There it sits, a glistening testament to technology and culinary ingenuity, a morsel plucked from the sea scarcely a week ago, now trimmed, a rich burgundy in color, a thumb-sized piece of a fish that might’ve ben part of a 600-800 pound creature when it swam free in the open ocean, now astride a small mound of sticky rice.
Sushi, we call it, when “fresh” (actually, in the United States, nearly always flash-frozen) fish is served with vinegared rice. Here, “sushi” has mutated into a bewildering array of shapes, textures and sizes, many of them including thick, mayonnaise-based sauces.
But human beings think in archetypes. And the archetypical piece of sushi is that instantly recognizable slice of tuna atop the sushi rice.
Gene Nakanishi, owner of the Osaka restaurants on West Sahara Avenue and South Eastern Avenue, has a passion for good sushi. He says the key to good sushi is in its essence relatively simple: getting the best fish available.
“All tunas are graded, one-plus-plus all the way down to grade three,” he says. “Osaka only carries the one-plus-plus.”
You can get all kinds of fish at Osaka, which has been continuously operated for 46 years. Nakanishi says the freshest, best fish varies according to the season. In the summer, yellowfin tuna is preferred. It is a classic sushi (or sashimi, when it is served without rice) tuna, a rich burgundy color with a firm, almost beefy-tasting flesh. In the fall and spring, Nakanishi says, his Japanese-trained cooks are looking for bigeye tuna, which has an even firmer texture. September to May is the time for bluefin, the big boys that routinely weigh more than 600 pounds and can fetch staggering prices at Tokyo fish markets. Bluefin has a high fat content and the good stuff almost melts in your mouth.
“We follow the seasons on all the fish at Osaka,” Nakanishi says. And of course, there are other fishes that populate the menu at Osaka and the hundreds of other sushi restaurants in Vegas. Snapper, flounder, amberjacks; lobster and shrimp of various kinds; squid and octopus; oysters, clams and scallops.
“We serve a lot of exotic fishes here,” he says. Salmon, farmed or wild-caught, is also a very important sushi fish in the modern market.
Nakanishi believes that the many special rolls and sauces have helped bring people into sushi restaurants, but that’s not entirely a good thing. Some of those sauces completely obscure that taste of the open ocean that indicates good sushi. “The true art of Japanese food is being able to taste the fish in its natural state,” he says. “That’s what’s being lost.”
There are a couple of key issues in maintaining the best quality fish for his customers, Nakanishi says. Multiple freezing is the worst. Fish should be fresh or frozen just once; every time a fish is refrozen, it loses a third of its flavor, he says.
And once the fish is at the restaurant, ready for presentation and eating, it has to be carefully handled and protected. “If it smells like fish, then you have a problem,” he says. But some large fishes with high fat content, such as bluefin, actually need to age for several days under controlled conditions.
“Ideally, if it’s freshly caught, it doesn’t taste good,” Nakanishi says. “Especially the big ones, 300 pounds and up.”
Nakanishi and his chefs won’t disclose where they get their fish. He doesn’t want other restaurants taking the best fish from his distributors.
However, there are some big distributors to our town. John Sands is the buyer for Supreme Lobster and Seafood, which delivers sushi-grade fish to all the Strip resorts and to about 30 sushi restaurants around town. The Chicago-based company has been in Las Vegas for more than 20 years, and has two dozen delivery trucks constantly providing protein to customers throughout Clark County.
While many sushi restaurants maintain their personal, individual relationships with suppliers, mostly in Los Angeles, Supreme Lobster has been able to cultivate a loyal following by providing the best seafood available, Sands says. And that means tuna.
“There’s always got to be tuna,” he says. “They’re always going to have yellowfin. “
Almost all of the fish, including the tuna, delivered to his customers is flash-frozen. That’s not merely in order to preserve the fish, although that is part of it. Flash-freezing also kills the parasites that can live in fish. (That’s also why you won’t find much raw freshwater fish at a sushi bar or anywhere else. Freshwater fishes need to be cooked.) The fish should stay solidly frozen until it’s ready to be delivered to the ultimate consumer, Sands says.
“Out of 100 items, really only 10 or 15 are served truly fresh, especially your oysters and clams, that means never frozen,” Sands says. “They all say they serve everything fresh, but they don’t.”
Sands says the Southern Nevada Health District has very strict standards for serving sushi fish. That’s just one of the hurdles that restaurants and distributors face. Increasingly, the world is affecting the availability and quality of sushi fish. On the positive side, air freight means that a fish delivered to any port in the world can be on your restaurant plate within 48 hours.
He points to a large plastic crate of huge red snapper. One way to determine if a fish is fresh is its eyes. Clear eyes mean it’s fresh. Cloudy eyes mean the fish has been out of the water and bacteria have had time to multiply.
The eyes of these snapper are as clear as any fish just pulled from the sea. The tag attached to the 15-20 pound snappers disclose everything about its source: the boat it came in on, the date it was caught, even the longitude and latitude when it was landed.
“Traceability” is key, Sands says.
And there are big headaches, too. Climate patterns and ocean currents are disrupting fish supplies. Demand is rising while supplies are shrinking. Contamination is no longer tolerated on any level.
This is the modern reality of big fish. The distributors, government regulators, sushi chefs and probably a few customers need to know where and when that fish started its travel to our stomachs.
Fresh fish will still go through rounds of testing: for bacteria; for toxic contaminants, especially mercury; for parasites. And, since the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant meltdown in Japan in 2011, fish are now routinely tested for exposure to radiation. Supreme Lobster has its own radiation testing equipment in Las Vegas.
The bigger the fish gets, the more important it is to be thoroughly tested, Sands says. Fish are bio-accumulators. The big fish eat the little fish, which means that small amounts of contamination can concentrate in the larger predators.
Safe Harbor, a contract company, provides thorough testing services through an onsite laboratory, the only such laboratory in Las Vegas, Sands says. Fish will be rejected for mercury or bacterial contamination that is invisible to the eye and undetectable to the tongue.
Sands says that as recently as three months ago, 1,500 pounds of “absolutely beautiful” mahi-mahi had to be sent back to the wholesale company.
“It was just gorgeous, but somewhere along the line, that mahi had suffered temperature abuse,” he says. “Temperature abuse is what we call it. It is seafood’s worst enemy.”
These aren’t the only issues affecting the sushi industry. Overfishing has pushed bluefin, especially Atlantic bluefin, to the edge of extinction. Some chefs won’t serve it unless it is farmed, but demand for the largest and thus best-tasting bluefin tunas continues to push the price higher and higher.
Sands says he provides bluefin as a special order.
There are international and national efforts to protect fish stocks, but they aren’t always working, he says.
“One of the biggest problems we face is that there is no mandatory sustainability law, regarding sustainability of seafood,” he says. “They can’t control what the international fishing industry does.”
But the sushi business is coming to realize that customers want and demand sustainably harvested seafood, Sands says. “Customer knowledge and demand is the key.”
In the meantime, don’t expect demand for fresh fish and sushi in particular to fade away in Las Vegas. The city consumed 1.5 million tons of fresh and frozen salmon alone last year, Sands says. Supreme Lobster, one company, sold 800,000 tons of live lobsters to Las Vegas. In total, the company sells 250,000 tons of fresh and frozen fish of all kinds every week.
Sands sees fish as a growth industry. Twenty years ago, consumers had fish sticks and breaded shrimp in Las Vegas. Today, swordfish, fresh salmon, scallops and other seafood can be found at supermarkets, and high-quality seafood is available from places such as Trader Joe’s in Las Vegas. For Sands, who samples a piece of tuna every day, and an oyster or two every couple of days, that’s a good thing. It’s hard to disagree.