Did you know that sushi, like many other great foods, originated as a byproduct of preservation methods? Fish was packed in rice, where the lacto-fermentation of the rice prevented spoiling of the fish. Of course, the process has evolved over time. Vinegar aided then replaced fermentation, and modern refrigeration changed the world.
It was nearly 20 years ago, in this very community, where I had my first sushi experience. Here is how that conversation went:
Me: Sushi? Isn’t that raw fish from the ocean?
Friend: Yeah, but it’s cool…totally fresh.
Me: How fresh can it be? We aren’t exactly near any ocean.
Friend: Yeah but it’s frozen and shipped here.
Me: I thought you said fresh?
Friend: Frozen, fresh; same thing… just try it.
So off we went to Miko’s, a place a few of you may remember. It was Japanese and Korean cuisine, maybe even a little Thai influence. My friend started me slowly, California and Philadelphia rolls; nothing raw right out of the gate. Plenty of soy sauce, wasabi and ginger; bad habits I still employ today.
Champaign-Urbana’s food scene has grown a bit since then, and so too has the popularity of sushi. It turns out all sushi is frozen at some point; a process necessary to kill parasites. Additionally the fishing boats are often days from the pier so processing occurs out to sea and the fish is flash frozen to -76 degrees F. This deep freeze kills the parasites and prevents oxidation of the blood, the usual culprit for that “fishy” smell. WARNING – only saltwater fish should be used for sushi! Freshwater fish carries parasites that survive freezing, and they can kill you. So don’t think you can “make your own” from the local streams or ponds.
Asian Noodles & Sushi offers a similar fusion experience, albeit more casual than Miko’s used to be, combining Chinese and Japanese menu items. They offer all-you-can-eat sushi ($22 per person). The meal offers miso soup, seaweed salad, and sweet breads, though we were given crab Rangoon instead. Seaweed salad is never on my list of must haves, but the miso soup was rich and flavorful. I also enjoyed the Rangoon, but saw these items as a distraction to the main event. Perhaps also as a way to reduce appetite and consumption of sushi. Regardless my wife and I still managed to throw down four rolls: spicy tuna, yellowtail, tempura shrimp and the Dinosaur roll. All in all, we both left feeling satisfied and at about half the price of previous sushi dinners.
Leaving I had the impression they used a little extra rice in the rolls to fill you up more quickly. After my first trip I wanted to know if the rolls would be prepared any differently when ordered a la carte. The sushi roll menu is pretty standard, covering the basics with prices from $6 to $11 per roll. There is also a price discount for ordering two and three orders. There was no sashimi to speak of and the nigiri was limited to tuna, salmon, shrimp and yellowtail. This is understandable in an all-you-can-eat environment. It should also be noted that the all-you-can-eat comes with a caveat: If you order a bunch of sushi pieces or rolls and don’t eat them, you will be charged again at menu prices. I have seen this before at all-you-can-eat sushi bars before. I believe this is entirely fair and discourages wastefulness but I didn’t have any leftovers so I’m not sure how this is policy is enforced, nor do I know how they handle carry out of leftovers – not that leftover sushi is something I would be interested in.
My second trip was during lunch and I had hoped to try something from the noodle menu, but alas I was seduced by my question from above and approaching the limit after sampling the spring rolls ($4) and gyoza ($6), both of which were quite tasty. The gyoza (8 pieces) came with the standard dipping sauce (rice vinegar, soy sauce, red pepper flakes, garlic, ginger, green onions, and sesame oil), but it was the sweet and sour sauce with the spring rolls (4 pieces) that stole the show for me.
Back to my question: is a la carte prepared any differently than all-you-can-eat? My gut says yes but I have no hard evidence so you will have to judge for yourself; maybe I’ll remember calipers next time. Perhaps you can also try the noodles when you go; it looked like an appropriate and hearty meal for a cold and windy day. All in all, the place was nice and the staff was friendly and attentive. If you ever dined at Yellow Fin, the décor did not change, but you will get real chopsticks not disposable ones. A nice touch, I thought. I should also mention they deliver in a 4 mile radius.
Asian Noodle & Sushi
305 W Cedar
M-F 11 a.m. to 1 a.m.
Sa 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.