Thursday, February 14, 2008

Sushi and Pittsburgh 2.0

The Post-Gazette's new restaurant reviewer, China Millman, has thrown herself into the position over the last six months. She has academic cred (Harvard) and food cred (the Le Cordon Bleu program at the Pennsylvania Culinary Institute), and she's an enthusiastic and fun writer.

With her piece today on Pittsburgh sushi, she (unknowingly) steps into Pittsburgh 2.0 territory.

How? I've been told many times here that high quality sushi is high on the list of the amenities that would-be relos look for when thinking about Pittsburgh v. any larger West Coast or East Coast market. Jokingly, I've said to friends that if the Pittsburgh Technology Council, the Life Sciences Greenhouse, and Innovation Works really want to make the Pittsburgh region friendly to tech investors and entrepreneurs, they should invest in a sushi chef with a national reputation.

Maybe I should stop joking. Today's review of the best of Pittsburgh sushi makes the area sound like a sushi lover's paradise. There's Sushi Tomo in Ross. Kiku in Station Square. Chaya in Squirrel Hill. Umi in Shadyside. The article gives addresses, phone numbers, and website URLs.

Don't take too much from the locations. Ross? Station Square? Any sushi lover knows that the best sushi is often found in out of the way places. When I worked in San Francisco, the legendary Kabuto Sushi opened at Geary near 15th -- hardly the center of the City's restaurant scene.

But China Millman's piece is so enthusiastic that it's striking. I've heard from lots of friends here that there is no good sushi in Pittsburgh. I've been inclined to believe them; they tend to be people who've lived in places known to have fine sushi (New York, Japan, San Francisco, Los Angeles). I checked, and it has some upbeat reports there about Little Toyko and Umi. But the foodies aren't uniformly happy even there.

Two questions for discussion:

Am I on the right track in my semi-serious suggestion about sushi as a Pittsburgh 2.0 magnet?

And is China Millman right? Is sushi in Pittsburgh an undiscovered treasure?


Jim Russell said...

I'm sure a number of your readers remember sushigate. Chad Brown was a star linebacker for the Pittsburgh Steelers in the mid-1990s. He infamously left the town and team, citing his wife's frustration with the sushi scene in Pittsburgh as a reason for moving on.

To answer your question, I offer the case of Charlottetown on Prince Edward Island. Charlottetown has excellent sushi because many Japanese tourists make the pilgrimage there to celebrate Anne of Green Gables. PEI, like the rest of Atlantic Canada, is a relocation afterthought. To Toronto they will go.

Anyone familiar with Canadian immigration understands the demand for good chefs in that country. But I'm not sure that the cuisine scene ranks all that highly in the relocation decision hierarchy.

That said, if Pittsburgh could get some national recognition for surprisingly good sushi (or any other cuisine), I think some people would take another look at the city. My sense is that eating out in Pittsburgh is a lot better than most residents realize.

Bram Reichbaum said...

I don't know about sushi as an amenity that will attract people on a direct cost-benefit analysis, but I'll tell you what. Let's say you go to Pittsburgh once, and someone takes you to Sushi Kim. Then let's say you visit Pittsburgh again, and someone takes you to Chaya. After that, you are going to think Pittsburgh is a pretty awesome town that gets a bad rap for some reason, but you'll be having none of it.

Anonymous said...

One of the things that always struck me about the mentality in Pittsburgh while living there was the self-depreciating attitude: the constant assumption that other places always had it better.

I have friends who live in New York and eat at Nobu regularly and say the quality of the food doesn't compare to what they had when visiting me and I took them to Umi (I've also eaten at Nobu, which is more of an experience but I agree on the point of Umi having better food). I happily ate at Sushi II on the South Side 3-5 times per week when I lived there (although the quality had gone down when I visited a year ago). Sushi Tomo, which I found just before moving away, was as incredible as it was affordable.

Now I'm back in Boston, which has it's fair share of incredible sushi joints. But I can say that I have, on more than one occasion, thought of taking an e-saver out to Pittsburgh for the weekend solely to get an Umi fix since moving back three years ago.

As for your first question -- does ample quality sushi=prosperity? -- I'm not sure. But it certainly doesn't hurt a city's image to have more offerings than basic pub grub.

Anonymous said...

I've had sushi many times on the West Coast, from Dana Point to the Bay Area. And I can safely say that Pittsburgh can hold its own against (if not exceed) the quality of sushi in those areas.

Anonymous said...

After a decade of living in the Bay Area and being taken for sushi by Japanese ex-pats, I like to think that I've developed a pretty good taste for sushi.

Yes, there's a shortage of good sushi. It exists, but there's not enough diversity. Imagine if there were only two or three places in town where you could get a proper steak, that's the situation we're in.

I think that the source of this problem is that the average Pittsburgher doesn't seem to know good sushi from bad.

Why do I say this? Because Nakama is repeatedly voted best sushi joint in Pittsburgh. Nakama is probably some of the worst sushi I've had in my entire life, and I'm including the post-lunch-rush, all-you-can-eat sushi tables at sketchy Korean BBQ houses.

So yeah, we need more good sushi places, but we also need more good ethnic food in general, and that's going t require more Pittsburghers to develop a taste for something other than steak and pirogie. (Both of which are done quite well in these parts.)

emilyspaint said...

Try Pho Kim 88
(412) 531-8268
4100 Library Rd

Very good!

Bram Reichbaum said...

"I think that the source of this problem is that the average Pittsburgher doesn't seem to know good sushi from bad."

Okay honestly, those of you who are In The Know. Did I embarrass myself by shouting-out to Sushi Kim and Chaya? I'm been a sushivore for about five years, and have loved it but never taken it to a wine-tasting level.

Jonathan Potts said...

Nothing brings out the snob in people like talking about food.

Mike Madison said...


Interestingly, since Jim's initial comment, no one (other than Bram, in part) has addressed my first question, which is my primary concern.

Eventually, I hope that we hear from the business community as well as from sushi lovers as such.

Chal Pivik said...

Since you're steering the discussion back to your two questions, I'll speak to the first one only, not being a sushi nut (burnt out on it in the '80s):

I don't think you're on the right track if your using sushi as a signifier. PGH's future and self esteem (or lack thereof) can't be divined by something so narrow as a particular cuisine.

I think PGH needs to become more self-accepting-- it's a cool, under-the-radar city that doesn't need to try to be like NYC, LA, Boston, et al. We don't need to draw people here expecting experiences similar to those other cities. There is enough here that is unique to the area. If people can't appreciate PGH for what it is, then they can leave.

It's an affordable, low key (in a good way) town. Disclosure: I lived in NYC and LA for the past 25+ years before returning to PGH. And I love it because it is not NYC and not LA. If that's the experience you want, move to one of those cities. It will raise your appreciation for PGH.

Jefferson Provost said...

I generally agree with Chad, although there is an inherent paradox in using Pittsburgh's under-the-radar qualities to promote it to the nation as a place to invest, live, and work.

I think Sushi, like the presence of the creative class, is a symptom, rather than a cause, of economic success. Sushi is relatively expensive. As with other fine dining, only people with a reasonable amount of disposable income can enjoy it frequently. The number of good Sushi places, and fine restaurants generally, is a function of the demand, which reflects the economic condition of the city.

Bram Reichbaum said...

Sorry, OT again but I can't help myself. Chal said:

"I think PGH needs to become more self-accepting-- it's a cool, under-the-radar city that doesn't need to try to be like NYC, LA, Boston, et al."

I think Pittsburgh needs to do something in which it can take pride and show growth. I think Pittsburgh's pernicious self-esteem problems stem from real historical and habitual flaws, which will require more than snapping out of a funk or attracting the right series of key industries.

Chal Pivik said...

Bram , thanks for the clarification. Maybe I should have said happy-to-be-under-the-radar. PGH is a well kept secret for those of us who appreciate it for what it is.

After living in NYC and LA, I think that I see cultural myths for what they are and don't buy into them anymore, at least insofar as what defines the attributes of a livable city.

To be honest, living among throngs of people searching for their romanticized notions of big city life, be it a template based on Sex in the City or Entourage, gets tired real fast.

Mike Madison said...

My own interest in this topic -- which is admittedly a bit off-center -- has nothing to do with Pittsburgh's self-esteem or a romantic attachment to a bigger-city culture.

My interest is narrower: Pittsburgh has deep-seated economic problems that can be cured -- if they can be cured, and that's a very big "if" -- only with sustained growth. It is doubtful that Pittsburgh's growth can come entirely or even largely from within -- from local material and knowledge resources, local investment, local labor.

What will it take to bring those resources, investment, and labor from outside the region?

"Sushi" is a semi-serious proposed answer to that question.

Jefferson argues: Egg, meet chicken. Is the game not worth the candle? I'm not so sure.

Jefferson Provost said...

BTW, under my chicken/egg interpretation, I think the Sushi article you cited should be seen as a positive sign for the Burgh economy.

However, all discussions about chickens, eggs and causal arrows have to take into account the fact that economic systems are full of feedback loops, and most relationships have causal arrows in both directions. It's a mistake, though, to assume that the both causal directions in a feedback loop have the same strength.

An aggressive pro-growth economic policy move, such lowering the state's corporate net income tax, would have several orders of magnitude more effect on the economy than would importing Japan's best sushi chef, or any other lifestyle-oriented improvement to the perceived attractiveness of the city.

Mike Madison said...

True, to use that example, for companies with net income. Lots of worthy early stage companies don't.

Chal Pivik said...

Okay, point taken about sushi being a semi-serious indicator. I've started wondering about others:

Let's compile a list. I'll start it off with...

*the prominence of obituaries on the Post-Gazette site.

*just two daily non-stops to/from LA-- in light of the fact that we are wooing movie and TV production companies with tax credits.

Bram Reichbaum said...

Chal, I see what you mean now.

Jefferson, as long as we're now brainstorming for things we can do to radically change the game, I would suggest a bullet-train or Maglev system integrated with Buffalo, Cleveland, Detroit, you get it. The Great Great Lakes transit cluster.

That, and restoring the essential fabric between Downtown and the one residential neighborhood capable of bordering upon it. Seriously, I think the spill-over effects will cascade and reach that level.

I guess MY point being, Mike -- I don't think it's "sushi", even taken as a variable. I don't think it's certain products or industries at all. I think it'll all come down to improvements in INFRASTRUCTURE that will in turn increase the capacity of our culture (civilization).

Schultz said...

As far as sushi is concerned, Pittsburgh is probably the best in terms of value. Umi can hang with some of the higher end spots one would find in Atlanta or Philadelphia, but I think most Pittsburghers prefer sushi restaurants that do not offer Manhattan portions for Manhattan prices ($18 for a few slices of tuna?!!). I can name a number of good sushi places in both the city and suburbs that offer a great selection of sashimi and sushi rolls.

The similarities between the sushi scene and our region's attractiveness are interesting. In terms of value, Pittsburgh can't be beat. We can hang with other areas in what we offer, and while we fall short in some areas we offer an affordable high quality lifestyle. We are a value town - go to those other cities if you want to spend $400k on a 1 bedroom townhouse. Come here if you want a 4 bedroom house in a great neighborhood with great schools for half the price.

Anonymous said...


Possibly some of the best Japanese food I've ever had, both sushi and washouku (japanese food) in general. Chaya could easily compete with the fancy/name places in the SF bay area *IF* they had a liquor license and good selection of sake.

But my first visit there was probably similar to many other first visits. "BYOB? WTF?"

Anonymous said...

I'm sorry - there's no real sushi in Pittsburgh. End of story.

Umi - too expensive for what it is. I willingly pay $300 @ Masa at Columbus Circle though.

Chaya - what the heck is wrong with their rice (used in shari)??

Kiku - They do have 1 item which tastes exactly the same in Tokyo. That is kanikama.

I see some comparisons to LA/NYC and how these Pitt venues are comprable...please..(sigh).