Sushi restaurant 101: From California rolls to omakase, here's what to order as a beginner

·7 min read
Curious what to order at a sushi restaurant? A chef and restaurant owner explains the menu. (Photos: Sushiko; designed by Quinn Lemmers)
Curious what to order at a sushi restaurant? A chef and restaurant owner explains the menu. (Photos: Sushiko; designed by Quinn Lemmers)

When most people think of Japanese food, sushi comes to mind. Still, making the leap from a container of California rolls from the deli case to trying fresh sushi at a Japanese restaurant can be intimidating. When it comes to eating raw fish, it's understandable to want to know exactly what to order on your first visit.

Daisuke Utagawa, co-owner of Sushiko sushi restaurant in Chevy Chase, Md., founder of the Daikaya Group of Japanese restaurants and an expert chef featured on Rudy Maxa's World, says with the right knowledge, it's easy to know what to order, how to eat sushi and what not to do at a sushi restaurant.

The tradition of eating rice and fish together goes back hundreds of years, when the two were buried the ground together to preserve fish. Over time, this combination developed into the modern version of sushi commonly eaten today with incredible variation.

How to order sushi

It's understandable to feel skittish about eating raw fish. While it might be tempting to ask for the freshest fish, Utagawa says this is the wrong approach. Fish that has been treated properly and aged for a few days will be much better than something caught that day. Just like with steak and wine, the flavor of fish becomes better with time. Instead of asking what's fresh, ask, "What's eating well now?" and the chef will tell you what is currently at its peak flavor.

A sushi and sashimi bento at Sushiko. Like the school lunch bento boxes they've inspired, a bento from a sushi restaurant contains single portion sizes of a variety of menu items. (Photo: Daisuke Utagawa/Sushiko)
A sushi and sashimi bento at Sushiko. Like the school lunch bento boxes they've inspired, a bento from a sushi restaurant contains single portion sizes of a variety of menu items. (Photo: Daisuke Utagawa/Sushiko)

Sushi restaurant menu 101

Utagawa compares different types of sushi to different ways of eating steak. Sushi rolls combine several different components, similar to the way a steak sandwich might have steak, onions, cheese and bread. A sushi roll will have seaweed, rice, tuna, avocado, cucumber, tempura and aioli, for example. On the other hand, nigiri sushi is more like a flank of steak and is not rolled. Instead, a slice of fish is placed on top of a mound of vinegared rice. Similar to steak served on its own, the flavor is richer and lingers longer on the tongue.

For those just diving into sushi, Utagawa recommends starting with a sushi roll, like a California roll that typically contains avocado and crab. "It's easier to start with a lot of flavors, then peel away," says Utagawa.

More adventures eaters should try fatty tuna nigiri, which almost everyone likes, or flounder nigiri which has a mild taste. Anyone who wants to move right to advanced sushi can try sea urchin.

While sushi rolls combine different ingredients like fish, seaweed and rice, sashimi is whole pieces of fish. (Photo: Daisuke Utagawa/Sushiko)
While sushi rolls combine different ingredients like fish, seaweed and rice, sashimi is whole pieces of fish. (Photo: Daisuke Utagawa/Sushiko)

How to eat sushi

Sushi is prepared in small pieces meant to be eaten in a single bite. If rice is prepared the right way, it will stick together enough to hold its shape but fall apart in your mouth so you will feel every grain as you chew. If you take a small bite, your sushi may fall apart. Because sushi is prepared by hand, it's acceptable to eat it with your fingers, although chop sticks are preferred.

Sushi restaurants typically serve sushi with soy sauce, wasabi and ginger. Because even frequent sushi eaters might not know how to use these condiments properly, Utagawa stresses that while there is no wrong way to eat sushi, there is a way each condiment is meant to be used. When it comes to soy sauce dip a corner of your sushi into the bowl. If you dip the entire piece soy sauce will overwhelm the flavor. If sauce is already painted on your sushi, skip dipping all together. Wasabi should not be added to soy sauce because it mutes the flavor. Instead, dab a small amount of wasabi on your sushi before dipping into soy sauce. Finally, ginger is meant to be a palate cleanser eaten between different types of sushi, not placed on top. However, rules were meant to broken, so feel free to experiment and figure out what tastes best to you.

Sushiko's hamachi crudo: hamachi sashimi with grapefruit and ponzu sauce. (Photo: Daisuke Utagawa/Sushiko)
Sushiko's hamachi crudo: hamachi sashimi with grapefruit and ponzu sauce. (Photo: Daisuke Utagawa/Sushiko)

What to eat with sushi

For the true sushi experience, you want the flavors of the sushi to shine. Utagawa advises against having anything sweet to drink. "If you have a coke, it will blow your pallet," he says. Appetizers should also be mild. Black edamame from the Japanese city of Tamba-Sasayama has a nutty flavor and is a great choice. If that's not available, regular edamame is another good option.

What is omakase and should you try it?

Omakase translates to, "I'll leave it up to you." Utagawa describes omakase as an experience that allows the chef to take to take their guest on a journey. It can be a great way for anyone new to sushi to really explore the cuisine because omakase is an intimate experience where the chef choses what is best that day and customizes the menu towards their client's specific tastes. The omakase experience takes place at the sushi bar and the chef prepares dishes one-by-one based on what their guest enjoys.

Otoro (the fattiest portion of the tuna) nigiri, topped with caviar. (Photo: Daisuke Utagawa/Sushiko)
Otoro (the fattiest portion of the tuna) nigiri, topped with caviar. (Photo: Daisuke Utagawa/Sushiko)

For those trying sushi for the first time, this is the best way to hear from the chef directly about what different types of sushi tastes like and to have the chef make recommendations based on your feedback. However, omakase is expensive and takes time, so it might not be worth the investment for people who aren't sure they like sushi in the first place.

How to find a good sushi restaurant

If you aren't sure where to start, Utagawa recommends looking for a sushi restaurant that serves fish that have been killed using the ikejime method. Ikejime is more humane and treats fish in a way that preserves the quality of the meat. It will be rare to find a restaurant that serves ikejime exclusively, but if they are serving ikejime, it's is a sign the restaurant uses the best quality fish. Utagawa also says to look for a sushi restaurant that is crowded. If people like it and keep going back, it's probably good.

This lobster tail dish is served with uni butter sauce and sautéed spinach. (Photo: Daisuke Utagawa/Sushiko)
This lobster tail dish is served with uni butter sauce and sautéed spinach. (Photo: Daisuke Utagawa/Sushiko)

If you want to dive in and try omakase, Utagawa recommends looking for a small restaurant with only a sushi bar or very few tables. He explains that if a chef is processing a large number of orders, they won't have time to execute omakase correctly and give each group the individualized attention they need.

Utagawa stresses that every sushi house puts its own spin on their menu so you can't expect uniformity in sushi. However, after eating sushi a couple of times you will have a good idea what you like and can ask the right questions to make sure you get sushi love every time.

5 best items to order as a beginner:

Still not sure what to order off the menu? Chef Utagawa recommends going with the following items, which should be found on any menu, for the best first-time experience.

California Roll: These typically have several ingredients, including crab and avocado. It's a great starter-sushi because it has so many flavors. Once you find flavors you like, you can start peeling away and focusing on your favorites.

Fatty Tuna Nigiri: Almost everyone likes fatty tuna, so it's a great choice for first timers to a sushi restaurant.

Flounder Nigiri: Flounder has a mild taste that appeals to a variety of taste palates.

Sea Urchin: This is a more advanced type of sushi, which means not everyone will want to try it on their first visit to a sushi restaurant. Still, it's popular in Japan and is a treat for those who enjoy the taste.

Sushi and Sashimi Bento: A bento from a sushi restaurant contains single portion sizes of a variety of menu items. It's the perfect way to try a variety of items during a single meal.

Wellness, parenting, body image and more: Get to know the who behind the hoo with Yahoo Life's newsletter. Sign up here.