At popular U of T student sushi joint Rolu, at Bloor West and Spadina, it's a familiar scene for a Thursday. At a nearby table, diners discuss Deleuze while snacking on red dragon rolls - shrimp tempura wrapped in rice and seaweed and topped with glossy salmon.
It's fair to say I don't fit in. Squinting at my pocket guide to sustainable sushi, I ask the indulgent server a series of increasingly annoying questions: What kind of tuna do you serve? Is the salmon farmed? What exactly is butterfish?
"We serve bigeye tuna," she says, relaying questions back to the chef, but can't tell me whether the Scottish salmon is wild or farmed. Butterfish is just that - butterfish.
I press on. Is it sablefish or escolar, I ask, not bothering to point out that escolar is indigestible, carries a high mercury risk and is inevitably caught in ways that kill sea turtles.
"It's butterfish," she shrugs. Customers are waiting at the door, so she breaks away.
I've been spending a week visiting a range of sushi bars around the city, trying to order fish that won't kill the oceans. Suffice it to say, it hasn't been a success. In a town like Toronto that is spoiled for choice when it comes to sushi, finding a few ethical options should be a no-brainer. Instead, sustainable sushi is a joke.
In April, Canadian diners got a cheat sheet: a fold-out pocket guide created by SeaChoice, an organization dedicated to working with NGOs to steer consumers and fisheries away from decimating vulnerable seafood populations. The guide sorts sushi varieties into categories: green indicates a sustainable choice, fished responsibly; red identifies fish that should be avoided; yellow refers to alternatives that aren't ideal but aren't bad.
What's in the guide may come as a shock. Your typical sushi combo dinner - tuna, salmon, yellowtail or amberjack, eel - can be classed as red in its entirety.
"It's complicated because people think farmed is bad, wild is good. That's not really the case," says Bill Wareham, senior marine conservation specialist at the David Suzuki Foundation and one of the guide's creators. Wild tuna is rapidly being overfished into extinction, with Mediterranean stocks of bluefin - otherwise known as coveted sushi specialty toro, or tuna belly - in danger of disappearing within two years.
Meanwhile, farmed salmon, which sushi restaurants turned to en masse when wild salmon stocks went into decline, can pollute the oceans and be high in PCBs. It also takes anywhere from 2 to 4 pounds of feeder fish to raise 1 pound of salmon.
None of this makes much sense. How did this handful of carnivorous fish species become staples of the standard sushi platter - especially when they're harder and harder to get without damaging the oceans?
The answer is one misunderstood word: tradition.
"Consumers have an infatuation with imported culture and strive toward traditionalism,'' explains Casson Trenor, the author of Sustainable Sushi: A Guide To Saving The Oceans One Bite At A Time and pretty much the spokesperson for the movement to change sushi culture on this continent.
The consequence of this is a misinterpretation of the sushi term "edomae," often used to refer to fish like skipjack tuna and amberjack (hamachi), to mean "traditional." Instead, it means literally "from in front of Tokyo," which is what those fish are.
"This led to an outbreak of cookie-cutter Japanese restaurants that have taken over America," he says. Insisting that "traditional" Japanese species be served in North American restaurants necessitates nothing less than "the mechanization of the ocean."
Yet consumer studies have shown that most diners can't tell the difference between different kinds of fish used for sushi. "We know through market testing that people are using all types of fish and calling it something else," says Wareham. "About 15 types of fish are called snapper. The consumer palate isn't all that acute."
Blush-coloured Arctic char is a great substitute for salmon, he says.
"Sushi is not a set of kinds of food; it is a way of interpreting and expressing the ocean," says Trenor. "Except for rice - sushi literally means ‘with rice' - the sky's the limit. Boxing ourselves in and forcing ourselves to serve farmed salmon and farmed hamachi is bad for the oceans and bad for diners."
At high-end Theatre District sushi bar Fune, I try to holler orders over the bar to the team of sushi chefs for things like gindara and iwashi from the green list. I feel rude and gauche.
I do find some great sustainable choices to make it worth my while, such as grilled gindara (sablefish) and delectable aji (horse mackerel) nigiri. But the harried chefs can't tell me whether the salmon is wild or farmed. And when I ask for iwashi, or sardines, I'm told that it isn't a Japanese fish and they don't carry it.
Still, John Lee, chef and owner of Cabbagetown's Omi, says he serves sardines, eco-friendly bottom feeders. He's seen first-hand how the oceans have changed. "Stuff we used to get widely years ago isn't available any more,'' he says. And wild salmon is expensive for most sushi restaurants.
Wareham admits chefs have been slow to adopt SeaChoice's guidelines, but he hopes that as more customers begin asking for sustainable maki, they'll begin to alter their menus.
Happily, there are indications this is starting to happen. Seacore Seafood, a wholesale fish supplier to restaurants across the province and grocery stores across Canada, will soon launch an eco seafood program in partnership with SeaChoice.
The firm will be giving distributors lists of sustainable varieties like Arctic char, which their restaurants (including some Toronto sushi bars) and stores can then sell with a special eco-friendly label.
"Weekly we have more customers inquiring about (sustainable seafood)," says Seacore's Sal Battaglia.
At Leslieville takeout bar Sushi Marché, which serves only a few customers at a time, things aren't quite so harried. Both the chef and staff are happy to indulge me, spending half an hour explaining where most things on their menu come from. Their yellow-listed Alaskan crab nigiri tastes orgasmic.
But some options present issues that make my head whirl. Suzuki (sea bass) is listed as green on SeaChoice's list. Indeed, it's energy efficient: because it's an omnivore, farming it yields a net increase in protein.
But Trenor's site warns that only U.S. varieties are green, because little is known about the practices of Asian suzuki fisheries. Sushi Marché's is from Japan - which I suppose makes it more "authentic" but less green.
The experience also reveals a problem with the fish eco movement thus far: little mention is made of sushi's carbon footprint. Importing fish from halfway around the world burns a lot more oil than serving stuff caught in local lakes, but that isn't reflected in the SeaChoice guide. Wareham admits his team is concentrating on saving fish stocks, but he agrees we should choose local options wherever possible.
It's clear that Toronto has some catching up to do. The Overwaitea Food Group, which operates 117 stores in western Canada, has partnered with SeaChoice to launch a seafood sustainability program to put more eco-friendly fish in stores.
But that's nothing compared to San Francisco, ground zero of sustainable sushi. There, Trenor runs Tataki, an eco sushi bar.
"You're not going to find a single piece of farmed salmon or bluefin tuna in the building - and the amazing part is you won't miss them," says Trenor. He says he hopes some chefs in Toronto wake up.
Wareham is blunt.
"We're trying to get it into people's minds that they have the right to know what they're eating. If we don't make a shift, then there just will be no tuna, period."