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Oct 2, 2012 08:06 PM

Subpar high-end sushi experience—trying to understand & some lessons [15 East]

To be brief, I took my parents out to one of my favorite sushi places thus far. Disappointingly, we were unanimously not impressed. An unprecedented all-thumbs-down, which thus compels me to attempt this soul-searching. To be clear and fair, the opening movements were pleasant, but the nigiri course was, subjectively, such a glaring letdown that that I had barely any inclination to continue. I left wishing I had ordered very differently in quantity and type, or perhaps simply gone to a different restaurant that night. Some key details:

1. It was a Monday. Apparently sushi is a bad idea on certain days of the week? Come to think of it, maybe the Michelin Guide should start assigning stars based on day and time of the week.

2. The chef was not in. I didn't think to ask while making the reservation. Fool me once.

3. I was feeling a little tired and dehydrated, overall pooped. Makes it harder to be "present".

4. Didn't ask for, nor receive any, tea, and I guess I needed it.

5. Noisy atmosphere, compared to prior visit. Sound can make it surprisingly hard to concentrate on food, apparently there are scientific studies about such distraction of sensory inputs.

6. Parents are skeptical diners, not yet enthusiastic fine-sushi converts. Eating with new diners is not like dining alone.

7. Failed to check what the base Tasting Menu consists of (several amuses, a standard sashimi-sushi set, a soup course, and a dessert).

8. Failed to thoroughly peruse and consider the menus. I incorrectly assumed that opting for the Tasting Menu would relieve us of the work of detailed ordering; I experienced it as unwanted trappings and padding (and of course for a different individual it could be the perfect thing to order).

9. Generally failing to interact with the staff and clearly communicate our desire: to learn about and taste good sushi.

So, were one or two of these conditions the kiss of death, or perhaps had their multitude combined into a perfect storm? I don't know. But in this case, I was less happy being at the sushi counter. *Squirm*. It was definitely an expensive lesson, and I really, really, really would like to avoid repeating it in the future. Anyways, I'd love to hear thoughts and similar (funnier) mishaps below!

P.S. At other 1-starred Michelin restaurants, it seems entirely possible to order several "wrong" dishes, again resulting in a sub-par meal. Theoretically, this could happen at any restaurant where a diner isn't acquainted with its specific food culture.

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  1. It could also be the restaurant. But if you don't let us know which sushi place you're talking about, I don't think we can be of any help. Also, if the place in question isn't named, this post should be on the general topics board.

    3 Replies
      1. re: calf

        No one can really speak to your personal condition, how you handle atmosphere, etc. And as this is a food forum, it would be better to go into detail about what you ate in your meal. But as an FYI, we've recommended on the Manhattan board to reserve seats at the counter in front of Shimizu-san, the main chef at 15 East. He's an excellent chef and a very enthusiastic teacher. For general sushi eating advice, we've covered the topic several times over the years on the General Topics board.

        1. re: Silverjay

          1. The etymology of restaurant is from French, "to restore" e.g. a restorative soup. A person's state of being is precisely relevant and I would argue is a fundamental point of a restaurant's mission and reason for being.

          2. Atmosphere matters. Paul Liebrandt cared about how the ceiling lights affect his plating. There is more to food than what goes in the mouth. Sight and sound matters. Debussy knew that 100 years ago. Atmosphere affects diner's interpretation. This is a basic fact, with scientific evidence.

          3. There is more to food than the literal object. The act of eating is interpretive. Food is anthropological and sociological.

          4. The details are boring. 10 pieces, mushy. No special textures. No subtle tastes. My dad's rice was breaking. I will grant 1/2 point for the yellowtail but it was overseasoned. I will grant 1/2 point for the white shrimplets, whose natural bitters was interesting. (I already mentioned the opening courses at a high level; they were good, and to be specific I'll add that the sashimi course was incommensurable with Kyo-Ya's. I'm not in the mood to recount a play by play unless I really have to.)

          You know when you are given sushi--bar, table, wherever--and every so often, a piece is like magic? I was missing that. And so I was ready to go.

          5. I don't think it's fair to move the bar by saying that Chowhounders should expressly eat only with Shimizu-san for a decent experience. Please remember that my prior visit, which was exceptionally good, was at a table.

          6. Sorry, I don't really see how general information about going to sushiya applies to the problem that I have been describing. I mean, this isn't our first time. Moreover, I distinctly recall commentary on 15 East conflating the notion of Tasting Menu with omakase, and that for instance doesn't fall under general advice at all because it is quite specific to one restaurant's modern approach.

          Hope that makes things clearer.

    1. How about sushi therapy?

      1. "6. Parents are skeptical diners, not yet enthusiastic fine-sushi converts. Eating with new diners is not like dining alone."

        My parents are pretty unadventurous eaters. I learned a while ago that it's just not worth taking them to something outside of their comfort zone. They go into the meal assuming that they're not going like it, which becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy, and their clear discontent throughout the meal drags down the whole experience.

        So not to blame your parents, but their dissatisfaction could have caused you to be much more critical and self-conscious than you normally are.

        2 Replies
        1. re: von_levi

          I always know I have made a food mistake with my father when he says 'that was different'. Otherwise it's hard to tell, because he was brought up to eat everything and not complain. 'Different' is like his code for 'too far outside my comfort zone to enjoy,' even though his plate is clean.

          1. re: von_levi

            - it's just not worth taking them to something outside of their comfort zone. -
            ITA. I went with my folks to a hibachi steak house, which also has a sushi bar. I ordered sushi, since I wanted a lite meal. My mother was open to trying some new things, and seemed to like it. My step father took a piece of maki, stabbed it with his fork, dipped in the ginger sauce provided for his hibachi whatever and gulped it down. Last time I offered him sushi - more for me! :)

          2. Sounds like you "failed" to do several things, so I don't see how this could be the restaurant's fault. The restaurant staff aren't mind readers, so they don't know what type of experience you are looking for unless you tell them.

            The Yelp profile says this is a quiet restaurant that's not good for groups. While I think noise is subjective, if there was a rowdy table, I would have said something to the wait staff. Normal restaurant noise? I wouldn't say anything.

            The menu: their website says the waiter will explain the nightly offerings for the Tasting Menu. That to me means they offer different items everyday, and the water will tell me what those options will be. Omakase would have been the way to go if you wanted the sushi chef to pick your options for you.

            You also mention that your parents are "skeptical" diners, so perhaps this was not the best restaurant to take them to. If they were skeptical of the food, then that also skews your perception of it as well as you can sense their uncomfortableness and/or dislike.

            If you were looking for specific tastes or flavors, again, you should have spoken up. You were probably served the "standard" nigiri, or the most popular. It may not have been what you wanted to taste.

            I get that you didn't enjoy your experience, but I do think you contributed to it a great deal by making assumptions and not speaking up (nicely) if you weren't getting the flavors/experience you were hoping to have.

            6 Replies
            1. re: boogiebaby

              I never said it was the restaurant's fault. I think it goes without saying that the world isn't black and white like that.

              Don't you think it's a little ridiculous that a diner should work so hard (researching and literally physically scouting out restaurants months beforehand) and still not feel rewarded? At that level I don't think it's fair for the burden to rest entirely on the customer. A complicated menu structure is never the customer's fault. A poorly designed room (amongst other issues, directly towards my back was the entry to the large dining room where there was a boisterous party going on) is never the customer's fault. The chef being absent is most certainly not the customer's fault!

              I was using "skeptical" in the literal sense, of being critical eaters. Parents are West Coast and do sushi, and in general Japanese, regularly. Kyo-Ya turned out great. Sushi Yasuda turned out great for me and my aunt. 15 East did not, that evening.

              1. re: calf

                I think researching, having expectations,and parents to impress all work against you. The best is when someone else whisks you away to a place you have no expectations of.

                1. re: jaykayen

                  What do you mean by expectations? For a price bracket of $160+, show me a diner who has no expectations. Or who hasn't done the research. Et cetera.

                2. re: calf

                  Here's what I see from your posts. You spent months researching a place to take your parents. You must have liked this place on your previous visit otherwise you wouldn't have referred to it as "one of your favorite sushi places so far". They must have done something right on your previous visit. Having been there before, you should have had some experience with the menu, either by ordering from it, or from looking at it. You also knew what the room was like because you had been there before, so I think the complaint about the poorly designed room is a bit odd. You could have also requested a different table/seating if you weren't happy with your seating arrangement.

                  Main chefs aren't always in the restaurant -- they are allowed to take a day off too. If you wanted a specific chef, that's something you should have looked into. That's not the restaurant's fault.

                  Again, the staff doesn't know what you want from your meal. You wanted a tasting menu where you didn't have to pick your items -- did you ask them if they would be willing to do that for you, or if they would send out their most popular choices? That would have been an option. You think the menu is complicated, but I live in LA, and it's no uncommon at all to have to choose your tasting menu options.

                  My point is that it's not like you went to this restaurant out of the blue and had a disappointing experience. It seems like you wanted "pay back" for all the effort you went through to pick the place and choose your menu. You yourself said in your original post that you did not you did not look into the menu, you did not find out if the chef would be there, you did not ask for tea, you did not speak up and interact with the staff. If you wanted specific things, it was up to you to speak up and ask for them, whether you are at a $15/plate chain restaurant or a $200 sushi place. We have dined at $$$$ restaurants, and if something isn't going the way we expected or would like, we speak up and ask (nicely) if it's possible to explain how XYZ works or ask what the chef recommends, etc.

                  1. re: boogiebaby

                    I never denied that there was more that I could have done to ensure a good time. I could have used more tact, diplomacy, or assertiveness to have a better time. But that is something that comes with experience (and personality), and in the mean time, I think it is okay to complain about a meal that didn't work out.

                    Sometimes, an off-night is an off-night. Sometimes, a restaurant is uneven in some fundamental, usually structural, way. These two phenomena are known to disappoint diners; this is a very simple truth. Allow me to be disappointed.

                    I have written a full review of the actual meal in the Manhattan thread. In any community, dissenting voices and alternative views are necessary, and useful.

                    1. re: calf

                      I"m quite late to this party, but I wanted to add that I feel your pain. I love great sushi, but I don't love how damn much work it is to get it. No other genre requires so much work on my part. To get great sushi in my food-deprived city, I have to come to know the chef over time, sit at the bar, figure out how to order with enough room to get the "good stuff" but without asking for omakase which I've learned can be a problem, and just generally get lucky.

                      If you don't make yourself known to the chef around here, you'll get mediocre tuna, mystery "white fish" and fake the same place that you will later find out has good stuff like japanese sea bream, abalone, etc. in hiding, waiting for someone they like. Usually I'm willing to play the game, but sometimes you don't have the mental energy.