Cafe Reviews

Geisha A Go Go has Scottsdale hipsters turning Japanese

On the streets of Tokyo, you can hear pachinko parlors before you even see them.

Their sound is distinctive, a shimmering white noise created by thousands of little metal balls cascading through the pachinko machines. You'd almost mistake it for rushing water, if it weren't for melodic, electronic bleeps and bloops punctuating the waves of noise.

I always thought of it as the sound of money disappearing into thin air.

The first thing I saw at Geisha A Go Go, the new Japanese lounge in Old Town Scottsdale, was a row of brightly lit pachinko machines. Not a bad metaphor. Pachinko is a form of gambling, after all, so it's fair to say that you have to gamble on having a good time at this flashy hangout.

I'll give you some pointers to increase your odds: Go with one friend, bring earplugs, and leave your big appetite at home. If you're over 35, don't bother.

Before I stopped by, I took it as a positive sign that the folks behind this restaurant are two masters of retro kitsch, Bryan Chittenden and Greg Donnally. They founded Stingray Sushi and Drift Lounge, both in downtown Scottsdale, just blocks from one another and from the pair's newest endeavor. Drift is known for its tiki-tastic cocktails, and Stingray, in spite of its see-and-be-seen reputation, serves very good sushi in a setting fit for Barbarella. Based on my experiences at those two places, I expected Geisha A Go Go to combine the best of both.

Ehh, not quite. A little bit was lost in translation.

They completely nailed some quirky, authentic Japanese features, from capsule-like private karaoke rooms, to high-tech Toto Washlets (toilets with heated seats, sensors to raise the lid and flush automatically, and a control panel that lets you wash and dry yourself at the push of a button), to cartoonishly cute waitresses who look like they hang out in Harajuku. Chittenden and Donnally definitely deserve points for creativity.

But a number of things could've been better thought out. The dark, sexy atmosphere, which seemed cool at first glance, wasn't user-friendly. The drink list was somewhat disappointing (plenty of fun cocktails, but only a handful of sake selections, and bottles of vodka all priced at $300), while the menu was confusing. Some of chef Patrick Boll's creations were memorable, although his cooking wouldn't fool me in a blind taste test next to traditional Japanese food. Portion sizes and prices were all over the place. (At press time, the restaurant's publicist mentioned they are making changes to the menu. I'll be sure to blog about it later.)

I'm the last person to complain about loud rock 'n' roll, but, holy hell, was the music blaring in there. Right off the bat, that made me wonder how seriously this place takes itself as a restaurant. For a bar, that's fine — I expect thumping music. But to sit down to dinner with friends, only to shout over the din, made it hard to relax. The late-'80s hair-metal soundtrack didn't help.

But Mötley Crüe was a clue to the restaurant's name, clearly a reference to L.A.'s notorious Whiskey A Go Go. That sort of explained the oversized triptych of dead rock stars behind the bar. Photos of Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison made sense, but what was up with Sid Vicious? The Sex Pistols didn't play at the Whiskey on their 1978 tour. Puzzling.

Other things were off-putting, like the useless granite boulder plunked in the middle of the room and awful seating arrangements. If you sat at the long, jade-green banquette that snaked halfway around the space, then you got a good view of the action. But anyone sitting across from you would have their back to the entire room — definitely bad feng shui. Worse yet, the bad seats were glorified ottomans, with nothing to lean on. And every table was a two-top, bolted to the carpet, making it awkward for parties of more than two people to share food or have a conversation.

Speaking of sharing, the lengthy menu was tricky to navigate when ordering for a group. For the most part, petite, tapas-sized portions were listed right along with full-size entrees, so my friends and I had to use pricing as a guideline. Still, we couldn't have predicted that the $13 wagyu hot rock would amount to six thin slices of beef not much bigger than a postage stamp (my stomach growls at the thought), or that "grilled lobster spring rolls" would actually be one roll cut diagonally into two pieces. Dishes like that made me hear that pachinko sound, and when the bill came, I spent a jackpot on a dinner that didn't fill me up.

Soba noodles with shrimp, enoki mushrooms, snow peas, and tempura-battered green onions in a light, spicy broth were a generous portion, but $15 was too much for run-of-the-mill noodles. At least the pricier entrees were more interesting. Black pepper-crusted tuna was served with charred citrus vinaigrette and tempura zucchini, while a grilled swordfish steak glazed with miso lemon butter was surprisingly succulent, paired with a tasty jumble of asparagus, baby corn, and chunks of snow crab.

Considering the fact that the atmosphere isn't conducive to a sit-down meal, I wouldn't go back for the entrees, even though I really liked the swordfish. It would make more sense to assemble a light grazing meal from the small plates, about two per person. These run 10 bucks or less, and won't break the bank. In particular, the citrus grilled octopus salad was refreshing, with tender slices of octopus arranged under a nest of arugula microgreens. Braised duck korokke (Japanese croquette) was another winner, with moist shreds of duck hidden in a soft ball of fried mashed potato.

Geisha A Go Go's pork gyoza were about what I'd expect from a neighborhood Japanese joint — predictably good. Crispy pork kara-age was a unique alternative, a tender fried cutlet topped with microgreens and dabbed with spicy mustard mayo. (Most of the time kara-age refers to fried chicken, while tonkatsu is deep-fried pork, but here, pork got the lighter treatment of the former, without the heavy panko coating that's typical to tonkatsu.)

After I'd sipped a sugary strawberry Hello Kitty cocktail made with Calpico (a sweet Japanese soft drink), desserts were redundant. There was green tea ice cream (nothing special), a "sushi" fruit platter, with berries and fruit slices arranged around a ball of sweetened rice, and Pocky sticks, which are slender, chocolate-dipped biscuits. I wondered whether these would be some clever dessert interpretation of the popular snack, but no — my waitress simply delivered a plate with four packets of Pocky, straight out of the box. It was cheeky, and pretty ridiculous, but I got a laugh out of it.

Earlier, I'd wondered whether Geisha A Go Go takes itself seriously as a restaurant, when all it really wants to be is a hip watering hole. I think Pocky answered my question.