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.

"But..."

"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....

4/10

Sushi-Say on Urbanspoon

20 comments:

Lizzie said...

That was a bit poo of them, especially since their argument was completely non-sensical.

Anonymous said...

Why shouldn't the chef's friends be allowed to sit at the bar without it setting a precedent?

Helen said...

I see where you are coming from. If you start a meal off on a bad foot like that, then you feel 'emotionally scarred' (sorry, bit dramatic!) for the rest of the meal and it taints everything.

Ollie said...

105 minutes - you could have got to the coast in that time! Sorry to hear it wasn't worth it. Hope you enjoy Tayyabs as much as ever.

Gregory said...

Obviously your mere presence at the empty seat on the bar was going to upset the balance of the universe.

What did they actually do to deserve your custom ?

Gavin said...

That sounds a bit of a pisser Chris.

Enjoy Tayyab's, look out for Wasim's new car....

Anthony Silverbrow said...

Shame you had such a bad time. The interesting point though is that there was so much space available.

Whenever I've been, it's been rammed, although I've only ever gone in the evening.

The sushi however has always been great but not up there with Yasuda or the like.

Su-Lin said...

That's not cool at all - sure it's their restaurant, but all this favouritism while obviously upsetting other customers doesn't do them any favours.

Browners said...

Sounds like very hostile service. Do these people not realise they are in the hospitality business!?

Lennie Nash said...

That would have annoyed me too, especially after the long journey. But crap restaurants just make the good ones seem all the more better. Hope your second meal of the day was all the more better for it.

Lennie

Chris said...

Anonymous: Of course it sets a precedent - because it's in full view of a room full of people who have all been told they can't sit there! It looks so bad.

Gavin: Yes very impressive... http://www.mobypicture.com/user/chrispople/view/238048

Kang said...

I am indeed very jealous.

Well that's Sushi Say written off then - it really reminds me of the rude service at Sakura, I wonder if it's something that's lost in translation?

Apologise if this comes out wrong (which I hope it doesnt) but you made the best of the verbal fencing with front of house and turned it into a rather entertaining side story to the blogpost. I felt the waitress see saw back and forth conveying the message between you and the chef.

Hurrah.

Annemarie said...

Oh dear - a kick in the goolies never starts a meal well. I've heard lots of good about Sushi Say so that's a real shame, and I can empathize with your quests (mine has always been for the perfect bowl of ramen, primarily in London but it overtook our trip to Japan as well). I, however, don't have any helpful answers for you.

Helen Yuet Ling Pang said...

Sorry to hear about your experience! That would have made me so furious. When I went to Sushi-Say last year, the fish was fresh, but it didn't blow me away. I know you're on your quest, but having lived in NYC for two years, you won't find what you're looking for in London! Have you been to Japan? You'll find it there!

MsMarmitelover said...

Really must try this out...as it's local

lordheber said...

Very surprised that you received what you felt to be rude treatment at Sushi-Say. They can be slightly brisk when rushed off their feet in the evening, but are generally incredibly nice and accommodating. This is without doubt one of the best Japanese restaurants in London, and almost certainly the best value for money (not cheap, but top quality food). I think I can fairly claim to know Japanese food pretty well, having lived (and eaten and drunk uninhibitedly) in Japan for four years in the early 70s and having been married to a Japanese woman ever since. I would say that you may have misread the situation and that it was indeed what the waitress told you -- some personal friends of Shimizu Sei, the Oyakata, were spending personal time with him, and outsiders were not invited. Lunchtime arrangements at this restaurant are not the same as in the evening, when the place is packed and lively and you are welcome to sit at the counter if there's space or if you have pre-booked a seat. Don't go off in a huff; try it again one evening -- I doubt you'll be disappointed.

Chris said...

lordheber: I was with you until you used the word 'outsider'. There's no restaurant I would want to eat at that would consider some customers "friends" and others "outsiders". It's elitist and offensive and wrong. On the other hand, you do sound like you know what you're talking about and I did think the food had potential. I will probably be back.

Anonymous said...

You really need to get a life, we've been going for years and have found the service to be always friendly and the quality of the fish excellent.

emmett said...

well stay in south london then, or better, take your moaning back to the rest of the right wing pretentious U.S.A U.S.A U.S.A you muppet...

dandan said...

That is one of the worst food reviews I have ever read. You admitted that you weren't going to be fair as you were unhappy with not being allowed to sit at the bar. Sushi Say is one of the best sushi restaurants in London and is also the only restaurant in north west London that is in Harden's restaurant guide. Maybe next time don't preface a meal with a two-hour south to north london bus journey