Friday, 29 June 2012

Sticks'n'Sushi, Wimbledon

Wimbledon used to be the place that restaurants went to die. It's strange how the smartest areas of town seem to suffer from a dearth of decent eating options; look at Hampstead, for example, with its couple of half-assed gastropubs and a Gaucho Grill, or Knightsbridge & West Brompton where people go to see and be seen eating salad. You'd think that where the disposable income goes, good food would inevitably follow but the opposite seems to be the case; where times are hard, and incomes low, restaurants fall over each other to offer great value and a great time. In areas that they don't have to try to turn a profit, well, they don't.

Thank heavens, then, that Wimbledon finally has a restaurant worth the trek to SW19. I don't mean Sticks'n'Sushi of course, oh no - that wouldn't be worth anyone's Zone 3 Oystercard supplement. I mean the Lawn Bistro, up the hill in Wimbledon Village, which opened a few months ago and is serving classy, starry dishes for a very reasonable amount of money and which I enjoyed very much. I may one day get around to reviewing it, but in the meantime Hugh Wright has, as usual, said everything worth saying about the place on his blog and I urge you to go read it.

Anyway, to Sticks'n'Sushi. The ninth in a chain, though the first in London (all previous branches are in Copenhagen), it presumably has plans to expand even further so quite why they've chosen Wimbledon for their flagship is unclear. Perhaps it has something to do with the huge space required for their "concept" - a massive open kitchen consisting of rows of gleaming workstations and looking like the set of Iron Chef. It's certainly impressive, and the rest of the room is attractive in a sort of chainy way even if it did remind me rather disturbingly of the inside of Fire & Stone in Covent Garden.

But my heart sank when I saw the "menu". Rather than have anything so pedestrian as a sheet of paper with available dishes listed on it, Sticks'n'Sushi prefers you rifle through a glossy catalogue of artfully photographed seafood, with barely more than a couple of dishes per double-page for extra annoyance, and the odd box of smug 'sustainability' guff. Even more incredibly, there are two of these catalogues, one containing A La Carte and the other a number of suggested "meals" with irritating names like "Salmon, duck and his friends" and "Mixed emotions". It's almost impossible to settle upon anything though because by the time you've reached the last page of this Littlewoods Catalogue of Food you've completely forgotten what came first. It's pointless, and annoying, and so in a desperate attempt to cobble together some kind of variety between the two of us we ordered a few bits of sashimi and a few yakitori and hoped for the best.

The food, on the whole, wasn't all that bad. Some "blini" (not very Japanese I know, but they were a special suggested by our waiter and rather than to have to plough through that menu again we agreed to have them) were on the bland side but still had enough nice fresh fish and crab to be worth the effort. Sashimi (tuna, salmon and yellowfish) was nicely presented on a pile of ice but were only middling-quality as you can probably tell by the rather mean strips of fat in the salmon. And beef tataki threw some interesting textures together, and was particularly enjoyable dipped in the goma dressing it came with, but was fairly low quality cow.

Elsewhere, "ebi bites" (deep fried prawn things in batter) were soft and greasy and drowning in mayonnaise, tuna yakitori was overcooked to dry grey, and chicken tebasaki (wings) managed somehow to be bland despite being incredibly overseasoned. Nothing was hideous, or even inedible, and I can think of certain things I would even like to try again amongst the whole load of stuff that I certainly wouldn't, but overall this was mediocre Japanese food, all style and no substance, glossily presented but lacking heart.

Which is what you might expect from a chain, and it's still not the worst Japanese food I've eaten in London (Yo! Sushi has few rivals in that department), so why is there no chance of hell I'd ever go back to Sticks'n'Sushi? One reason and one reason only - the stupidly high prices. Our meal, with a couple of cocktails and a £20 half (half!) bottle of sake came to £112.16. Luckily for us (if not them), this was a PR invite, but this is about as much as you'd pay in Roka on Charlotte Street, where the flashy presentations are matched by real skill at the stove, or even at Sushi of Shiori where £50/head will buy you two hours in the company of London's most talented Japanese chef. It's cheaper than Umu perhaps, or Yashin, but for heaven's sake this is a chain with chain ambitions, not a boutique omakase sushi bar. It's simply not worth this amount of money.

But don't worry Wimbledon, you still have the Lawn Bistro. And don't worry the rest of London, because there's no need to travel to SW19 for good sushi, you can go to anywhere above as well as Asakusa in Mornington Crescent or Ten Ten Tei in Soho. And for great yakitori, as well as Roka there's the wonderful Bincho on Old Compton Street, which regularly offers a thrilling range of things on sticks for very little money indeed. I'm not sure what it says about the standard (and cost) of food available in Cophenhagen that SnS is so wildly popular over there, but we have no need for another mediocre Japanese chain over here thank you very much. One is more than enough.


Sticks N Sushi on Urbanspoon

I was invited to Sticks'n'Sushi


Sam said...

"Sustainability" guff? why is sustainability in quotes?

isn't sustainably sourced fish pretty important in a sushi restaurant?

anyway based on your review I won't be going any time soon. sustainable or not

Chris Pople said...

Sam: Yes it is important, sorry if that sounded dismissive. The menu was irritating me so much in every other way that even their information about sustainability came across as smug. Nothing wrong with sourcing sustainable fish, don't get me wrong.

Katie said...

'Sticks'n'Sushi' (which soon becomes 'sticks in sushi' - urgh): what a dreadful name. It might work for somewhere cheap and nasty but not a place this pretentious.

Gregory said...

Wimbledon is where restaurants go to die is because the restaurants who do go there are so bullish they think they can deal with the astronomical rents and leases that eventually cripple them in the slow months.

Barbara Bardzki Löfgren said...

I live in Copenhagen and have been to Sticks 'n' Sushi here. You asked why it was popular - because here there are fashions for things, and this chain is 'in' at the moment. It is expensive here too.

In my opinion, the catalogue menu is there to confuse so you give up and order an expensive set meal.

(NB They do a bacon/goat cheese stick - quite tasty in a post pub way - but hardly Japanese).

Sticks'N'Sushi said...


We read this review the first time with our fingers almost covering our eyes, the second time with very drooped shoulders and the third time with the look of a person truly beaten. Then we read it again, saw your tweets promoting the link, looked at the receipt and figured that as we invited you in, we should with good intentions, give you our feedback too.

Ok, you HATED the menus. we accept that. They are rather detailed but since launching have found overwhelmingly people understood them and find them very useful to see the choices and pick as they wish.
As you know there are 18 set platters ranging from Bankrupt £6.50 for 8 pieces of Urumaki to £80 for a 68 piece platter of mixed sushi to make it easy for people to pick and share. The A la Carte is easy for people who want to specifically select various options /salads and individual sticks.
We choose not to display on a more 'pedestrian style of listing them on piece of paper' - but each to their own, we think on this occasion being different is better so lets agree to disagree.

You tweeted a link to your review '£112 for rubbish japanese food' which in particular we felt was misleading and unfair simply because you do say in the review that 'the food on the whole wasn't that bad' and 'there are certain things i'd even like to try again' so from this we're not sure that it's really ok to say 'rubbish food' as it's not actually wholly representative of your review

Now to the cost. Your bill for £112 is broken down as £62 (55%) for food including 2 starters, sharing sashimi (9 pieces of tuna, salmon & hamachi £14) luxury crab blini (£9.50) Beef Tataki (£6.90) and 7 skewers between 2 people, plus £37 (33%) for booze - the sake half bottle you chose is a premium sake and the 2 cocktails we think are well priced at £6.50 each, the beer you chose is a wheat beer brewed exclusively for us in Copenhagen - (there were slightly cheaper options for the beer) and the remaining £13 was 12.5% service (which you didn't mention but hope it was as great, Jordan who served you was keen to know)

Now that's a lot of food and as anyone knows, eating for free at a review, one tends to try a lot more than a typical customer (which of course we encourage) however the average spend at Sticks'n'Sushi is around £25 so all in all, your painting of us as basically crap food for over £112 we take to heart as being overall unfair and hope that on this occasion you can see where we're coming from


Chris Pople said...

Sticks'n'Sushi: Thanks for the comprehensive comment!

I'll just respond to a few things best I can:

I think the reason I hated the menu was that it felt, as I said, like a glossy brochure for a faceless corporation, not a nice genuine restaurant. And of course there's a reason for this - Sticks'n'Sushi is a chain, and one that clearly wants to expand as rapidly as possible. The menu, then, just reflects this impersonal corporate manifesto and is alienating and weird. A restaurant needs to do everything it can to make you feel like you're being treated like a guest, like an individual and with care and consideration. A glossy brochure of heavily manicured, perfectly lit food, running to God knows how many pages, turns what should be one of the most fun parts of eating out - choosing your food - into a depressing chore.

Also the 'rubbish food' comment was a bit mean admittedly but Twitter is a bit more informal than Blogger. And I'm afraid that although, yes, some of the food was decent and nothing was inedible, the overall impression I left with of the place was something approaching 'rubbish' because of the cynical pricing and faceless corporate guff.

I did not choose the sake - my waiter chose it for me after I specifically said to bring me something cheap(er). He had treated me to your "best" (his words) sake before that and as I knew by this point it wasn't going to be a great review and I didn't want to take advantage of your generosity, I wanted something cheaper. I didn't even look at the sake list - I wouldn't have a clue what to choose even if I had.

But even without the sake & cocktails, the food is not good value. Again, look at Bincho Yakitori or Asakusa or Ten Ten Tei or any number of existing Japanese restaurants in London. We could have eaten about as much food as on Thursday, for less, and it would have been better. No, the sashimi at Sticks'n'Sushi isn't the worst in London, or the yakitori, but it is nowhere near being the best either and the cynical prices just mark it down another few notches.

Regarding the service, I generally try and avoid mentioning it on invites to review as it's always a bit more attentive and unrepresentative than if I'd been there anonymously. And actually, even on reviews where I'm paying myself I only mention anything other than the food (e.g. decor, sound levels, service) if it's either really bad or really good. Aside from a slightly irritating habit of describing everything as "wonderful" (especially given the events that followed) service was very good, so I had no complaints there.

I realise my post wasn't what you wanted to read, but I'm afraid I feel very strongly about places like this. Cynical, wipe-clean proto-chains are the absolute worst things about eating out in London, and the idea of Sticks'n'Sushi rolling out across the capital at the expense of any number of independent, generous and exciting little joints like Bincho makes me sad. I'm sure in a couple of years the shareholders at SnS can kick back and retire on the profits of running a Japanese Café Rouge but it doesn't mean that I have to like it. I'm sorry you've been saddled with this client, but just like you were only doing your job inviting bloggers along for free meals, I wouldn't be doing mine if I didn't write it up honestly.

Sticks'N'Sushi said...

Appreciate your honesty and we get it, really we do.

One thing though for the Anti-chain brigade stance,, there's chains and chains.
Surely it's about retaining a sense of individuality, quality and standards - Sticks have been going since 1992 -that's TWENTY YEARS and have opened only 11 restaurants so hardly a greedy corporate.

It's often very difficult for restaurants to sustain themselves financially on one location, probably why so many we love early on for being a solo venture, then open a second, third and so on. It's only when they lose identity, quality and soul I think it's fair to dismiss. I would hope we are the very opposite of this - just because there are 9 in copenhagen, really does not mean that we're a cynical chain -it genuinely doesn't work like that in reality-or at least not for us.

And for info, there are no shareholders -it's privately owned by the original founders Kim and Thor

We've said our piece, we're at opposite ends on this one so we're ok to have totted this one up to experience.


Hugh Wright said...

Ouch Chris...ouch. I think you're being a bit harder on SnS than they deserve.

Full disclosure first, which you know but just so readers do: I went to one of the early free previews for SnS, invited by the same PR as invited you. I thought it was very good overall, as did my guest. I too didn't like the menus, finding them confusing, and compared them in the feedback form to the Ikea catalogue, but I don't think they're quite the embodiment of all that's evil in the world that you make out. Also I didn't have a bill, even a dummy one, so couldn't comment even academically on the value-for-money but I remember looking at the menu and thinking the prices were hardly cheap but not exorbitant. Also just to make it clear, I'm not in any way opposed to free review meals - one thing I'm not is a hypocrite ;-)

Where I do think there's an issue is whether your very scathing evaluation of SnS's pricing and motives - moreso actually in your response to their comment than in the original post even - is a fair reflection of things.

Is £62 for all that food - five dishes and seven skewers - really 'cynical'? It's on the high side I'll grant you especially the yakitori, and maybe I'm over-doing the high falutin' places, but that doesn't strike me as being way over the top. By your own admission you ordered willy-nilly (even if that was the confusing menu's fault); would you have ordered that much, or those dishes, if you had been there as a price-conscious diner, perhaps with a self-imposed maximum spend in mind? Indeed, if you were a price-point conscious diner not a reviewer there to review, wouldn't you have looked at the prices on the menu and been put off before you even went in?

Comparing SnS with Bincho (itself a company which if not yet a chain, certainly has expansion ambitions - or are there good chains and bad?) is a bit of a case of apples & oranges, as Bincho don't do sushi or sashimi, and as for Ten Ten Tei well I'd expect it to be cheaper as it's so stripped-back basic (and yes, brilliant, but never going to win any design awards - some people *do* care about decor and don't mind paying a bit extra for it!)
I seem to recall my last meal there coming to about £33/head including a single beer and tip - no cocktails, no sake.

I don't know why I feel so strongly about this one, more than any of your other puce-cheeked eviscerations; there's just something about it that feels rather unfair. But you clearly don't think so so let's, as Sticks 'n' Sushi put it with optimistic futility, agree to disagree!

Martin said...

Good for you writing this review even though the meal was free - PRs need to know that they can't buy good reviews and that if the food was disappointing you should be able to say so.

The comments about S&S being some kind of "wipe-clean proto chain" or "Japanese Cafe Rouge", though, just sound like you posturing when the restaurant has left you a perfectly reasoned response (and it sounds like you didn't do your homework on them either). In the review you come across as a fairly balanced critic - though it seems you didn't fully disclose how responsible you were for running up that £112 bill. In your responses to the comments you come across as a bit of a prick. I wonder which one the PRs think they're getting when they ask you to review restaurants in return for a comp?

Mr Noodles said...

Some interesting observations in this debate, and I’m going to throw in a couple of my own.

1) What constitutes a chain? Is Hawksmoor one? What about Russell Norman’s mini-empire? Is Burger & Lobster becoming one? Or is the ‘chain’ tag only attached to restaurant groups we don’t like? And then there’s Byron, which goes to show chains, even British ones, aren’t necessarily evil. And while I agree many chains are crap, there are quite a few examples of excellent ones. For instance, I’d give up body parts for Din Tai Fung to open in blighty, and I know for a fact you adore In N Out.

2) I don’t think Sticks N Sushi is bad value. I went as an uninvited, anonymous full paying customer with a friend. We paid £60 for two of the set menus (one with an upgrade), seaweed salad, two lagers and service. There was a lot of food, and we couldn’t finish it all off. On the quality, the sticks were better than the sushi, but nothing was objectionable. And while I wouldn’t describe S ‘n’ S as a destination restaurant, in the context of the Wimbledon dining scene, it’s a good local. Whether that says more about eating out in Wimbledon, that’s another debate!

Reiko Hashimoto said...

45Just need to mention few words on this review as I strongly feel “unfair”. From the point of a Japanese food expert who eats out a lot and based in Wimbledon, I trust Stick n’sushi delivers the whole package. I was invited to their opening with 3 guests and so I brought my long run students who are all accomplished cooks. We were all very impressed with the whole experience and left very happily. I do believe you need to count on the deco and the service when judging restaurants as they are important factors. You choose the restaurant depending on what you are looking for and how much budget you have. Is it a quality of food only you are looking for? Is it the whole package? What Stick n’sushi offers for an average spend of £25 is a great value. Their meat sticks are pretty great and the desserts are to die for. It’s a new wave of enjoying Japanese food in a modern, vibrant atmosphere without sipping noodles neither sitting on the bench nor trying to catch dried sushi coming round in the belt. All in all, I value Stick n'sushi highly for their concept & execution.

A London Fishmonger said...

Considering the time and effort this restaurant have invested in ethical sourcing I am very disappointed to see your weak and dismissive comment "smug 'sustainability' guff". You may have no interest in this area Chris or maybe no understanding but it certainly shouldn't warrant such a blasé attitude towards it. Its a hugely important, very sensitive and hugely complex subject area especially in the sashimi restaurant sector where many still plough on happily disregarding all areas of ethical sourcing; any attempt of sustainability understanding should be encouraged at all levels. Very disappointing Chris.

Anonymous said...

I think the place is great personally, I'm certainly not pretentious and always have a great time here. I've spent time in Japan and I think the food compares very well, it's a satisfying albeit not a wholly authentic Japanese dining experience. I didn't miss the squid guts or chicken neck though. As Far as the term pretentious being bandied about here, I think it can equally be applied to the blogger who comes across as a foodie equivalent of a sub genre music snob.