st District, is sister to the legend of the same name in Japan. Chlache has a reputation to maintain.
"The restaurant as it stands in Vienna, would fit in Japan," Chlache said proudly. Designed by a Japanese architect, Tenmaya’s sleek lines are highlighted with traditional flower arrangements, different serving dishes for each item — every detail is authentic. Garland-draped Buddhas in other restaurants may look fun, but they’re not Japanese. Décor, along with sushi chefs, rice, soy sauce, seaweed and plates are not peripheral to an authentic Japanese restaurant. Like supporting actors, the show may go on without them, but it’s a different show.
Authentic sushi is hard to find. The attraction of "Vienna’s Nigiri" at one trendy "experimental sushi" restaurant is baffling. Nigiri-zushi with chicken schnitzel and lingonberry sauce? Is this even worthy of the title sushi?
The "sushi police" do not think so. The Japanese government, catching wind of the blatant defamation of their ancient tradition, has actually been sending inspectors to European countries to check up on the authenticity, quality and presentation of sushi.
"Some restaurants use fish that is not good, even spoiled," Chlache complained. "Austrians may not notice that the fish isn’t fresh, because they bathe the sushi rice in soy sauce." In February, for example, bacteria tests in chain restaurants and supermarket sushi by Konsument magazine revealed spoiled fish in one of every two sushi sets — a health hazard.
Last year, a Vienna restaurant guide listed in its Geheimtipps, a Japanese restaurant in the 8th District that served up spoiled fish.
At a recommended sushi restaurant near the Naschmarkt, the waiter was frank: "I wouldn’t eat that," he sneered, pointing at the sweating slices of unnaturally red tuna (the result of carbon dioxide preservation) with hard brown edges, and rice no longer white and soft, but crispy from hours of circular travel. The á la carte octopus tasted like the cleaning solution the sushi chef sprayed on the fish case.
Unlike popular chain restaurants, Tenmaya receives 8-15 kilos of fresh fish every day from any one of their four suppliers, depending on the season. Fish not up to their standards is rejected, their budget for fish nearing 400,000 euro per year. This is not a luxury; freshness is a cornerstone of sushi. Given that fish are flown daily into Vienna with top-notch refrigeration technology, it is shocking that this tradition is so corrupted.
One problem is sushi chefs themselves. One chef in Vienna, who asked to remain anonymous, revealed spending less than one year training — certainly not long enough for anyone serious about this art. "I learn quick," he boasted.
Nelson Yip, owner and respected sushi chef of Aozora, in Montclair, New Jersey, U.S.A. (earning 29 out of 30 points in the Zagat restaurant guide) has been making sushi for 16 years. "Sushi chefs must train a minimum of 5 years," Yip told me. "A lot of sushi chefs learn for one year and think that it is enough to just set a piece of fish on rice. That is not sushi."
In Japan, sushi chefs are an elite group, mostly men, who rise at 03:00 to buy fish at the market. As a French chef begins with salads, they learn how to make sushi rice before learning about fish selection and slicing. Making sushi is the last rewarding step.
"The reputation of the sushi chef is important. There is not much to change or interpret about sushi," emphasised Chlache, "It must simply be fresh. A good chef can determine that."
Another common failing is the smell. Fresh fish should never smell "fishy." One Viennese artist ate sushi at a chain restaurant, but won’t again after being served fish with a "repulsive odor." If sushi smells, steer clear.
Freezing is a way to kill parasites, and a method to store low quality pre-cut fish — which tastes accordingly. Chlache does not use frozen fish, but estimates that around 98% of restaurants in Vienna do, because pre-cut pieces of frozen fish cost about half as much as hand selected fresh fish.
Sushi restaurants must also have variety. "A good one should have 12-15 different types of fish," notes Chlache. The majority of Vienna restaurants, with small budgets, have far fewer, including varieties like surimi that would not be served as sushi in Japan.
The rice is also superior at Tenmaya. According to Chlache, rice in Japan is in short supply and protected, so knowledgeable restaurateurs turn to the short-grained, polished morsels grown in California by Japanese companies.
Rice preparation requires patience and technique. At various Japanese restaurants in Vienna, restaurants make rice once per day, leave leftovers overnight, add vinegar in the morning, and reheat it in the microwave. Good restaurants make rice more than once per day using traditional cooking and fanning methods, throwing away any unused rice each night before closing.
Ultimately, rice is a cushion for the fish, so quality matters, as does proportion, not putting small slices of fish on big globs of rice. If you watch a talented sushi chef, he forms the rice quickly, efficiently, fluidly.
His aura is not distracting and ostentatious, but confident. His hands never hesitate. When he puts the fish on the perfectly pressed rice, it does not stick out, but drapes gently and elegantly over both ends of the rice.
He also keeps his counter clean, as well as the fish case. Not only does an unclean case look unappetising, but can be culture for bacteria.
Lower quality restaurants also cut corners with soy sauce. Dark soy sauce, thicker and less salty, is preferable, but overly salty light soy sauce is often used, diluted with water. Some customers make "mud" out of their shoyu (soy sauce) with the Japanese horseradish (wasabi).
A small dab of wasabi belongs either on the tip of the chopsticks, or smeared gently on top of the fish. It is also acceptable to pick up the sushi with your fingers.
The tip of the fish side — never the rice — is dipped in the soy sauce, and the sushi eaten upside down so that the fish flavors meet the tastebuds first.
In between pieces of sushi, pickled ginger serves as a palate cleanser so the fish flavors do not mix. As in its natural form, the ginger should be more beige than the common artificially dyed pink-red product. Yaki nori, a kind of dry toasted, pressed seaweed adorns some sushi or maki dishes (vegetables and sometimes fish surrounded by rice). However, good nori is hard to find here. Most was old and served limp in the restaurants I explored in Vienna, so that it squeaked and stuck to my teeth when I bit into it, like gnawing on clear plastic sandwich wrap.
"Good nori melts in your mouth," says Nelson Yip who orders from Japan. "Better quality is more expensive."
He needs about 500 sheets of nori per week at a cost of 200 euro.
If it is really sushi that you seek, there are only a few good restaurants to choose from in Vienna: in my order of preference, Tenmaya, Unkai, and Yugetsu. For those who want the real thing, you have to accept that the best sushi costs more than what you get from chain restaurants. And unlike other items with cult status and inflated prices, sushi is usually an honest offer — you get what you pay for.
Remember: there is no danger in eating good sushi, and sticking to the best is an assurance of quality.
As I took one last piece of sushi from the platter the Tenmaya chef prepared, Amin Chlache smiled with pride. The taste, texture, and color were a sensual delight. I will be back—often.
Krugerstrasse 3, 1010 Vienna, Austria
Tel. + 43 1 512 73 97
Fax. + 43 1 512 43 86