Tuesday, 26 May 2009
Sushi Say, Willesden Green
It began, as these things often do, with a challenge. I had never had a sushi meal in London to match the places I'd visited in Boston or New York, and was doubtful there was anywhere that could impress for a reasonable amount of money (so that's Sake No Hana and Umu out, then). Suggestions came in, amongst them Sushi Say in Willesden Green, a long-time local favourite with some rave reviews, and I was optimistic. Optimistic enough, too, to battle from SW11 to NW2 on a bank holiday weekend where every other tube line was out and those dreaded words "bus replacement" featured heavily. I arrived after a 105 minute journey, hoping to God it was worth it.
Sushi Say does, admittedly, look the part. It's a small room, with a ten-seater sushi bar, a handful of tables and a cute corner section where it looks like you're expected to sit cross-legged and eat from a communal table. It looks like the perfect setting for a very authentic sushi experience, which is a shame because after ten minutes I was just on the verge of walking out. Let me explain.
I arrived at 1pm to an empty restaurant, and not unreasonably sat down at the bar. Immediately a waitress rushed over and told me that they don't use the bar at lunchtimes, and moved me to one of the tables. Fine - their place, their rules. But no sooner had I been shown the menu than a family turned up, sat down at the bar, and were served. I stared at them in disbelief for a little while, and then called the waitress over.
"Excuse me, can I sit at the bar, please?"
"Sorry, no - we don't use the bar at lunchtimes."
I glanced over at the family sat at the bar, chatting happily to the chef. Then I turned back to my waitress. A few moments passed before the penny seemed to drop.
"I will ask."
She scurried off. Many more minutes passed, punctuated by bursts of contented laughter from the bar and plates of hot food being passed between chef and grateful customers. Eventually, I tucked the menu under my arm and grabbed my glass of Kirin and went and sat down at the bar. I had barely been sat for ten seconds when the waitress reappeared to repeat her earlier assertion that the bar is "not used at lunchtimes. You must sit back down at the table."
Again, I gestured towards the not insignificant number of people sat to my left who seemed in exception to this particular rule.
"They want to talk to the chef."
"Well, so do I."
"They are special friends of the chef."
"Well, I'd like the chance to meet..." Another standoff. We held each other's gaze for a few significant seconds, but I got the impression the weight of opinion was against me. I looked towards the chef, who also met my gaze impassively.
"Fine..." It was no good. I shambled back to my table with my beer and menus.
From that point on, if the food had been a 3 Michelin-star tour-de-force of Japanese regional cookery it still would have tasted of defeat. To try and be objective for a second, it probably wasn't too bad. The soft-shelled crab tempura were moist and cooked with skill, the squid well seasoned and the Uni nigiri were, if not very fresh, then at least unusual enough to be noteworthy. My Maze Chirashi lunch bowl consisted of some very flavoursome tuna and a generous scattering of roe. It was all fine, but it wasn't worth either the trek up from South London or the emotional battering I received when I got there. As I left, leaving no tip, they were all smiles. "Thank you! Come again!". Maybe it happens a lot - maybe they consider the discriminatory service something to be proud of. Or maybe you think I'm just a bitter jealous blogger who has ideas above his station. Maybe you're right.
Tonight, to wash away the memory of Sushi Say forever, I am taking some friends to Tayyabs. It will be half the price, twice as good, and because we know the chef now we can get in without queuing and get to sit at a special table. Some of you may consider that hypocrisy. I just think you're jealous....