When it comes to sushi, Jarad Dewing battles between immediate gratification and future possibilities.
I greet Simon with a hearty “Nihao, chushi!” before we’re even halfway across the dining room. I want him to know we’re coming because this is my birthday dinner. Technically my birthday is tomorrow, but everybody has other plans on Christmas Day.
Chef Simon is here, though; I called ahead to make sure. Every time we come to Koto for sushi we are never disappointed, as long as we put ourselves at the mercy of this young chef’s obsessive mind, meticulous hands, and 12-inch razor steel.
Nobody around here knows fish like Simon. That’s why we are here. Well, that’s one reason. The other is that chefs, like I imagine any tradespeople, tend to recognize each other as fellows on a similar battlefield and treat each other with nuanced respect. And sometimes, if you’re lucky, favoritism.
This story isn’t about how to get the best sushi of your life just by buddying up to the chef.
“Ahh, happy birthday, chef!” Simon winks at us. And then he whispers, “Anago…” Our eyes light up. Anago is a simmered salt-water eel, more delicate and flaky than its barbecued cousin unagi. It’ll be the perfect dessert for our hedonistic evening. Chef Simon points at the tuna, a shimmering garnet of flesh. “Never frozen,” he assures us.
“Simon,” I pat my belly, “I haven’t eaten anything today just so we could go crazy tonight. We’ll take the Love Boat.”
The Love Boat is on the menu for two people who know they want to share a hell of a lot of raw fish but might not know what they like. Simon knows what we like. Twenty minutes later, he strains to lift a gargantuan white plate weighted down by a cornucopia of colors reminiscent of Jean Lafitte’s treasure chest. Thickly sliced slabs of salmon, pearly white tuna medallions, glistening mauve spirals of octopus tentacles… And then we start eating.
This story isn’t entirely about the food.
The tentacles, juvenile and springy, snap between my canines. Translucent hunks of ruby tuna melt like oceanic sorbet. White tuna like spring water, surf clam like mulling a briny philosophy, and raw grey scallops like – well, there’s really no better way to put this – like orally pleasuring the Atlantic. Amberjack belly, shining with fat, coats my palate with iridescent smoke. And the uni, oh that precious tongue-shaped urchin, bursts in my mouth with an unctuousness that makes me close my eyes.
Yet even through the bacchian haze of sake and halcyon amazement, I feel guilty. Yes, this is a story about paying a price for pleasure.
I might not be able to enjoy this kind of birthday dinner in another 35 years. Over 85% of our global fish stocks have been depleted, exploited, or on the verge of collapse. What does this mean for the sushi-loving pleasure seeker? It means that unless sustainable fishing practices are implemented worldwide, or farmed fish become ecologically and economically feasible as replacements, we might actually run out of fish.
I ask Chef Simon about my concerns, because I am feeling gregarious and slightly tipsy, and he acknowledges that while his restaurant does all they can to buy sustainable and eco-friendly fish, the market demand is so high for tuna and salmon that it sometimes becomes necessary to meet that demand rather than go out of business. I nod because I don’t know what else to do.
My fiancée and I never bothered to check the app we downloaded a few weeks ago from the Monterey Bay Aquarium, which would tell us which fish are being caught sustainably or farmed appropriately. I’m too busy shoveling various shades of mauve and ecru into my face to fully act on the principles I rationally know should guide my dining choices. I’m too enamored with the textures and the flavors to really care about whether or not those same experiences will be available in a few decades. I’m focused on the short term, which is me blissfully ignoring the hilariously loud hibachi crowd in favor of beloved company and a giant plate of fish. I’m not thinking of the long term: No more ruby loins of massive silver angels, but instead a sawdust 3D-printed facsimile factory-produced for future consumption by my children.
I try to drown my sorrows in quail egg on tobiko, but the flying fish eggs stick in my teeth. I drink another sake. I chomp mercilessly into the anago – its frail, sensuous skin sliding down my throat – and I almost choke on it when I remember what day it is. “Simon, are you working tomorrow? It’s Christmas…”
He shrugs. “It is no problem. I am Chinese.”