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January 13, 2009 at 10:25 AM

Sushi for 30 days straight? He lived to (show and) tell the tale

Matthew Lankford knew exactly how to get my attention, though he swears he didn’t realize it at the time. Late last month, after finding my blog on a Google search, he sent me an email whose subject-line read: “Sushi for 21 days straight in Seattle.” The body of his message had no text. Instead, he’d sent a link to his Flickr blog with a photo-spread. It chronicled, in smack-me-I’m-dreaming detail, raw-fish eye-candy of the first order, with photo after photo of Technicolor sushi.

“Hot damn!” I thought.

Those photographs were taken with a pocket-sized camera at a broad spectrum of well-known Japanese restaurants, and included, in order of devouration (with some visited more than once): Wasabi Bistro, Mashiko, I Love Sushi, Umi Sake House, Ototo, Chiso, Kisaku, Red Fin, Shiro’s, Rain, Saito’s, Wann and Nishino (the list has since been updated). Astonished and impressed, I shot back an email and begged him to explain.

What made him indulge in such an endeavor? Was he rich? Showing any signs of mercury toxicity? And if he’d been to some of the best sushi spots around, why hadn’t he gone to Taka Sushi, which ranks at the top of my you-gotta-get-there list?

Matthew is a 39-year-old night auditor working the graveyard shift at a downtown hotel. He lives in a 400-square-foot apartment near the Space Needle (two doors down from where Seattle’s late, great, Tuba Man resided), doesn’t own a car, never eats at home, and until last month ordered only sushi rolls in Japanese restaurants.

He ate sushi for the first time in 2002 at Kisaku near Green Lake, and that’s long been his go-to sushi restaurant — proving that while he may have been on a roll for far too long, at least he has great taste. Initially, he sought to eat at the top ten sushi bars in Seattle, but then, when the weather got nuts and he wasn’t able to make it to Nishino (which was high on his list) he went to places within walking distance of home. “I went to Macy’s and bought myself a pair of boots.” Sushi became an obsession, and he got it in his head to eat it every day for a month.

The Sushipalooza started when Matthew went to San Francisco and ate at Sushi Bistro. Blown away by the rolls he had there, he vowed to find similar rolls here, and in an effort to broaden his horizons turned to several Web sites to determine where he should eat. Intent on hitting only the city’s best sushi bars he checked out Citysearch, Yelp, Tripadvisor and Urbanspoon — a site he got turned onto only a month or so ago.

Today Matthew is Urbanspoon’s “Top Contributor” in Seattle, as flagged on the company website, and holds a place on the much-coveted “Worldwide Leaderboard.” He’s earned “Urbanspoon Prime”-status, an Urbanspoon T-shirt and the undying affection of the folks who run the site. By constantly updating restaurant information, uploading photos, making fact-check fixes and writing restaurant reviews, “He’s recently become our most active user,” says co-founder Patrick O’Donnell. “We’ve always cherished our top users.”

As it turns out, not everybody cherishes Matthew Lankford. Prior to becoming Seattle’s Urbanspoon crown prince, the web-savvy night auditor’s claim to fame was the fact that he was sued, for a potential $7.5 million dollars, by Prince. Yes, that Prince. Don’t believe me? Read it and weep.

His efforts on Urbanspoon notwithstanding, Matthew says he’s stymied by the lack of consistency on the various restaurant-oriented Web sites, making it difficult to compose a definitive top-10 list. “Most of those [sites], the ratings aren’t the same. You’ll see Sushi Land in the top 10 — and that wasn’t on my list.”

After cobbling together a list of gotta-gos, Matthew ate at 21 different sushi restaurants between December 9 and January 7, spending $2021.62, including tips. “Shiro’s might have been the most expensive” — due to the sake drinking that ensued on that visit — he told me on Day 30, “and Nishino after that, but no complaints. You get what you pay for.”

And what he’s been paying for lately is omakase. After years of being a novice sushi eater, he’s turned pro, bowing to the expertise of his sushi chefs, allowing them to show him their best stuff. “After starting out on my Seattle sushi tour, I read in several places that having omakase was the only way to experience a good sushi restaurant. With sushi, you want them to serve you what they want to serve you. You can’t go to Kisaku for seven years in a row and order the Kisaku Roll and the Wallingford Roll and the Capterpiller Roll and the Green Lake Roll. That’s all I did — order the same thing!”

Among the highlights of his 30-day sushi-jag? Drinking his first Echigo beer at Saito’s and watching the speed and grace with which Saito-san crafts an omakase sushi-platter. Dining at Shiro’s, where, when he arrived, “they took my jacket from me and made me feel like I was in their house, not a restaurant.” Considering, and then rejecting, the idea of trying fugu at Shiki since the (sometimes deadly) blowfish would have set him back $225.

Matthew says he’s certain some sushi aficionados might look at the tally of restaurants he’s eaten at over the course of a single month, complaining, “He hasn’t been to Mushashi’s or Sushi Land, or other places on the top-10 lists.” He himself complains that he hasn’t yet eaten omakase at Chiso Kappo, or had a raw quail’s egg over ikura, “though I did have a quail egg in my shotglass at my first visit to I Love Sushi. It had an oyster in it, along with some sake and ponzu sauce. Delicious!”

Of course I had to meet him. After all, he and I are in great agreement when it comes to most everything having to do with sushi. And anyone willing to blow over $2000 on sushi has a story I want to hear. (He explains the financial disconnect by noting, “I work a lot of overtime, and I don’t have a life: I go out to eat.”)

So after setting him straight about Sushi Land — which I find fast, cheap, convenient and likely to make (the bottom of) my top 10-list for those very reasons — I set out to introduce him to someone near and dear to my heart (and now his), my favorite sushi chef, Taka-san:

On Day 30 of Matthew’s sushi extravaganza, we ate an incredible omakase lunch at Taka Sushi in Lynnwood. But first, he took the bus to the Northgate transit center, where I picked him up early so that we could arrived at Taka when they opened — an imperative in Matthew’s book because that way you get the best seat at the sushi bar and the chef’s undivided attention. (Right on!)

Because we were a bit early, we stopped first at Lynnwood’s Half Price Books where I convinced him to buy the book I think is an imperative for serious sushi lovers: “The Sushi Economy” by Sasha Issenberg. Then we went next door to Trader Joe’s, where Matthew bought potato chips, I stocked up on fizzy water and the customer checking-out in front of us assuaged her sushi jones:

Matthew was incredibly impressed by our meal at Taka, and later told me “it was perfect” (read what he has to say and see what we ate right here). No surprise, says me. Though I was surprised to run into my kid’s orthodontist, the talented Dr. Vierra, seen here taking a lunch break and holding what he dubbed a “Taka taco”:

So, what has Matthew learned after eating sushi for 30 days straight? “That I want to learn more,” he says. And in exchange for that all-too-perfect answer, I bought him lunch.

Now, tell me: is there someplace Matthew missed that you’d insist he try?

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