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March 25, 2006

'The Raw Truth' — Sushi Expose in Today's Wall Street Journal

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The Wall Street Journal's Weekend edition appears to finally have achieved escape velocity with today's superb lead article, in its Pursuits section, by G. Bruce Knecht.

Knecht takes the fish by the gills and dives deep beneath the placid surface to bring up from the deep truths and facts purveyors of some of the country's most expensive raw fish might well have preferred remain on the sea bottom.

What with Julia Moskin's classic outgassing back in 2004 in the New York Times about carbon monoxide–treated–tuna, today's article is sure to have American sushi lovers' baggies in a mega–twist.

Here's Knecht's story, with an accompanying table deconstructed [click to blow up and make readable] and interspersed between the paragraphs.

Long story short: just say no to the spicy tuna roll.

Following the article is an accompanying boxed sidebar with a few words to the wise to help you get the best possible shot at great raw fish.

    The Raw Truth

    Gassed tuna. Frozen salmon. The sushi business is booming -- but diners don't always know what they're getting. Where the fish really comes from, and how to spot the good stuff.

    At Tama Sushi on Ventura Boulevard in Studio City, Calif., chef Katsu Michite serves raw fish that some consider among the best in town.

    It's $12 for two small pieces of bluefin tuna.

    Just down the road is Todai, a big sushi chain where $14 buys a full lunchtime buffet, including all the fish you can eat.

    Despite the big price gap, the two restaurants have something in common: They get much of their fish from the same supplier.

    Sushi -- one of the fastest-growing segments of the restaurant business -- is now firmly in the mainstream, served everywhere from military canteens to 7-Elevens, and in all 50 states.

    Even Tony Soprano and his wife, Carmela, ditched the scaloppine for yellowtail in the season opener of "The Sopranos."

    But at a time when other kinds of restaurants are inundating diners with details about where their pork chops spent their youth and what farmer harvested their veggies, sushi is curiously out of step.

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    Even at top-of-the-line establishments, menus rarely say anything about where the fish comes from.

    It turns out just a few suppliers stock most of the sushi restaurants in any given city.

    One of the more popular cuts, yellowtail, almost always traces its origins to the same fish farms in Japan regardless of price.

    "Yellowtail is yellowtail," says Choi Pak, a wholesaler who supplies Tama Sushi and Todai.

    Even in the same restaurant, quality can vary.

    Spicy tuna rolls, another staple, are often a way to disguise less-than-top-quality tuna.

    Other servings of tuna, whether on a bed of rice or as sashimi, may not be as fresh as they look; its rich red color may indicate it was caught days ago -- or that it was "gassed" to give it a rosy glow.

    And even fish described as fresh may well have been in the freezer for a while, which the Food and Drug Administration recommends to kill parasites.

    Restaurateurs and distributors say the quality of fish varies -- and prices reflect that.

    When a bluefin loin arrives at a wholesaler, for instance, it is examined and priced based largely on its color and fat content.

    This process is inherently more subjective than, say, pricing beef, which has already been given a grade by inspectors from the Department of Agriculture.

    To some extent, sushi restaurants put their faith in their suppliers, trusting that higher prices correspond to higher quality.

    A small number of high-end places with agents who buy for them at markets in Japan rely on the judgment of their buyers.

    Some chefs, like Mr. Michite of Tama Sushi, go to their fishmongers every morning and pick out the fish they want.

    "Experience decides everything," says Mr. Michite. "I've been doing this for 45 years."

    At Todai, a spokesman says the company orders by fax and sends back fish deemed inadequate.

    He adds that Todai benefits pricewise by ordering in volume.

    The number of Japanese restaurants, nearly all of which serve sushi, more than doubled in the past decade, to 9,182 last year, up from 4,086, according to Japanese Food Trade News, while sushi sales hit $2.8 billion, up from $1.1 billion in 2000.

    Technomic, a food industry research and consulting firm, expects growth to continue at 10% to 20% annually for the next five years -- by contrast, the overall restaurant industry is growing at 5% a year.

    Mr. Pak, the Los Angeles fish wholesaler, says he's selling 30% more sushi than he did a decade ago; it's the fastest-growing segment of his business.

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    Sushi owes some of that popularity to the perception that it's healthy.

    But tuna, perhaps the most popular sushi fish, may contain high levels of mercury.

    "A lot of people think sushi is a health food, but it isn't if you eat tuna sushi twice a week," says Eli Saddler, a public health analyst with GotMercury.org, an environmental advocacy group that tested sushi from five restaurants in California earlier this year.

    Mercury, which occurs both naturally and from industrial sources, is absorbed by marine food chains.

    It's most concentrated in top predators, such as swordfish, shark and tuna.

    In GotMercury's test, 25% of the tuna samples were close to the FDA's limit of 1 part per million; 75% had more than 0.5 part per million of mercury, the maximum many countries consider safe.

    Every sample exceeded Japan's 0.4 parts-per-million standard.

    Coverage of the test has generated controversy in California, where fish restaurants and retailers that employ more than 10 people are required to post warnings about mercury.

    Activists say the warnings should be nationwide and the FDA should do much more testing.

    Understanding the sushi hierarchy can make for smarter ordering.

    For example, chefs often reserve the best-quality seafood for sashimi, which is served without a bed of rice.

    Spicy tuna rolls are often at the bottom of the hierarchy.

    And that healthy red color that makes the tuna look as if were swimming an hour ago?

    This may be the color of tuna that has been gassed, or as it is sometimes called, "smoked."

    After the fish is cut into loins or filets and before it's frozen, it's exposed to carbon monoxide, which binds with hemoglobin to prevent the flesh from turning from red to brown to gray.

    Joe Gumpel of Gotham Seafood, a major New York distributor, says he sells gassed fish, mostly to cruise-line customers, but says, "It misrepresents the product.

    You can't tell when it was caught, and you don't know that it went into a factory for enhancements."

    In our survey of 50 top sushi restaurants (above and below), single pieces of yellowtail ranged from $2 at Suehiro in Salt Lake City to $5 at Morimoto.

    But unlike tuna, which comes from all over the world and varies in color and fat content, yellowtail generally used in sushi is quite uniform.

    Chefs and vendors say that nearly all yellowtail used in sushi is farm-raised in Japan.

    Star sushi chef Masaharu Morimoto, who recently expanded from Philadelphia to New York, agrees, but says that his is fresher than other restaurants may be able to buy because he gets shipments from Japan four times a week. (He says he also uses buri, a kind of wild yellowtail, on the rare occasions when he can get it.)

    Then there's that omnipresent modifier "fresh."

    Most sushi fish has been frozen at some point.

    The state of the art is flash freezing, in which the fish are frozen so quickly in super-cold chillers that the moisture in its flesh does not crystallize and the fish isn't mushy when thawed.

    Kee Chan, the owner of Heat, a sleek, high-end sushi place in Chicago, says all of the fish he serves is fresh, although he also acknowledges that much of it has been flash frozen.

    "Once it gets to us," he says, "it's fresh."

    To confuse things even more, experts say that some seafood that's been frozen is superior.

    "I've seen an assembly line where eels are alive at the start of the process, then stunned, filleted, vacuum-packed and frozen," says Robert Wholey, who owns Pittsburgh's biggest seafood distributor.

    "That's as fresh as you can get."

    One way to ensure quality, according to some chefs, is to order direct from Japan.

    New York's Masa, with its $350 prix-fixe dinner, is generally regarded as the country's most expensive restaurant.

    Its chef-owner, Masayoshi Takayama, has what amounts to a personal fish shopper in Japan.

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    An agent buys for him at Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo and directly from fishermen at the port of Chiba, then rushes the fish to the airport to catch a nonstop flight to New York, JAL's flight 006.

    As soon as the fish clears Customs, the driver of the van who will bring it to Masa calls with an estimate for his arrival time.

    Mr. Takayama claims fish caught near Japan feed on superior plankton.

    "Good plankton is as important to fish as soil is to crops," he says.

    That's "pure nonsense," says Daniel Pauly, the director of the University of British Columbia's Fisheries Centre.

    Still, the quality of the fish sold at the Tsukiji market is widely admired by industry insiders.

    They point to the enormous volume of fish sold there (about 2,000 pounds of marine products every day), the high standards of the domestic market, the exacting way fish are butchered and handled, the temperature controls and the hygienic standards.

    That's why sushi chefs like Chris Kinjo of Atlanta's MF Sushibar buy much of their fish in Japan and air-freight it to the U.S. at a cost of $3 to $4 a pound.

    A broker working for Mr. Kinjo shops at Tsukiji and ships fish on a nonstop Delta flight to Atlanta three times a week.

    New York's Jewel Bako also gets most of its fish directly from Japan.

    So do both branches of Morimoto.

    But the fish at most sushi restaurants arrives by routes so complicated that even many chefs admit that they do not know exactly where it came from.

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    Most acquire their fish from several local suppliers.

    Some are affiliates of large importers like New Jersey-based True World Foods, which has branches across the country, and Yama Seafood, which supplies 300 restaurants, mostly in the Northeast.

    Other wholesalers are local businesses.

    All typically buy fish that comes from many places around the globe.

    Some of the tuna sold at the Atlanta affiliate of True World Foods, for example, is caught in the Pacific, landed in Southeast Asia, then shipped to Latin America enroute to Atlanta; salmon is flown in from fish farms in Chile or Scotland.

    Long Island-based importer Bob Sedano, who supplies tuna to Gotham Seafood and several other New York wholesalers, says he buys fish "opportunistically" from all around the world.

    So apart from that Japanese-farmed yellowtail and California sea urchins, you can rarely be sure where the fish on your vinegared rice has been swimming.

    But you can count on the rice: Nearly all of it is grown in California.

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Tips

March 25, 2006 at 04:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Switch Lock

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Very nicely done.

I can't speak for you — well, that's not really true, I could, but I really think we should discuss that another time, don't you? — but me, I've got several wall switches that I don't want to see used ever.

They turn off and on one of the two outlets in a couple of my wall plates, such that someone unwittingly flicking the switch turns off lamps, electric clocks which turn out to have dead back–up batteries and the like.

Most annoying, having to reset the clock and get everything else back up and running.

I've seen devices you screw on to the plate to completely cover the switch but they've never caught my fancy.

What I do instead is place a horizontal band of strapping tape across the switch (below, an actual unretouched photograph* taken by yours truly not five minutes before I typed these words)

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which makes it almost impossible to move the switch from its fixed (by me) position.

That's all well and good but what if I want to for some reason turn that switch off and on?

Then I've got to take off the tape and then redo it from scratch when I'm done using the switch, because the stuff is kind of welded on after years of having not been touched.

I've not once fooled with one of my near–impregnable switches — but I'm not you, am I?

Maybe you have needs — needs I don't know about and can't even begin to imagine.

What about that?

That's precisely why the Switch Lock is so cool: there's a button on the side (top) to override the lock and let you operate the switch.

From the website:

    Switch Lock gives you peace-of-mind as it prevents vital appliances and devices from being accidentally switched off.

    Some switches like your furnace, basement freezer, answering machine and timer-connected devices should never be turned off.

    Switch Lock is the dependable alternative to peeling tape and faded warning notes to keep those switches on.

    Attach it to a standard wall plate and it locks the switch on.

    To turn it off, just push a button.

    • Versatile switch also locks a switch in the 'OFF' position — just mount it with the switch opening oriented at the bottom to keep a switch from accidentally being turned 'ON'.

    • No electrical or circuit adjustment needed — here's no need for any wiring or shutting off a circuit breaker. Just mount the lock with two screws.

    • Switch can be unlocked in an emergency — just push a button to override the lock and operate the switch.

    Hardware included.

    In Ivory or White.

    2½" w X 3¼" h.

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A significant advance, in my humble opinion.

$12.95.

*From time to time I am asked if any of my photographs are for sale, with perhaps an autograph to authenticate them.

When joeTV goes live sometime this century, one of the channel's signature features will be a regularly–scheduled real–time auction of treasures such as genuine digital photos, pressed flowers and the like.

Stay tuned.

March 25, 2006 at 03:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

The Dream Palace of Gustave Moreau

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The French artist died in 1898, bequeathing his house and thousands of paintings and drawings to the French state.

On a quiet cobblestone street in the Ninth Arrondissement of Paris, it remains suspended in time.

Marcel Proust, a frequent guest of Moreau, remarked that even before Moreau's death the house had already "taken on the appearance of a museum."

Adam Leith Gollner wrote about the Musée Gustave–Moreau (above) in an evocative piece which appeared in the March 19 New York Times Magazine Travel supplement; the article follows.

    Dream House

    When the artist Gustave Moreau died in 1898, he bequeathed his three-story house, containing more than 1,200 paintings and 12,800 drawings, to the French state.

    His only wish was that the collection be kept together forever.

    "Taken as a whole," he stated, "they give an idea of what kind of an artist I was, and in what kind of surroundings I chose to live my dreams."

    More than a century later, Moreau's donation remains one of the most unusual attractions in Paris.

    Tucked away on a lonesome cobblestone street in the Ninth Arrondissement, the museum that houses the collection — Musée Gustave-Moreau — has barely changed. (Marcel Proust, a frequent guest, noted that even before Moreau's death, the house had already "taken on the appearance of a museum.")

    It's still the same otherworldly, dusty place that has inspired awe in artists from Matisse to Dalí to the poet André Breton.

    In addition to the art, the building also shelters a dizzying array of personal effects.

    The rooms are like cabinets of curiosities, teeming with miniature sphinxes, alabaster camels, stuffed tortoises and bell jars filled with birds.

    Moreau's stated motto was, "I only believe what I do not see."

    His paintings are a hallucinatory mix of mythology and eroticism, meant to transport the viewer to what he called "unknown and distant worlds, where all is mystery and holiness."

    Stepping into his town house is to discover this enchanted land. For information, go to www.musee-moreau.fr.

March 25, 2006 at 02:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Vase from the [near] 2nd dimension

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"Honey, I lost a dimension."

I mean, aren't vases supposed to exist in three rather than a Flatlandish 2+?

I guess not.

From the website:

    Outline Vase

    A novel interpretation of the classic vase, this porcelain "outline" of the familiar shape creates an interesting floral display and gives the admirer a framed, new perspective.

    9.5H x 6.5"W x 2.75"D.

    Made in Japan.

$48.

March 25, 2006 at 01:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

'Historical Dictionary of American Slang'

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Wonderful news this morning: it's on once again.

This epic undertaking, begun in the 1960s by Jonathan E. Lighter when, as a high school student, he started to collect slang in notebooks, seemed to be on track and moving along beautifully when, in 1994, Volume I: A–G," appeared with Lighter, by now a professor at the University of Tennessee, devoting all of his research time to the project.

In 1997 "Volume II: H–O," came out, and I settled in to wait for the presumed third and final volume.

I'm still waiting.

Every year I nose around to see if there's anything on the final volume front.

This morning there was.

Long story short: Oxford University Press acquired the project from Random House in 2003 after Random House became unable to finance the project's completion.

Editorial work had stopped and Lighter had abandoned the dictionary and returned to teaching.

Oxford green–lighted the project, Lighter got back into the captain's chair and the project resumed.

Look for "Volume III: P–S[Part 1] next month and "Volume IV: S[Part 2]–Z" in 2008.

These are wonderful books for the linguaphile; I often read the entire page containing the term or word I looked up, and the facing page as well.

It's always been a source of frustration that about half the time the term or word begins with a letter in the alphabet beyond "O," leaving me all dressed up investigatively with no invitation to the party I really, really want to go to.

    Here's more on the revival of the dictionary:

    Project History

    Chief Editor Jonathan E. Lighter first became interested in slang in the late 1960s, when, as a high-school student, he started to collect slang in notebooks.

    By the time he was in college he was doing extensive historical research on American slang.

    His first major article, "The Slang of the American Expeditionary Forces, 1917-1919: An Historical Glossary," was published in American Speech, the journal of the American Dialect Society, when Lighter was still an undergraduate.

    Lighter followed his mentor, John Fisher, a former president of the Modern Language Association, to the University of Tennessee, where in 1980 he finished his Ph.D. dissertation, in essence a draft of the letter "A" of the present book.

    While teaching courses in linguistics, composition, and literature at the University of Tennessee, the editor chose since 1980 to devote all available research time to the completion of the dictionary.

    His commitment to this project remains total after more than three decades of labor; it is now his primary undertaking.

    During this time Lighter began communicating with Stuart Berg Flexner, the Editor in Chief of the reference department at Random House and himself the junior editor of the Dictionary of American Slang, then the best one-volume book on the subject and still useful in its current highly revised version.

    The project came significantly closer to fruition in 1984 when Lighter negotiated to provide for publication of the completed work.

    In the mid-1980s Flexner signed Lighter up to edit a historical dictionary that was, with the optimism typical of most lexicographical projects, envisioned as one large volume to be published after only several years of editorial work.

    Though much of the early material was set into type, various factors prevented the book from being published, not least an uncertainty about what had clearly become a multivolume publication.

    Random House published the first two volumes of HDAS, which received widespread acclaim in the popular press as well as in the scholarly journals.

    The first volume was published in 1994.

    The second volume followed in 1997.

    Despite the groundswell of admiration, Random House, a commercial publisher unable to finance the years of work needed to complete a project of this scope, stopped editorial work after the publication of Volume II.

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    Progress on the dictionary came to a halt, and Dr. Lighter returned to teaching.

    In 2003, Oxford University Press acquired the project from Random House and immediately began the work necessary to complete the dictionary.

    Oxford University Press plans to release volume III (P through part of S) in 2006, and the remainder as volume IV in 2008.

March 25, 2006 at 12:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

World's Finest Cutting Board Scraper

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It was manufactured as an industrial bench scraper but now extends its functionality to your kitchen space.

From the website:

    Cutting Board and BBQ scraper

    Get the "gunk" off your wood cutting boards, butcher block tops and BBQ grills.

    Manufactured as an industrial bench scraper, this ceramic planer from Kyocera will remove the build–up of food residues.

    Minor cuts and abrasions are also smoothly planed away.

    2" wide ceramic blade.

$19.99.

March 25, 2006 at 11:01 AM | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Google Logo Maker — on steroids

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Bad news, good news.

As you may recall, the Google logo maker featured here on January 31 disappeared soon after I mentioned it.

This past Monday I received an email from a reader advising me that the precise day it was taken down was February 15 — but not to fret.

'Cause said reader then directed me here, where you can once again play to your heart's content with Google–style logos (top).

But wait — there's more.

That same page offers a link to another page offering eight other logo styles for you to play with (below).

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And that's not all.

If you order now... just kidding.

But if you persist you will come upon yet another page with an additional 20 or so other logo styles plus the ability to render yours in a choice of over 60 different colors and 10 patterns.

One door — or website — closes, another opens....

March 25, 2006 at 10:01 AM | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Don't ask

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March 25, 2006 at 09:01 AM | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

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