Matsuri Sustainable Sushi

matsuri tuna sushi

When I was a teenager, we made a trip to Los Angeles and a family friend took us to a Japanese restaurant. I remember it well, because I was going through that phase where you’re willing to do things on a dare, not because you’re keenly interested in new experiences, but because you want to show off that you’re not afraid of taking on a few dares. And I remember some of my family flipping out a little when we were presented with a big, shiny wooden board covered with raw strips of fish, lined up in neat rows, ready to be eaten just as is.

Because part of my youthful folly of trying the be daring and ‘different’ was using chopsticks to eat everything (as if just being myself wasn’t enough…), I was also happy to be able to show off my mastery with les baguettes, as they’re called in French. And I was going to fearlessly eat raw fish with them.

scallops

I don’t remember what I ate exactly, but I do remember that trepidation of my first bite, and seeing a few people at the table squirm as I chewed and swallowed the first of those cold, slippery slices of fish. Of course, sushi is now considered normal fare in many countries and you can buy it in supermarkets, airports, and even in the frozen food section. And I’ve been in pretty remote towns in both the United States and in France, and have passed restaurants serving sushi, or les sushis.

During the few decades between that first bite of fish that I had, and now, our collective international hunger for seafood has grown, so much so that many popular varieties of fish used for sushi are on the brink of disappearing. French president Nicolas Sarkozy attempted to ban bluefin tuna but an organization of French fishermen and other groups successfully stopped the ban. So in spite of its tenuous position, if you go to a fish market this morning, you’ll see glistening on ice, big, meaty, shiny-red triangles of that unfortunately delicious bluefin tuna along with many other species that are not considered responsible.

A few top French chefs have taken bluefish tuna off their menus, in their upscale restaurants, but the ‘fast-food’ style sushi restaurants that have invaded Paris are invariably packed at lunchtime. Sometimes visitors are surprised to see so many sushi take-out places, which seems to be vying in Paris with the banks and boulangeries for storefront dominance. But like people in cities elsewhere, the locals are looking for something quick, inexpensive, and healthy for lunch. Parisians, mostly the younger crowd, have embraced these quick sushi joints, which normally have just three kinds of sushi: bluefin tuna (thon rouge), shrimp, and salmon, which are considered some of the least sustainable types of fish and seafood you can consume.

tuna rolls Japanese ginger

Like so many others, long after that first experience with poisson cru (raw fish) back in California, I’ve developed a deep fondness for sushi and sashimi. But as the news and scientists report about disappearing species, I can’t shake that deeply ingrained “Bay Area Guilt”, as I call it, about trying to be vert and have a difficult time sitting down to a meal and eating something that’s on the verge of extinction.

(Which is why I will also get up and walk to the other side of my apartment to recycle a postage stamp-size scrap of paper rather than toss it into the trash can under my desk or I’ll carry around a used métro ticket in my pocket for weeks until I get to a place to recycle it.)

Being a good foot soldier, still to this day, I’ve dialed down drinking bottled water as much as possible, and I’ve seriously curtailed my consumption of fish. But when I walked by Matsuri, a chain of sushi bars in France a few months back, and saw the sign outside that they were serving another kind of tuna, I decided to check it out with Meg of Paris by Mouth.

sushi rolls

The sushi at Matsuri arrive to diners via a motorized conveyor belt. So for hard-core sushi fans, this isn’t a place to go to discover the skills of a well-trained, inventive sushi chef. I normally wince when I see floating boats and other gimmicks in sushi bars, but so be it. And it was nice to see a laminated card on each table, talking about the sushi éthique, the sustainability of the scallops and albacore tuna that they serve in place of bluefin tuna (thon rouge).

tuna avocado roll pickled radish sushi

The sushi wasn’t knocking our chausettes off, but it was encouraging to see and to eat sushi that you didn’t have to worry too much about enjoying. (Most of the varieties are on the WWF’s—avec moderation seafood list.)

As mentioned, I’m suspicious of places were the sushi goes around and around and around (and around) on a conveyor belt. But the staff seemed to be putting just the right amount of things out and I didn’t see many of the small plates taking multiple tours around the dining room. Although Matsuri is a small chain of restaurants, the sushi is made there and most of the standard small rolls and sashimi rolled by were familiar favorites.

However we were seated about two-thirds of the way down the conveyor belt and the three fellows just to our left, and the woman with two small kids just before them, seemed to have an uncanny knack for reaching for what we were oogling just before we got our crack at it. So if you go, try to get a seat closer to the open kitchen, where the sushi comes out, for best selection.

Still, I like when restaurants run out of food, and it’s fine when it doesn’t necessarily come out super-fast, which often is a good indication that it’s prepared fresh and with care. Running low (or out) of things means they’re not stockpiling.

Matsuri plates matsuri plates

For all the fresh fish consumed in France, including salmon tartare, which has become a staple on each and every trendy bistro menu, it’s interesting that only a few decent sushi bars have opened in Paris. But as much as folks grouse about chain restaurants, it’s gratifying to see one leading the way in France, showing that you can serve sustainable food at approachable prices. It’s a trend that I hope to see more of.


Matsuri
36, rue de Richelieu (1st)
Tél: 01 42 61 05 73

(With each dish priced between €2 and €5, with two mugs of hot green tea, our lunch was €36. Matsuri has various restaurants and take-away shops in Paris and other French cities, as well as Geneva.)


Related Links

Les Pâtes Vivantes

The 64 cent Fish

The Sustainable Seafood Dilemna (Chocolate & Zucchini)

European Sustainable Seafood Guides (WWF)

Saying No To Disposable Chopsticks

Slow Fish

Pour Une Pêche Durable (French WWF seafood guide)

Europe’s Appetite for Seafood Propels Illegal Trade (New York Times)

34 comments

  • Fortunately there are already a few chains that use Albacore (or as I like to call it: Albuquerque) tuna. We order regularly from eatsushi.fr and sushishop boasts with not using bluefin tuna, too. And both are good enough to satisfy a last-minute-sushi craving when one is too lazy to leave the house.

  • I so wish I knew about this place when I was living in Paris! After months on end of eating and cooking French food, I was seriously craving something completely different. Out of desperation, I went to the Sushi Shop just outside my apartment on Boulevard de Grenelle. I was actually pleasantly surprised… or just amazed that it was edible =P If you haven’t already, definitely pay a visit to Sasabune (either in LA or NY). They have the ultimate melt-in-your-mouth salmon sushi, ono (which is a rare find) and sweet blue crab hand rolls. I think the chef does offer bluefin tuna on his omakase menu, but we’ve always ordered a la carte… and that includes at least three orders of salmon sushi =)

  • Sigrid: That’s encouraging to hear. One thing that French folks like are tendances, or trends, so it’s nice to see this good one catching on!

  • Great post, David! And thanks for taking pity and not posting the shots where I had my mouth full :)

  • I’ve never quite understood the aversion to the sushi conveyor belt other than the fact that it might connote a sub-par product, but in Japan they were so popular that the sheer volume of sales generally meant a fresher product. As a gaijin who didn’t speak the language a kaiten sushi restaurant also alleviated any anxiety over having to try to place my order. Also, the chef stood in the middle of the conveyor belt and could place the sushi in various areas so everyone got a fairer chance of snagging their desired plate, unlike the scenario you describe. So sad, yet hilarious, that you had to fight the urges of a mother and two children for the right to a piece of raw shrimp. Ha!

  • I used to have sashimi for lunch most days before i was vegetarian. I must say, although I generally don’t miss eating meat or fish, I really do miss the sublime texture of raw tuna. nothing quite like it!

  • David,

    Where can I get sushi like we have in the US? I am very disappointed in the sushi that is around Paris. I have read up on it and it is because real Sushi Chef’s are not making the sushi it’s just the Chinese Restaurants that converted to Japanese due to the popularity.

    Please let me know if you have some recommendations for me to try.

    Thanks!

  • Our favorite Sushi place here in Calgary happens to be called Sushi Boat….complete with those boats floating around the bar. It’s so busy though AND you can order a la carte, we don’t worry about stale fish at all.

    With our own (gluten free) Soy Sauce it makes for a perfect, worry free meal for Celiacs.

  • I’ve walked by the one on Rue de Bac on a few occasions and wondered if I should try it. Now I guess I will. Thanks for the review!

  • We committed recyclers ourselves. If no recycling station, then take with. Nice to hear about your obsession with it. Every little bit counts!

    We love our sushi, but it is an occasional treat. We have definitely tipped the scale with what we eat – more veggies and whole grains, less meat and fish/shellfish. Food, Inc will do that to you. We have a fabulous sushi place called Mino’s located in a strip mall and is so unassuming. That is our go to sushi restaurant – although they don’t have a conveyor belt. Interesting concept.

  • Salmon baffles me because the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s sustainable seafood guide used to unequivocally say it was a sustainable choice. But then recently I’ve heard people saying, unequivocally, that it’s one of the least eco-friendly options! It particularly distresses me because I write weekly cookbooks that explore different cuisines and eras and which I try to make as sustainable as possible – telling people what to buy organic, what seafood to substitute, and so on – and I often suggest salmon!

    I looked at their guide again, and now salmon is in all three columns. They have farmed (surprisingly) and Alaskan salmon in the best column, wild-caught north of Cape Falcon, Oregon in the list of good alternatives, and south of Cape Falcon in “avoid.” I don’t even know where Cape Falcon is, but I guess that will have to do.

  • My recent obsession with Whale Wars (worth staying home on Friday nights to watch before we finally got a TiVo) has me now rethinking the fish I eat. It was hard enough to shop at the grocery when I decided to eat local and/or organic meat, and now my with my conscience getting the best of me on the seafood arena too, some days I think it might be easier to just go vegetarian!

  • Thank you for this. I love how you combine incredible food with serious issues that really exist. Keeping sustainability and low mercury content in mind when buying fish can take a bit more time, but it SO worth it!

  • Great post, I too am rather suspicious of conveyor belt sushi. In Hawaii most of my favorite fish for sushi was sustainably caught, unfortunately that’s not the case here in Washington. But we recently got Seattle’s first sustainable seafood restaurant, Mashiko, and I can’t say enough good things about it. I wrote a huge post on Mashiko when I got to experience omakase there. The owner/chef Hajime personally travels to visit his suppliers to make sure he’s getting the best quality and most sustainable seafood. If you ever visit Seattle we should definitely eat there!

  • I love Thon rouge but feel that indeed I must stop eating it; it is really too endangered, especially now that sushi has become a worldwide fast food trick.

  • drue: I think it’s because some of the places that do serve sushi that way, the concept becomes more important than the sushi (there’s a place like that in San Francisco and I walked in once and saw a good number of the fish looked like it’d taken a few too many trips around the conveyor belt.) I think you’re right about Japan, where they’re all diving in quickly, and they like all those gizmos and gadgets, too.

    Dianasaur: I loved your write-up and Mashiko looks amazing. Yes, you’re on if I ever make it back to Seattle!

    Jen: It’s really hard to make all these choices and to eat “the right way” all the time. Some people are pretty hard-core which is great, but if everyone, just once in a while, changes the way they do things (like the “Meatless Monday” project), it can have an impact. The good thing about humans (which is debatable) is that we’re adaptable and inventive, and often come up with solutions to problems. It’ll be interesting to see how bluefin tuna fares over the next few decades, or how overfishing and depleting the oceans seriously affects less-affluent countries and their people who depend on fishing for their dinner to feed themselves and their families.

    Dani: It is hard, because so many foods have problematic origins and backgrounds (sugar, chocolate, agave, meat, fish, eggs, etc…) and even things we assume are safe (like packaged organic spinach), sometimes aren’t. Salmon is tricky because it’s so good for you, but on the other hand, the way most of it is raised is pretty awful. And to make things more problematic, they say even raw salmon should be avoided, no matter what kind you eat or where it’s from.

  • If I may include a link to my blog, this is an article on how to purchase sustainable seafood entitled The pescatarian’s dilemma: Is it possible to eat seafood and not destroy the oceans? that was posted only yesterday. Becoming informed, responsible food purchasers is crucial if we are to leave a world full of healthy food for the coming generations.

    Kathleen

  • A friend of mine who’s a huge sushi fan recommended a sushi resto in Place de la Bastille. I will add this one to my list of must-eat-in places in Paris. Great to hear about the whole éthique trend.

  • I totally agree. I hope more consumers will start watching what fish they buy and if it is sustainable. I carry a seafood guide in my wallet and ask in restaurants what kind of fish is on the menu and where it comes from.

    Great sources of information are:

    Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Guide
    Eco friendly seafood
    WWF

    Great post. Thanks.

  • The bluefish tuna issue is rather important, isn’t it? I think it’s great you’re mentioning it on your blog – and interspersed with pictures of yummy non-bluefish photos – hurrah!

  • Hi David,

    The weeds in the field and my book proposal are kicking my butt this summer, so I’ve been a lurker on your site. Couldn’t resist a comment on this post however since my love of sushi is what brought me to Japan 22 years ago.

    I am not a fan of chain anything, even stores, but do shop at them. And as for sushi, I prefer the single-owner shop because of the tradition and the experience but do eat at a chain shop called Chikuzan near Tokyo station. I can eat my fill and not end up with a $300 bill for me alone. The fish is super fresh and there are trained sushi chefs cutting it and forming the sushi pillows.

    Sushi in the round, may be cheaper, but that trend is effectively destroying the culture of sushi in Japan. I don’t know the statistics, but single owner sushi shops are closing up at an alarming rate because they cannot compete with the chains. I deal with that guilt when I go to my small chain shop, but feel some very deep sadness that people can embrace sushi in the round, thus devaluing the actual sushi experience.

    It’s not just about the fish. Eating sushi from the hand of a master is a relationship built on trust. You know that that master has vetted the fish and the fish is safe to eat, with no nasty stomach repercussions later. Also there is that wonderful feeling of peace and calm that washes over one at a slow-paced sushi shop where you order two pieces at a time following your desire and your tongue.

    I do understand that sushi in the round is probably all most families can afford here, but the truth is, you can get better fish at the fish market and make better quality hand rolled sushi at home. But then, perhaps that defeats the purpose of going out.

    As for tuna, I’m not a big fan as it is a fairly uninteresting fish, though I do eat a couple pieces of chutoro when I have sushi. Living in Japan, we are fairly guilt-free, so I need to be careful about that. Thanks for being my conscience.

    I love the store front of your Matsuri Sushi, très français. Sorry for the ramble, but what will happen when real sushi chefs (who train for 10-15 years) are a dying breed and we’re left with a bunch of hacks who sling out whatever fish is available?

    Nancy

  • Thanks for this post, David. Sustainable fish seems to be one of the least-recognised green issues, and it’s horrifying seeing so many places with endangered species on their menus. I was up till 1 a.m. last night securing a reservation at Le Bernadin for my upcoming US trip (yay!) – one of the reasons I want to go there, apart from Eric Ripert’s cooking, is the fact that they only serve sustainable species. It’s great to see them – and you! – leading the pack.

  • This is good news, David, thank you! I had sushi once on my vacation in the States, but I had to silence the little voice in my head that told me I should be asking about the sustainability of the fish being served. Seafood has become so complicated lately that like you, I rarely eat it. But on those days when I want something healthy, light, and quick to cook, I always check the two lists of “acceptable” seafood I have permanently posted on my fridge before I head out to the poissonerie.

    Merci beaucoup for giving us at least one guilt-free sushi option in town. (The tendency I have to overeat when it comes to sushi is something I’ll have to work on.) ;)

  • Çok hoş,sevgilerrrrr….

  • I respect people who are exceptionally rigorous about what do and don’t eat. I however agree that this can get a little complicated at times. As you wrote above, even small gestures made by all of us make a difference. We recycle, we bring our own bags to the supermarket, we try to eat sustainable. I actually wrote my thesis in international law on tuna, how it is overfished and the ‘wars’ between countries in the Mediterranean to catch the best tuna. It is pretty scary, I’m telling you. So I was very happy to hear there are sushi places going the sustainable way, even in Europe, where I feel it is far less of an issue. What a discovery. Sushi places have been sprouting up all over Milan in the past years and it is a real trend here too. I hope they open new places that are sensitive to the issue. Not that I don’t enjoy my occasional tuna and salmon sashimi. I love it!

  • Nuts about food: It is interesting the different between America and Europe, and how “green” they are. Last time I was in the states, so many places now use recyclable plastic plates and cups, and everyone wants an electric car, etc…yet it’s still the second most polluting country in the world. And in France, all the “bio” little shops sell take-away organic foods wrap everything in those sturdy clear (trendy) plastic boxes and everyone seems to be fixated on plastic bags, not to mention the consumption of water in plastic bottles.

    It’s interesting that the fast-food style sushi places are popping up in Italy, too. The food is low-fat, quick, and considered healthy, which I guess is the appeal. So it’s nice to see one such as this focusing on sustainability, too.

  • Hi David! I saw you and said hello to you this morning while you were getting on the bus in the Bastille. I only follow a few blogs so I really am a big fan of yours! I just wanted to say what a funny city Paris is- I actually walked past you on Monday on Rue St. Honore, but was too shy to say anything. Glad I had the second chance to say hello, but what are the chances of that??

    That was funny because I was meeting friends from LA and they were calling at the exact same time. And funny that it was twice in one week! : ) -dl

  • Great story….nice to know we can be environmentally responsible and enjoy eating out at the same time.

  • It’s so easy to check these days whether or not your seafood is sustainable. As mentioned above, the Monterey Bay Aquarium is a grand way to start. And if people with large readership mention this again and again, word will continue to spread.

  • Claudia: It’s great that the aquarium published a guide, as well as an application for mobile devices. The organizations here do infrequently give out fold-out booklets, but I keep hoping for an app as well because the species of fish that are on offer in Europe differ from those in the US, and the names are different as well. I’ve looked for one but haven’t found it-but perhaps there’s one in the works since they’re so handy to have on your smartphone.

  • Hi David,

    I’m Eric, the CEO of Matsuri. I was very pleased to read your article and I wanted to thank you for underlining the more sustainable approach my team and I introduced few years ago into our business.

    It’s funny because you posted it the same day we announced that Matsuri had just started to use organic rice. As I explain on my blog (http://www.matsuri-respect.fr/) – please bear with me, I just started it… – our sushi rice is now certified Agriculture Biologique, the most widely recognized French label of organic food (which guarantees that no synthetic pesticides, genetically modified organisms or petroleum-based fertilizers were used in cultivating and processing the rice).

    On each table, you can now find new cards that talk about our sustainable suppliers of rice, tuna, crab meat and coquilles St Jacques.

    I hope you’ll come back soon !

    Eric

    • Hi Eric: I think it’s pretty terrific what you did; promoting the concept of sustainable sushi in France. Since so much seafood is consumed here, it’s nice to see that you are promoting enjoying it responsibly. Because I was having lunch with a friend, I didn’t read the information card on the table (which I would have like to), but am glad to hear you launched your blog on your site, where perhaps you can post that information as well because it’s nice to see people like yourself in France taking an interest in well-sourced products and ingredients.

  • The motorized conveyor belts at sushi restaurants are not gimmicks at all.

    In fact they are found in sushi restaurants all over Tokyo and are a traditional way to serve sushi. They allow the sushi chef to serve the freshest catches of the day instead of being bound to a menu where the listed items might not be as fresh or even available.