Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Albany - Japanese food

Okay, this one's about life in Albany, not about lawyering in any way, shape or form.

A local newspaper gave a glowing review for a sushi place in Albany. I was in that neighborhood, so I had to try it. Very disappointing. I lived in Japan, so I think I know what I'm talking about.

First, a sushi place should not be judged by how many different kinds of fish and other things they can fit into a roll. You will not find any avocado or cream cheese in sushi in Japan. I never saw it.

The best test of a sushi place is the sashimi. That's how you can really tell the quality and freshness and texture of the fish. You can hide lesser fish in a blend of wasabi, fish eggs, cream cheese, etc. You can't hide it in sashimi. Don't get me wrong - I particularly like Alaska and Philadelphia rolls (Salmon with avocado, or avocado and cream cheese). But that's not the true test.

At this place today, the maguro (tuna) sashimi had an aftertaste that was not right. The other sashimi was okay, but not great. I had sashimi yesterday at one of the better places in the area (Yoshi Sushi on Route 9), so I could make a good comparison. Also, at this place today, the miso soup was just plain wrong, the salad dressing didn't taste right (not a traditional concern, since one usually does not get salad at sushi places in Japan), and perhaps the worst thing was the shumai (shrimp dumplings) I had ordered. The sauce for them was totally wrong. The wasabi was not quite right either - a bit too clumpy.

This leads to my justified bias about Japanese restaurants. They should be run by Japanese people (or at least ethnic Koreans who come from Japan). My major reason for this bias is personal - I like to practice speaking Japanese when I go to a Japanese restaurant. Not an issue for most sushi eaters in Albany. But I still believe that the Japanese who run Japanese restaurants know what the food is supposed to be like. They're more concerned with quality.

Some Koreans do a good job. In my experience, the Chinese-run sushi places are just not good. I was in one place where they had sliced up the fish beforehand. That may be good for mass production, but it ages the fish more quickly. Today's place was also Chinese-run. You can pretty much tell which places are not Japanese-run. If a place sells any Korean or Chinese dishes, it's probably not run by Japanese. The place I went to today was only Japanese food, but it was still run by Chinese.

I'm particularly fond of one of the Korean-run places, Ta-Ke, which is near Albany Memorial Hospital. I've only had their Japanese food once that I can remember. In the back they have 3 Korean tables for "Bul Go Gi" (yakiniku in Japanese). Their Korean menu is excellent and the food is delicious. The Korean tables have a gas grill built into them. If you order 2 or more grill dishes, they cook it on the grill at the table. If they trust you, they let you cook it yourself.

Other good places for Japanese food in the area include Miyako's (my favorite) in Guilderland, Mari's in Schenectady (but I haven't been there in a while), Saso's in Albany isn't bad, and Mino's in Saratoga is also good. Hiro's used to be good, but I haven't been there since they changed ownership, so I can't say for sure.

Miyako's is large, has a sushi bar (the sushi chef, the owner, and the owner's wife are all Japanese, so I get lots of conversation), regular tables, a couple of Japanese tatami rooms, and their big attraction is the teppanyaki, more commonly known as hibachi tables. It's a good sign that the Japanese Cultural Association of the Capital District meets at Miyako's. Most of the members like Yoshi Sushi too, but his place is too small for the group.
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