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January 4, 2012

The Taste Bud: Up-close and personal with bass

One of my late grandfather’s favorite jokes was to tell me about the time he took my grandmother fishing. When she caught her first fish, she pulled it onto the boat, and he said to her, “Look, you’ve got a large-mouth bass!”

So she hit him with an oar and nearly knocked him out of the boat.

Which is to say nothing other than when I first tasted sea bass years later, I always thought of that joke. And when I tried sea bass (it was at Ramsi’s Café on the World), I was pretty well hooked. But I must admit to being mildly surprised, years later, when I first encountered bass nigiri (also known as suzuki) at a local sushi restaurant.

Granted, the stuff served as sushi in the United States is typically striped bass, not sea bass, but it’s still bass — the stuff my grandfather used to fish for. What, no bluegill sushi? And how many nightcrawlers did this thing eat?

Well, as you have probably already guessed, I tried the striped bass, loved it, and now I’m addicted to the stuff. It’s like sushi crack, rivaled only by the always-delicious super white tuna.

(By the way, did you know super white tuna isn’t tuna at all? It’s actually a mean-looking fish called escolar, which is in the same family as the snake mackerel. Yes, snake mackerel. But people shy away from such ugly things, so sellers call it “tuna” instead. It’s true, look it up.)

Anyway, back to the striped bass. Here’s my bass story, and I’m sticking to it: I had tried it a couple of times at Kobe, a Japanese sushi bar and grill in Jeffersonville, and decided to treat myself again a year or so ago. I placed my order, and the chef began placing items in front of me, from a dynamite roll to a quail egg shot — everything, that is, except for my suzuki.

I figured he forgot, which was no big deal; I would just remind him when I was finished eating my other sushi. In the meantime, however, he brought out a huge, whole fish and began cleaning it in front of me. First, he chopped off the head and tail; then he cut it open, scaled it, and began plucking bones from the white and red meat.

I watched with fascination, thinking that I was kind of glad I didn’t have to watch chefs do this to the fish I was eating. Then, he cut off three small slices of the pale flesh, made three rice balls, and affixed the fish slices on top with dabs of wasabi. He put them on a plate, handed it to me, and said, “Sorry you had to wait. I had run out of suzuki. I gave you extra.”

It was an interesting experience, given that I had just been eyeball to eyeball with the fish I was about to eat. I almost felt the need to apologize. Well, until I ate it — then I just felt the need to order more.

Anyway, few sushi bars have bass on the menu, which keeps me going back to Kobe (note: Sapporo also offers suzuki). For about $5, you get to enjoy a unique flavor that is buttery, similar to the aforementioned escolar, but also seems to have a slight hint of sweetness in the meat. If you’re ever in a sushi rut, it’s a unique treat.

The only aspect of suzuki that might scare away some people is the texture — it’s a bit, well, gooier than, say, tuna. It’s a firm meat and is creamy more than chewy, but the best way I can describe it is simply to say that it has an odd mouth-feel. You have been warned.

I returned to Kobe recently and ended up eating six pieces of the stuff. (Yeah, I know, but when you have a craving, what are you going to do?) To the surprise of no one involved, the chef on duty had just cleaned a fresh fish and was carefully yanking bones from the meat in order to serve it to me.

Seems I’m destined to have that visual every time I decide to eat bass. On the other hand, at least he didn’t hit me with an oar.