Sushi 101: SoCo style

Here's Your Guide to Sushi in Sonoma County

Rainbow roll at Andy's Sushi in Petaluma
Rainbow roll at Andy’s Sushi in Petaluma

Omakase. It’s one of those insider-y food words that’s supposed to make you sound really cool when you sit down at a sushi bar. It means “It’s up to you, chef,” in Japanese. A sign of respect and trust, the phrase gives a stranger carte blanche to choose what exotic and potentially dangerous foods you’ll be ingesting over the next 30 minutes or so. Not a word to be taken lightly.
“Omakase,” I practice silently mouthing the words. Omakase, omakase, omakase I think walking through the doors of Sam’s sushi bar in Bennett Valley, Yao-Kiku (2700 Yulupa Ave, Santa Rosa, 707.578.8180). I’m in your hands, esteemed sushi man. Make me what you will.
“Oka masy,” I mumble lamely to the 60-something Sam as he looks me over. Dead silence. He gives me one of those expressions that conveys both confusion and amusement. “Omkamse.” Omasake? He’s not getting it. “Uh, your choice,” I say, turning as red as the raw tuna in his chilled sushi case and speaking extra loud — as if that will help. “Just feed me. Uh, whatever. You know.” Out of pity, I think, Sam gets to work, pulling and pointing at hunks of meat — sake, uni, maguro.
Revealing your inner gaijin can be a scary thing. Sidling up to the bar and rattling off your best sushi pidgin feels ridiculous, no matter how earnest or experienced you are. Books tell you it’s smart and hip to say this stuff. I just feel goofy and embarrassed. Like when my dad once confessed to a random dim sum waitress, “We are not from here, we do not understand your customs,” on a rare, exotic visit to China Town. Ugh.
But if there’s anything I’ve learned in the two plus years since BiteClub’s original Sushi Smackdown, it’s that eating sushi is an intensely personal experience — a one-on-one relationship with the guy (and yes, it’s usually a guy) behind the counter. You can eat a whole lot of raw fish and never truly eat sushi.
So, consider this one gaijin’s advice to another, after eating at dozens of sushi joints from coast to coast — including more than twenty right here in Wine Country. I’ve done the dirty work so you can simply sit back and simply say, Omakase. Or whatever you want.
1. Grocery store sushi is best left to the pros (and midnight cravings): There is a difference. Low-end, premade sushi has its place, but it’s not the real deal. Great sushi starts with great rice — a process carefully guarded by chefs. The rice should be loosely packed and eaten at body temperature. Not cold. Or made the day (or several days) before. And I’m not even going to get into the fish. Best bets: Pacific Market is my go-to, but even then, I usually stick with California rolls. Most grocery outlets, by the way, use large sushi manufacturing companies like Southern Tsunami or Fujisan to supply their needs. They’re safe and usually reliable, but the flavor can really suffer.
2. Get to know your sushi chef: I can’t stress this enough. If you’re really going to eat sushi, make it a special splurge and spring for the best. Raw fish isn’t something to mess around with, not only because of its potential for spoilage but because it can also harbor some nasty little parasites. A good sushi chef will point you to the freshest stuff they have and stake his reputation on his selections. They’ll also help guide you to new tastes.
3. If it doesn’t taste right, don’t eat it: This seems like a duh, but I’ve made the mistake of eating raw scallops that seemed a bit off because I felt bad leaving them on the plate. Dumb move. Good sushi should taste clean and fresh and have almost no odor. Eat at establishments that have high fish turnover. One of my faves spots Gary Chu’s Sake’O, 505 Healdsburg Ave, Healdsburg, 707.433/2669.
4. Fresh vs. Frozen: This one’s a head-scratcher. According to FDA law, all fish to be consumed raw in the US is supposed to have been blast-frozen to kill off potential parasites. However, it’s up to the state to enforce this and California, according to my research, checks restaurants but doesn’t enforce the freeze rule for all fish. Salmon must be frozen because of its high potential for parasites, but other fish, like tuna, has less risk and isn’t always pre-frozen. This makes it taste better, but a bit more risky in untrained hands.
5. Nigiri vs. Sashimi vs rolls: Sushi actually means rice in Japanese. Nigiri is a rectangular(ish) bit of rice with fish on top. One order is two pieces. Sashimi are thin slices of fish without the rice. Rolls are a pet peeve of mine, meaning they’ve gotten way out of control. I realize that fried stuff slathered with mayonnaise sauce can taste good, but it’s not sushi. And there might be a reason they’re hiding the taste of the fish with all that stuff. Ick.
6. Wasabi: The hot green stuff that hurts your nose is probably not real wasabi at all, but a paste of horseradish and mustard with food coloring. Real wasabi can be quite expensive, but you can find hand-grated Oregon wasabi at Hana Japanese (in Rohnert Park), which has a sweeter, lighter flavor and grainier texture.
7. Soy sauce: The sign of a total amateur is pouring a big bowl of sauce, mixing in a bunch of wasabi so it makes a sort of greyish paste, then dunking your nigiri in the whole mess rice first. The best method is to pour a small amount of sauce into your bowl. Mix in a little wasabi if you must, but most good sushi chefs will season the sushi as they think it should be eaten.
8. Fingers or not: It’s totally kosher to eat nigiri with your fingers. Good sushi bars will offer you a hot towel before the meal to freshen your digits for just this reason.
9. The menu is just an outline: Feel free to ask questions and order just a few bites at a time. Order something new and different once in a while. Uni (sea urchin) is something I avoided for years because of its strange color and texture. It’s actually sweet, creamy and wonderful. Same with raw scallops. And monkfish liver.Yum.
10. Sake to me: You can drink anything you like with sushi, but sake is pretty traditional. I, personally, prefer Diet Pepsi. You may like hot tea. There’s no real right or wrong.
Top pick in the 2009 Sonoma County Sushi Smackdown
All around best: 
I’ve given over the 2009 Top Sushi Spot to Hana Japanese Restaurant After having put in some serious time with the staff, my eyes are open to the wonders that sushi can truly be. Ken Tominaga and his staff get fresh fish flown in from Japan and beyond each day, and know how to handle it with artistry and care. The key here: Ask questions and show your enthusiasm. Your interest will be returned in kind. 101 Golf Course Drive, Rohnert Park, 707.586.0270.
Since last time, there are a few newcomers including Toyo Japanese, 3082 Marlow Road, Suite B3, Santa Rosa, and the new Boathouse Sushi in Santa Rosa (2360 Mendocino Ave., Santa Rosa, (707) 546-7153, Tosaki Sushi, 799 Gravenstein Hwy, Sebastopol, 707.829.0892. Best of the bunch, however, is Gohan Japanese, 1367 North McDowell Blvd, Suite 150, Petaluma.
Still Solid:
Go-tos still include Ume (8710 Old Redwood Hwy, Windsor), Sushi Tozai (7531 Healdsburg Ave., Sebastopol)
Want more sushi recommendations? Check out my original Sushi Smackdown.


35 thoughts on “Sushi 101: SoCo style

  1. I have eaten at almost every sushi place in the county over the last few years and many of them have very good qualities. Really for me its whether i want a fun and flashy meal or just good basic fresh fish. I fear i must warn you all about Tosaki Sushi… we had a group of 4 sushi lovers eat there. All of us use to and lovers of fresh raw fish. 3 of the 4 got terrible food poisoning. This experience has not scared me away from sushi all together, but I think it is very important to evaluate the restaurant and situtaion a little better.

  2. I learned to eat sushi in Japan many years ago. I think the fad of sushi rolls has gotten out of hand. Calif roll is about as excotic as I can take. Gohan is a very good suchi place. Since Steve died the quality had gone down. Still it is better than most. My big complaint with most places is that they charge for tea. In Japan tea is served at your seat as water is served here. When a place charges for tea they have just received my last dollar.

  3. I agree that Sushi Tozai in Sebastopol but for my money I go to Senju in Sebastopol. Chef Koji and his wife Jo always use the freshest ingredients and everything is so good. Its also a great place to take a group when someone of them dont want to eat the raw stuff because their cooked food is to die for. Best Tempura in Sonoma County!

  4. Having tried every sushi restaurant in the Petaluma/Rohnert Park area, GOHAN’s is the best, hands down. Great salads, sushi, tempura and their Bananas Foster is a wonderful ending to a great meal. My family and friends from San Fran and Marin have all been dazzled and often beg to go out to Gohan’s when they are visiting us. Try the Hula Girl or the Steve’s roll for a special taste treat!

  5. ‘Sashimi Soul’ sounds a bit fishy to me…People who try to hide behind random internet posts with fake names are pitiful….
    Any rate. I agree with you regarding Hana in RP Heather. I also enjoy OSAKE, the new Boat House and Windsor’s hidden secret: UME.

  6. Have any of you ever try Senju Sushi Restaurant in central Windsor?..I think it is the best place to go for sushi rolls..spicy green tuna roll and sun flower roll are my favorites…reasonable prices and good favor..nice atmosphere and friendly services..their entrees also delicious..walnut prawns is the best in the sonoma county!

  7. Ume is going in the tank. Just got back and the sashimi portions were pitiful. Too bad as they had a good thing going there. Maybe a sign of the times. Servive is still very good though. Hana is good no doubt but Yao is still my fav. Love the hole in the wall atmosphere and Sam’s scoul… The Chirashi is the best in the county.

  8. Can someone PLEASE post what is the secret menu at Osake? I know about the Utah roll. It’s pretty good, but not $15 good….but what else? Thanks!

  9. coddingtown sushi rocks and I tried tthe one at Olivers in santa rosa on stoney point rd not bad at all

  10. Regarding Hana in Rohnert Park, I don’t mind waiting for sushi, I understand the process and how long it takes. Waiting for a beer however is unacceptable.
    And the last time I was in there they completely forgot one of our items we ordered and had to take it off the check. Maybe it was just the server? Food was pretty good but Gohan is still my favorite.

  11. Great thoughts Sean…you clearly know your stuff. I didn’t realize that Yo was at Toyo. Despite some opening snafus, I think their sushi is quite solid.

  12. Folks,
    I love this discussion about Sushi and how important service is to folks. I am also glad Heather reminded folks about the two Hana’s, they are vastly different places.
    I have a fondness for Sakura since it is one of the first places I began to explore Sushi. Yeah, the decor is a bit garish, but that is how many sushi places are in Japan, really! The owners are quite nice and the food reasonable and decent.
    Now Hana in RP is by far the best place for fresh fish sushi hands down in many folks opinion and I would argue it is the best Japanese restaurant overall (value, quality, atmosphere, service & selection). Things take time there because the craft requires it and if you need to be quick tell them and order accordingly, Japanese style of service is slow and yes, that can be irritating, but if you know going in… If you still are unhappy, tell the manager/owner politely and it will usually help what ever restaurant you are at. Hana’s none sushi food is also quite nice and is why I take folks who don’t eat sushi there when I need it and want them to try it. Hana’s wine list is very nice. Yup, it ain’t cheep, but neither is the food and drink.
    Toyo is now a place I will go since Yo (the main sushi chef) came on board after closing his place, Café Japan (now Rendezvous Bistro), which was my all time favorite spot since Jen and Yo not only gave us great food, but a lovely experience. Yo is in control of most of the kitchen/food so it is better than average, but the atmosphere and service are just okay. Decent wine list and prices. Sit at the bar and have chat with Yo and he will make you happy.
    I used to go to Jo-Jo’s Sushi when Yo was there many many years ago and it still a decent place if I am down town Santa Rosa.
    Sushi to Dai or is okay, but too loud and hit and miss for my tastes.
    Yoa-Kiku has been around a long time and is consistent. It is much more traditional Japanese and solid food across the board. Okay atmosphere and service.
    I am surprised no one had mentioned Shogun which is a very traditional place that is solid all around and the other place I learned about Japanese food.
    Anyway, what I am getting at is this, when it comes to dinning out, and Sushi and Burgers in particular it is a strange combination of atmosphere and food for folks with a lot of your mood controlling the outcome. I am a very particular guy (ask my wife and friends), but I also can be just fine when the group I am with is having fun and they usually don’t care as much as I do. However, when I set up a dinner and make sure it goes as I want it too, everyone agrees that that is how a dinner should be done.
    So, eat what you like how you like, just don’t be afraid to do what we are doing right here, chat about it and learning something along the way I hope. Sushi restaurants are often designed to be social places like a pub. Cheers!

  13. You know, I just realized there may be some confusion over Hana Japanese Restaurant in ROhnert Park and Hana in Sebastopol. I’ve been referring to the restaurant in Rohnert Park — which is unrelated to the one in Sebastopol. Just to be clear.

  14. Hey BeBe…I hear you…we have also had salary cutbacks here at the PD. Hana is my splurge for sure, if I want really excellent sushi. But trust me, there are days when I satisfy the urge with a nice California roll from Pacific market or, as others have said, I make it at home.
    On thing I forgot to mention is getting sushi grade fish locally. I’ve used some of the sushi-grade tuna from the seafood folks at that are at the Santa Rosa Farm market on Saturday. I really trust their fish. There is also this website, Catalina Offshore Products ( that looks pretty solid.
    And folks, if you’re having crap service at Hana, that isn’t cool. I expect BiteClubbers to get solid service at the restaurants I recommend, so let them know that.
    I can tell you that I prefer to sit at the bar, because they have to deal with you. 😉

  15. The Walter Cafe on N. State street in Ukiah has the best sushi I’ve ever had, and I’ve had a lot. Their rainbow roll is do die for. Prices are reasonable, and reservations are a good idea. They also offer an array of dinners that aren’t inspired by any particular culture. I haven’t tried it but those who have like the breakfast menu. Full service bar and adjacent motel. There are nearby wineries for an afternoon of tasting and lovely scenery everyplace you look. What’s not to like???

  16. Hana has the worst/slowest service, and is WAY over priced! We stopped going there because the service is slow & rude! Sakura is decent, but good lord, turn the lights down a little, and turn off the 3 TV’s!! Also, get rid of the “Hello Kitty” stuff for sale…it’s cheesy. Osake is always good, friendly, and tastes fresh. Also I’ve heard that the “Screaming Orgasm” is the best sushi-item on the Boathouse menu…can’t wait to try that! :o)

  17. Sushi is so cheap to make and home. And easy, once you get the hang of it. I can feed 10 people for $10, if they bring the saka.

  18. We like Hana Sushi as second best, after Toyo. The various rolls are terrific, although a bit more costly but well worth it! The fish is as fresh as can be.
    My daughter & son-in-law live in the City. They are huge sushi fans. They spent a weekend here, and said it was among the best sushi places she has eaten at ever! She’s an even bigger sushi fan than we are.

  19. Toyo has got to be the rotten egg of the bunch! We tried it for team meeting earlier last month and no one ended up having the rainbow or california roll because it just smelled funny- crab looked loose, watered-down with mayo. Our waitress didn’t even ask what was wrong.Company paid for it so I souldn’t be too angry. I enjoy SAKURA when it’s my choice.

  20. Yes, I have to agree with the others about both the high prices and bad service that keep me from going to Hana on a regular basis. Good fish, though. Yum.

  21. Heather…I love your column and always try the places you recommend. I also agree with you 99% of the time. I just want to point out that tho that I was quite disappointed to hear that Hana was the top pick…In these trying economic times (even when not) I could never really have justified their prices. $8 for a california roll and $3.50 for a small cup of miso soup? The sushi is good, but not anything too special. School Teacher Salary = Think twice before getting robbed for over priced food…

  22. Not sure how Sakura made the list. I ate there on Tuesday and was disappointed.
    Gohan on the other hand has the most amazing Hamachi I’ve had anywhere in the country. And the Albacore Sashimi with Jalapenos is unbelievable.
    As for Hana, I hate waiting 10 minutes for a beer on a slow lunch day. Just doesn’t make sense to me.

  23. I’m a fan of Ta Ke as well, though I’ve only been there once. Nice folks and good sushi. But more interestingly, what’s the “underground” menu at Gary Chus? Nice.

  24. While I agree that Hana has deliciously fresh fish (at HIGH prices), I would never pick them as the “All Around Best” choice for Sushi in Sonoma County. I encountered very poor customer service on three separate visits (20 minutes to bring me hamachi nigiri?!) and decided that fresh fish did not outweigh bad service. (Same goes for Boathouse)
    My favorites that weren’t already mentioned are Kabuki (Andy dishes out amazing service and filets the fish right before your eyes…as fresh as it gets) and Ta Ke in Rohnert Park because they have great prices and fabulous service.
    I’m a sucker for Gary Chu’s martini prawns and special rolls that are on the ‘underground’ menu. He also gives superb service.

  25. “For me, a simple maki can be sublime, but the $12 to $15 kitchen-sink belly-busters are kind of like the Hummers of the sushi world.” QUOTE OF THE DAY!!!

  26. One other pet peeve I would like to add to your comprehensive list: using non-filtered water to make the rice so that the aroma of chlorine shines through. Ugh!
    I think the audience will be divided on the issue of rolls. For me, a simple maki can be sublime, but the $12 to $15 kitchen-sink belly-busters are kind of like the Hummers of the sushi world.

  27. I think Gary Chu sold Sake’O. Same menu etc, but I do believe Gary is no longer involved.

  28. I agree with Vince about the rolls. They can be great! My favorite, though, is Tobiko (fish eggs with rice wrapped in seaweed) with quail egg. Friend turned me onto it a few years ago. The flavors and textures together are AWESOME!
    Sushi to Dai For had been our go-to for a while- but on two separate visits recently we got smoked salmon in place of where the menu said fresh salmon should be. Pretty disappointing. I think I’ll save my pennies and hold out to go to Hana next time I want sushi.
    Is the Sake’O menu the same as Osake?

  29. Vince, you’re right to a degree…I’ve had some amazing rolls, including California rolls (which I love) at many spots, including Boathouse.
    HOWEVER, I have had some really horrible, nasty, disgusting rolls that are so covered in mayonnaise, special sauce and crispy bits that it’s kind of silly to even put any fish in them, because you can’t taste it. I know for a fact that most self-respecting sushi chefs shudder a bit when they have to make these things. But they do it because people like them.
    If you read “The History of Sushi”, it talks about how chefs typically use leftover scraps of tuna (not necessary rotten, but not the best cuts) for spicy tuna rolls because the sauce masks the flavor anyway. It would be plain silly to use something like a piece of Toro in a roll stuffed with avocados and spicy sauce because the whole point of Toro is to appreciate the flavor and texture. Right?
    Bottom line is that I’m fine with people eating whatever they like. Support our local restaurants. Eat all the mayo rolls you want. But if you want to taste fish, rolls aren’t the best option.
    And Vince, you know I love ya, so frankly, you can do anything you want and it’s fine by me. 🙂

  30. The Sushi bar at the hibachi restaurant on Summerfield and Montgomery is very good. Been there many times but can not remember the name of the restaurant. They always have Uni. A must try is Uni with quail egg anywhere you can get it.
    I have Omakase’d myself to the sushi chef at this restaurant and he never disappoints. He doesn’t speak any English so there is a lot of pointing going on.

  31. I still haven’t been to Hana…/facepalm Need to get there soon.
    I don’t think it’s fair to completely dismiss rolls, especially to go so far as to suggest that they may be hiding bad fish with the flavors. Rolls can be awesome.
    We just tried the new Boathouse location a few days ago and it was very good! Great service, great food, yummy miso.
    My favorites are probably Yao-Kiku (Yulupa), Osake (Montgomery Village)and Sushi To Dai For (railroad square).

  32. Our solid spot to go to sushi in Sebastopol is, Sushi Tozai, they are fast and give alot of pcs for the money.
    We recently went to Tosaki Sush, and they were a little more expensive than Sushi Tozai, but worth trying at least once.

  33. Dead on. Ken at Hana is still the man.
    Agree on supermarket sushi but BTW Olivers makes their own on premises and will even make it to order. It’s not Hana, but it’s not bad.

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