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Order Smarter at Japanese Restaurants

Alex Van Buren

Every cuisine has its most famous dishes, every diner her go-to dish. But even your beloved pad Thai/cheese enchiladas/Alaska roll can get a little tired. Break out of that ordering rut with the help of smartypants experts who know all the menu’s secret tricks and gems.

Order Smarter at Japanese Restaurants

Photo credit: StockFood

Kyoto-born Sylvan Mishima Brackett has studied cooking in both France and Japan, and has worked in both a renowned countryside soba shop and a Tokyo kaiseki (prix fixe) restaurant. After spending time as the special assistant to Alice Waters for six years, he now runs Peko Peko, a Japanese catering company in San Francisco, and will open Rintaro, a brick-and-mortar izakaya (a pub-like Japanese spot) late this summer. Who better to school us on the top tips for ordering smarter at refined Japanese establishments and izakayas alike?

1. See if there are Japanese people eating there. Brackett acknowledges with a laugh that this is slightly stereotypical, but says that “this is common for every ethnic restaurant; make sure that the people who know the food actually like the food.”

2. Study the menu for crazy rolls and a weather-beaten look. "I actually like a lot of the crazy rolls," says Brackett, "but a crazy roll is usually a sign of a place that is pandering ever so slightly. If there’s a roll with cream cheese and salmon, or a deep-fried roll, it’s not authentic,” he warns. “Which is fine!” he adds. By the same token, keep an eye peeled for “a weathered menu that looks like it’s had the same fish every day for 20 years.” This usually takes the edge off of Brackett’s enthusiasm for a place, if there’s no indication that management is paying attention to which fish are in season and there’s “no sign of having specials or anything like that.”

3. Look at the sushi case to know if you want to order sushi. "If [all the fish] is wrapped in plastic wrap and piled up, that’s generally kind of a turnoff,” says Brackett. He warns that “how nicely they keep the case in public is a sign of what’s going on in the back.” Read: A clean, presentable selection of fresh fish indicates that the back kitchen keeps things tidy, too. 

4. Ask “What’s tasty?” Be careful how you word your inquiries with the waiter, “Ask what’s recommended and particularly tasty, not ‘What’s fresh?’ That’s insulting.” Keep in mind that lots of places feel a lot of pressure to have a really broad menu, says Brackett, including staples like tuna, halibut, and fluke, but oftentimes that means they’ll get it frozen. By asking what’s tasty, you’re more likely to get “the halibut their friend just caught.”

5. Use the cloth correctly, and don’t get mad if it joins you for dinner. The moist cloth handed your way in a tray at the start of some meals “should be cold in the summer, and hot in the winter,” says Brackett. In Japan,”if you are a gentleman or a lady, you’ll use it to wipe your hands,” whereas if you use it to wipe your face or neck, it’s considered “a little déclassé.” That said, look around: What sort of restaurant are you in? “If you go to an izakaya that’s down and dirty, everyone’s wiping their whole body off with it, if you’re super sweaty and [it’s the] middle of summer.” (That’s when it’d be OK to do a full wipedown.)

Then what to do with it when you’re done? “Put it back in the tray. At some places in New York, they let you keep it for the night; at the restaurant, we’ll say, ‘that’s your napkin for the night.’ If they don’t take it away you’re supposed to dab at it with your fingers throughout the night.”

6. Don’t pour your own drink. "If you get a sake or something, whoever is the host of the evening will pour everyone else drinks,” ignoring their own cup. Lift up your glass to receive the sake when you’re gestured to; it’s a way of acknowledging the effort. Then pick up the bottle and serve your host. This leads, Brackett laughs, to “a lot of peer pressure drinking in Japan.”

7. Never leave your chopsticks standing up in a bowl of rice. This is a huge cultural no-no. “That’s a funeral ritual,” warns Brackett. “They stick chopsticks into ashes [that way]; that’s a really bad connotation.” Also, use your share plates and “don’t pass things from chopstick to chopstick; they pass bones from chopstick to chopstick at funerals.”

8. Specify price when ordering omakase. When ordering omakase (pronounced o-MA-ka-se),which means putting yourself in the hands of the sushi chef and letting him or her control your whole meal, feel free to specify price, says Brackett. “Say ‘Omakase for $75,’ or $100, or $200. It’s sometimes good to specify how much you want to spend otherwise you might end up with a ridiculous bill.”

9. Don’t freak out if people shout when you enter. At some casual restaurants, it’s traditional tobe greeted with a shout—Irasshaimase!when you enter. Brackett counts this as a good sign. “It means they’re paying attention to you in particular.” Your response? “You can just smile.”

10. Sometimes it’s not rude to shout at the waiter. Be very cautious with this one, but Brackett says that “in a really super-Japanese restaurant with lots of Japanese people, you can shout to the waiter, wave your hand and say ‘hello’….and it’s not considered rude.” That said, you have to be very careful. The best bet is to wait till someone else does this first, and doesn’t seem to provoke a bad reaction. (You’re not quite in Rome, er, Japan, yet!)