Sushi and Sake – Albuquerque, New Mexico
“If white wine goes with fish,
do white grapes go with sushi?”
– George Carlin
A reader once asked Washington Post humorist Gene Weingarten what he was a snob about. His reply, “I am also a snob about food. The other day, in Baltimore, I passed a sign outside a restaurant that said “Sushi Buffet!‘ and laughed out loud because it occurred to me that “sushi” and “buffet” are two words that should never appear together.” His sentiment resonates strongly with sushi aficionados who adhere to the strict rules of etiquette which governs the way in which true sushi snobs enjoy sushi.
It’s a given that a true sushi snob would never eat at an all-you-can-eat sushi restaurant nor would such a snob ever be found mingling with the rabble who sit in booths or receive table service. Sushi snobs will only sit at a sushi bar in as close proximity to the sushi chef as possible. They like to converse with the sushi chef, hoping to ingratiate themselves by asking the right questions to demonstrate they are savvy connoisseurs and not “trough-divers” like most of the crowd. They treat the sushi chef like Magellan, their esteemed navigator on a culinary adventure.
Rapport with the chef established, sushi snobs will generally order Omakase, a term which translates literally from Japanese to “It’s up to you.” More specifically, omakase means the menu is left up to the chef. This gives the sushi chef the opportunity to showcase their skills, to serve what they think is good. Omakase tends to be quite expensive, giving the restaurant a nice profit margin. For the true sushi snob, this is all well and good. They accept that being a sushi snob ain’t cheap.
One Albuquerque sushi restaurant in which no true food snob would be caught dead is Sushi & Sake, an all-you-can-eat sushi concept which defies all the traditions to which food snobs hold fast. While the sushi snob may adhere strictly to tradition and etiquette, it is no longer a “losing face” taboo for sushi chefs to defy centuries old traditional path. Even sacrosanct training methods are starting to fall by the wayside. Perhaps it’s because these traditional training methods are so strictly regimented and rigorous.
For up to a year, training involves nothing but properly preparing sushi rice before a chef candidate is even allowed to clean fish. Cleaning and filleting fish involves comprehending the differences in the flesh and texture of each species. This phase of training can also take up to a year. By the time these chefs prepare their first piece of sushi, they will have mastered techniques designed to bring out the very best in each fish in terms of texture, taste and presentation.
Over the past quarter century or so, sushi’s burgeoning popularity has meant the dilution of the product. You no longer have to visit a Japanese restaurant for sushi. In Albuquerque, you can find passable to good sushi served in Vietnamese, Thai and Chinese restaurants. You can even find sushi in local organic food superstores throughout the city. It’s highly unlikely this sushi is prepared by chefs schooled in the traditional ways. This does not mean the sushi is inedible (although a true sushi snob could never choke any of it down).
Contemporary sushi chefs, even many from Japan, craft their own creative variations to their sushi, in essence creating the antithesis of the “purity” for which traditionalists strive. Another sushi tradition which has started to fall by the wayside is the prohibition of female sushi chefs. Several reasons, the most plausible having to do with traditional gender role assignments, are given for the scarcity of female sushi chefs.
In the Duke City, the restaurant with the most creative sushi offerings is Sushi & Sake on Central Avenue. It’s also one of only two sushi restaurants I’ve seen employing a female sushi chef. In 2010, a second instantiation of Sushi & Sake launched, the scion being located on Academy where Tomato Cafe once held court for more than a decade.
The Central Avenue Sushi & Sake occupies part of the building which houses the Korean BBQ House and is owned by the same people. It launched in January, 2005 and has been a very popular draw as it probably will be for a long time. The restaurant features an “all you can eat (AYCE) in an hour” dining concept, but unlike American buffet restaurants, takes precautions to minimize waste. Aside from having only one hour to consume all the sushi you can handle, you’re permitted only one re-order and will be charged for sushi left unconsumed.
The AYCE includes one “chef’s special” per person. The menu lists twelve chef’s specials, each one seemingly a greater departure from tradition than the other. A picture of each special illustrates just how creative and colorful sushi can be when taken beyond traditional boundaries…far beyond in some cases..
Okay, I’m not talking sushi with peanut butter or chocolate here, but when is the last time you had sushi with mango. Mango is the featured ingredient on Sushi & Sake’s “Mango Tango” maki roll. Nestled inside its rice bed is tempura battered shrimp, but atop the rice are strips of tangy mango sprinkled with Masago, the small eggs of a smelt-like fish. These eggs are a different, almost luminescent, shade of orange than is the mango.
The dressing accompanying the Mango Tango is a citrus and wasabi combination. A tangy sweetness is the prominent taste on this roll. It’s probably not one you would want to dip into your wasabi and soy sauce mix and maybe not even one you might order a second time, but it’s a very interesting piece of sushi.
Another unique special from the chefs’ fertile minds is the Amigo roll, perhaps the sushi equivalent of a chile relleno. Get this–a New Mexico green chile (spelled “chili” on the menu) is actually stuffed with crab meat then nestled within sushi rice. No wasabi is necessary to spice this one up. It is served with a spicy dressing that seems to include both wasabi and chile.
On yet another maki roll chicken, not fish is featured–and it’s pretty darn good. So too is the “pizza roll” which is actually a California roll with salmon on top and which is baked in a small casserole dish. The “pizza sauce” seems to be a caramelized teriyaki sauce sprinkled with sesame seeds. Take it slow with this one because it comes straight out of the oven and can singe your tongue and the roof of your mouth.
The “Albuquerque special roll” looks more like a Vietnamese spring roll than it does a hand roll. It features crab, shrimp, avocado, cucumber and lettuce enveloped in egg roll wrapper.
Perhaps as if to ingratiate itself upon local diners, Sushi & Sake also serves a Green Chili Roll in which the flavor of roasted green chile is prominent despite the restaurant’s abhorrent spelling: “chili.” For some reason, the roasted green chile effect seems so much more pronounced on sushi than on most New Mexican food dishes.
The two-page AYCE menu includes many of the standard sushi items you’ll find at almost every other sushi restaurant in town, but you’ll also find some uniquely prepared and distinctively non-traditional pieces of sushi. The traditionally schooled sushi chefs might not approve of some of them (and the sushi chef never would), but Albuquerque diners seem not to care. It is, after all, sushi and it’s all you can eat.
Sushi and Sake
3200 Central, N.W.
LATEST VISIT: 18 June 2011
# OF VISITS: 3
COST: $$ – $$$
BEST BET: Teriyaki Chicken Roll; Mexican Roll; Pizza Roll; Green Chile Roll