I'm on the record as a sushi purist and have inveighed repeatedly against elaborate rolls containing tempura, spicy tuna and cream cheese, sprinkled with panko and drizzled with mango sauce.
But not today. The truth is that simple sushi is not necessarily good sushi. In fact, the simplest sushi often reveals a chef's shortcomings. The first time I eat at a sushi bar, I usually get chirashi, a simple assortment of fish over rice. This allows me to assess a whole slew of elements, including:
Sushi originated as a way to preserve fish with rice and, even as it evolved into a freshly made product, rice remains central. It takes years for a sushi chef to learn to properly prepare sumeshi, or sushi rice. Using a bamboo paddle, warm white rice is carefully blended with rice vinegar, sugar and sea salt. During this operation, the rice is fanned (often by an apprentice) to cool it down and give it a nice shine.
When the rice hits your sushi, the individual grains should cohere, but they should not be mushy or bloated. Nor should the rice be cold. Somewhere between 90 and 100 degrees (like your body) is optimal.
In general, cold is the enemy of sushi because it dulls flavor. With notable exceptions (mackerel, sea urchin), many of the fish that show up on a sushi platter have subtle flavors. Served ice cold, those flavors are muted into silence.
Speaking of ice cold, raw fish should not be served in, on or near ice. A sushi chef who uses ice in his presentation is declaring that he favors drama over flavor. (When the sushi chef tucks a flashing colored light underneath the ice, I don't know what he is declaring.)
In all but the most rarefied local sushi bars, a sushi platter (or chirashi bowl) is going to feature tuna, fluke, yellowtail and salmon. I like to see more variety -- some mackerel, some octopus -- but not at the expense of quality. Nor do I pay much attention to such space-fillers as surimi (fake crab), tasteless boiled shrimp or piles of mushy salmon roe. The vaunted "white tuna" that's showing up a lot these days is almost always escolar (which in large quantities can cause diarrhea) or previously frozen Chilean sea bass.
Of course the fish must be fresh, but freshness is not enough. In her book "The Sushi Experience" (Knopf, 2006), Hiroko Shimbo writes that a sushi chef must "acquire a detailed knowledge of the biochemical changes in seafood after it is slaughtered. From the muscle contractions at death to full rigor mortis, the texture and flavor of fish change.. . . Sushi chefs must understand this process and know how to control it so they can serve each fish not just within a window of safety but when it tastes most delicious."
Beyond the fish
The first thing I look for at a sushi bar is regular (i.e. not low-sodium) soy sauce. Good soy sauce contains salt like good bourbon contains alcohol. Sushi should not be dunked in soy sauce anyway; a little dab on the fish (not the rice) will do. I don't deduct points if low-sodium soy sauce is offered (it's a free country, and one with a lot of high blood pressure) but if a restaurant only serves the low-sodium stuff, it's a bad sign.
I always look forward to trying a chef's tamago, the little ingot of scrambled egg. Making tamago is another indicator of a sushi chef's skill and I miss it when it's not there. Good tamago should be rich, moist, tender and slightly sweet.
I also appreciate a few Japanese pickles: tsukemono, to complement the fish. Bring on the crunchy, bright yellow takuan, made from daikon; the salty, scarlet shibazuke, made with cucumbers and eggplant and turned red by red shiso; the barely brined asazuke cucumbers.The presence of these items is a measure of how serious the chef is not just about pleasing his customers, but adhering to the rich tradition of sushi.