September 27, 2010

Counter Talk

It’s funny how restaurants treat sitting at the counter like a second-class experience – Don’t have reservations? Well, we can seat you at the counter, if you’d like? – but the reality is that counter seating is the hottest spot in the house, especially if you are dealing with low sodium needs or any dietary restriction. Because when you sit at the counter, you have direct access to the kitchen, which means direct translation to really great, low sodium cuisine.

For example, sushi. Thank goodness for fresh, sauce-free slices of sashimi, or else I would be banned from the many delicious sushi houses that grace this great state. No matter what restaurant I choose for my sushi fix, I know that I can always count on low sodium tai (snapper) or hamachi (yellowtail) and a bowl of salt-free, steamed rice to fill me up.

But when I get a chance to sit at the counter, chat up the sushi chefs, and meet the owners, the culinary possibilities suddenly become endless.

The picture above is from a sushi house in Sausalito called Sushi Ran, where they whipped up a platter of sodium-free white fish (including a full fish head for decoration, which strangely made me feel special) with the added bonus of a fresh piece of wasabi root, with shark skin grater, for me to make my own spicy, saltless paste table-side.

This was a treat because most packaged wasabi contains a lot of salt and in skipping this accoutrement, I “flavor” my rice instead with a squeeze of lemon – a good solution, but definitely not as strong of a taste.

But this special Sushi Ran platter made my taste-buds boogie. From sashimi I had never eaten before, like king fish, to the bitter fire of the wasabi, it was a delightfully novel experience.

And at Deep Sushi in Noe (no longer with us…) and Sebo in Hayes Valley, sitting at the counter led to even more extraordinary food, like sodium free tempura, mirin and bonito glazed tofu, hand-made maki, and other traditional Japanese dishes whose ingredients I cannot even explain. This was food that required the instinct of classically trained professionals, and that I could not have begun to dream up in my own kitchen.

So sitting at the counter is truly a bonus. It allows you to get chatty, get personal, and share your needs immediately with the people making your food. And because you are right there – watching every move – it’s almost like you’re at the stove with the team. Which means, if you see something (salt) fishy, you can speak up immediately. But more likely, you’ll only see and eat things you like and discover new tricks that you can take back home. Like watching a cooking show on TV, but with an actual dinner at the end.

And counter talk works wonders for more than raw fish. I’ve had great success devouring Catalan inspired-food at Contigo and a coffee-rubbed steak at Epic Roasthouse. By interacting so closely with the kitchen team, it is easier to make suggestions and work together to come up with creative solutions for a savory, low sodium meal.

So the next time you don’t have reservations and the only seats left in the house are those at the counter, grab ’em. Better yet, request for them in the first place. I guarantee that your meals and your dining experience will be more exciting than canoodling in a back booth. Although that has its perks too. Wink.

Chow on.

waiwa September 27, 2010 at 9:09 am

wow looks amazing. where does wasabi root grow? can people grow that at home?

sodium girl September 27, 2010 at 9:16 am

Well, Wai Wa, I did a little interweb searching and it seems like growing wasabi in one’s garden can be done. But there are only certain strains of wasabi seed that will flourish in soil, as true wasabi root (the best tasting kind) needs fresh, flowing water and ideal conditions which exist in Japan. And even then, the roots can be finicky.

But if you’re up for the challenge, check out this wiki-how article and get ready to wait about 18 months for your prize:

Otherwise, find a Japanese market and pick up some fresh root and a grater for the meantime!

thedailydish September 28, 2010 at 9:16 am

My daughters LOVE sitting at the counter! I find it appealing, but as a “sloucher,” I’m more of a booth girl. There’s def something to be said for keeping an eye on what’s going into your food though, and it’s always fun making nicey nice w/ the cooks. I am glad you’re so forward w/ your dietary restriction. Sometimes I just LONG for anonymity.. Thanks for keeping me inspired. ;o)

sodium girl September 29, 2010 at 11:15 am

Yes, I love a meal where I don’t have to say a thing. And I also find that, if I sit at counters at the same restaurant often, they become the best places to eat with little effort! Also, check out my post on Shabu Shabu – by far the most anonymous low sodium dining experience of all.

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