by Eric Ginsburg
Everyone in the office predicted it, but our intern’s boyfriend said it best: “You don’t know what you’re getting yourself into,” he warned as we scanned the all-you-can-eat sushi menu.
Ours is an office filled with proud eaters, many of us with a propensity for bragging about our voraciousness and an endless willingness to talk — mostly trash — about food. So it’s not surprising that a sushi-eating competition between our departing interns, Anthony Harrison and Sayaka Matsuoka, has been a long time coming.
The only delay really was the price and timing of the special at Mizumi Hibachi & Sushi on State Street in Greensboro, which is $22 for lunch the first four weekdays and more for other meals during the week. We saved up for a few weeks, which coincidentally allowed for more chest puffing and braggadocio. But before we left the office on Monday, the editors all put our proverbial money on Sayaka.
She’s a regular at Mizumi, grew up power-eating sushi and before the first round arrived, pointed out that she specifically wore a dress to allow unrestricted expansion for her stomach. We all predicted that Anthony would fill up and slow down, his eyes exceeding his gut and his will to win inferior. In an amateur move, he ordered a Sapporo upon arrival, because — as he pointed out — they were half off.
We sat on tatami mats around a low table at the back of Mizumi, a Japanese restaurant owned by a Chinese couple All-you-can-eat sushi is popular in the Northeast and West Coast, Sayaka explained, but this is one of the only places in the area that offers it, and she’d argue it’s the best.
It was important to create a few rules for the match, but Mizumi lays out some requirements of its own. Namely, it adheres to the outdoors adage of “leave no trace” — diners are charged extra for sushi left on the plate in order to cut down on over-ordering and wastefulness.
For our purposes, we decided against forcing each contestant to consume exactly the same thing, instead counting all rolls as equal and recording appetizers in a separate column. This left a window of opportunity for either intern to exploit the smaller size of the sashimi to get ahead.
“It’s like air, so basically it’s nothing,” Sayaka said.
But neither intern took advantage of the loophole. As Sayaka’s boyfriend Sam, who came along on his lunch break, said as we quibbled about scorekeeping and whether a crab Rangoon and a tiny shumai were equal: “When the dust settles, I don’t think it will matter that much.”
For the appetizer round — which also included fried calamari rings, gyoza dumplings and fried tofu — Anthony held his own despite his underdog status, matching Sayaka with six pieces.
For the main fare, we picked a combination of nigiri — sushi where the fish comes atop the rice instead of rolls most Americans are more familiar with —several specialty rolls and sashimi — which is served without rice — consuming them family-style. Some come in an order of eight while many are individually selected, up to 20 at a time, allowing us to diversify the experience.
Sayaka, a veteran of such meals, quickly established her lead.
“Damn, you’re on four already?” Anthony said, looking down at the hash marks on the divided sheet in front of them. He was on his second piece, and also his second beer.
By the time he put down five, Sayaka hit double digits.
“You’re just shoveling the food now!” he said. “Goddamn, girl!”
Only Anthony was surprised.
“Living with her is like training for a food competition,” Sam said, while Sayaka described how it runs in the family, recounting how she used to lie and say she was related to Japanese competitive hot-dog eater Takeru Kobayashi and sharing a story about her mom ordering two entrees on ski trips back in her twenties.
For all of Anthony’s grandstanding in the office about how he once tied a high-school classmate by eating 26 pieces of Cici’s Pizza in a single sitting, nobody was impressed.
Anthony started making excuses about his math skills, and protesting that he was too excited about the quality of the food to scarf it down. The family-style approach was cramping him, as we emptied the first two large plates before he noticed.
By that point Sayaka had consumed 16 pieces, a phenomenal showing compared to Anthony’s pithy nine. Determined to enjoy myself, I hadn’t kept track but estimated I was probably responsible for the demise of 10 pieces.
Sam had quietly kept track of his own intake as well. When he shared that he had knocked back 17, Sayaka expressed pride and I insisted he continue counting. Would a dark horse emerge?
We all marveled at the specialty rolls — my favorite being the Phoenix topped with eel, but I thoroughly enjoying the fried J-Style, Firecracker, Sunshine and Playboy. We tried mackerel, red snapper, crab, shrimp, white fish, tuna, spicy salmon, octopus, yellowtail, squid, tofu skins and likely several others.
Anthony, who described the octopus as perfect, closed ground in Round 2, nearly eliminating Sayaka’s early lead. But with time on the meal expiring, the end of the round became the final count. Sayaka led Anthony as predicted, but a mere 23-20. Meanwhile, casually adding 11 to my rough initial estimate, I believe I clocked in at 21.
“I feel like I’m a good 50- 60 percent fish,” he said when it ended.
But with office bragging rights on the line, Sayaka deserved credit of her own, though when Sam offered to pay for her meal, she quipped: “That’s really winning.”
It’s hard to say if Anthony learned enough from his slow pace-setting that he could’ve run away with it in a third round, but Sayaka should never be underestimated.
After all, when our green-tea ice creams came out to top off the meal, she grabbed mine and traded our bowls before I could react, claiming the slightly larger dessert portion for herself despite already being declared the victor.
Visit Mizumi at 309 State Street (GSO) or at mizumihibachisushi.com.