I'm sitting in an exhibition kitchen above The Prado restaurant, where I've come for a hands-on sushi class at the Balboa Park Food and Wine School. There's a breeze flowing through the room, but I'm sweating. I never did well in art class, and memories of my poor craft skills are coming back to haunt me.
Our instructor, 'Sushi Jeff,' gives us each a bamboo mat and a bowl of seasoned short-grain rice. We're starting with a California roll-boring but easy to make, supposedly.
Jeff lays a sheet of seaweed on the mat and shows us how to spread on the rice, his fingers moving in a blur and leaving behind an even layer of rice with nary a grain left sticking to his hands. He lines the middle of the rice with sticks of surimi, 'krab with a k' and cucumber. With a few quick flicks of the mat, he reveals a perfect nori-wrapped cylinder.
Now it's our turn. The girl sitting next to me is quick to pick up the technique. Her roll comes out looking almost identical to our instructor's. When I'm finished, there's more rice on me than in my lumpy, sad-looking roll.
My results don't really improve with the next roll, a vegetarian version filled with cucumber and gobo (pickled burdock root), which is supposed to be pressed into a square-shaped roll. At best, mine could be called an uneven triangle. Luckily, kind assistants Tamara and Paul notice my sushi-challenged ways and give me some special attention. By our last project, the more advanced inside-out spicy tuna roll, things are looking better. I'm relaxed (thanks to the two free cocktails included with the class fee) and I begin to appreciate my flawed handmade rolls. They all taste the same going down, even the funky-looking ones.
As we gobble our efforts, Sushi Jeff makes us some spicy tuna hand rolls and nigiri sushi of luscious, fatty hamachi toro. He runs us through some basics of sushi ingredients and gives us some tips: Uncle Ben's instant rice won't cut it, he says. Japanese short-grain rice is essential and should be cooked until sticky but not mushy and seasoned with rice vinegar. Traditionally, wasabi isn't added to your bowl of soy sauce-it's dabbed on the fish or roll during preparation-and when eating nigiri sushi (individual ovals of rice topped with fish), dip fish-side down into the soy sauce or the rice will get too soggy and fall apart.
More tips: Don't eat sushi for lunch on Mondays since most restaurants don't get their seafood shipment until Monday afternoon. If given the choice, sit at the sushi bar and get to know your sushi chef, maybe share your Sapporo. He'll be more apt to give you the best cuts of fish.
I left the class inspired to try out my budding sushi skills, so I headed to Catalina Offshore Products, off Morena Boulevard. I'd heard that my favorite sushi restaurant, Sushi Ota, gets its fish from this family-run, local seafood distributor and retail store.
In addition to the most pristine seafood, Catalina Offshore is also the place to buy full sushi-making kits, including all sushi tools and accessories. They give just about anyone who asks a behind-the-scenes peek into their processing warehouse, and one of the sales guys, Tommy, offered to give us a personal tour. Even though I was wearing a sanitary hair bonnet and stepping in seafood juice, I felt like Alice in Seafood Wonderland as we stepped inside. It looked like a dream come true: huge containers piled with massive purple pincushion-like sea urchins, tanks full of palm-size spot prawns, scallops as big as tennis balls, giant whole tunas from Baja.
Tommy let us taste a bit of everything-a fat, sweet golden lobe of uni (the best of which comes from the waters off Point Loma, he pointed out), a meaty stone-crab claw, a chunk of bluefin tuna, a hunk of raw scallop and a prized portion of yellowfin sashimi-all of amazing quality and freshness. It was a food-girl's version of a trip to Disneyland.
The Balboa Park Food and Wine school, located at The Prado restaurant, offers monthly hands-on sushi classes, among other types of classes. Call 619-557-9441 x203 or visit www.balboawinefood.com.
Catalina Offshore Products is located at 5202 Lovelock St., Bay Park. 619-297-9797. Walk-in hours are 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday though Friday and 9 a.m. to noon on Saturday.