That was my stunned first impression of the super-trendy Japanese restaurant that opened a month ago at the W Scottsdale hotel.
How to describe the decadence? Completely over the top. Good-looking staff, sexy lighting, and young, style-conscious customers cramming into every plush, circular booth to flirt and nibble and knock back $14 cocktails. Throbbing electronic music and the buzz of the crowd made it feel like the hottest nightclub in town.
I thought I might've been a little too glammed out until I set foot in the place. Oh, no — you should've seen the getups on some of the girls that night. If there's any restaurant where you should dress to the hilt, it's Sushi Roku.
Because come on. Who's really coming here for the food? Seriously. People are coming to places like this to see and be seen, to charge up their plastic before the American banking system freezes up, to hand their Lamborghini keys to the valet. Sushi Roku is hideously expensive, the cooking is glaringly mediocre, and yet, that doesn't seem to be stopping anybody here from having a hell of a good time.
I'll admit, I had fun, too. I really liked the sushi here, and would even come back for it. But the other dishes? No, thanks. I'd much rather have Japanese at Roka Akor. Or better yet, if I'm really going to splurge on something exquisite, I'd hands-down rather entrust my palate to the gifted chef Nobuo Fukuda at Sea Saw. Sushi Roku is scene over cuisine.
Catch this restaurant on one of the super-busy nights, and it's easy to see that it's understaffed. Amazingly, as much as I half-expected somebody to be stuck-up, I didn't get any attitude at all — the hostesses were friendly, and the servers were sincerely helpful, when they weren't juggling other things. They were just slammed, and it showed in the sluggish pacing of everything.
Aside from needing more hands on deck, Sushi Roku really should teach its gaijin employees (that is, the non-Japanese) to correctly pronounce "Irrasshai," which means "Welcome." I'm here to check out the food, so why do I even care that they're all saying "EER-rah-SHAY" instead of "ee-RAH-SHY"? Only because the entire staff screams it in unison whenever a new party is led to their seats. One of my poor friends practically jumped out of her skin when this happened, and I had to reassure her that it's commonly shouted at restaurants in Japan.
Anyway, for a place this high-profile to not get that conspicuous detail right seems half-assed.
Meanwhile, service at the sushi bar was consistently attentive, however busy those sushi chefs were making California rolls for the silicone crowd. Unlike most places, at Sushi Roku, you don't use a little pencil and checklist to place your order. Instead, you chat directly with the chefs behind the breathtaking seafood case, a gleaming, curved thing heaped with beautiful silvery fish, whole sea urchins and prawns, fresh sea scallops in the shell, and even live lobsters.
One night, I was lucky enough to sit near Shin, the head sushi chef, and he was extremely friendly. And that was before I even ordered. Once he figured out that I was there for the good stuff — that I would gleefully eat the delicious fried shrimp heads that follow the amaebi sushi — he seemed even more animated and enthusiastic. I just loved that. I think all good sushi experiences revolve around a personal interaction with the chef.
So I was treated to a platter of buttery, pale pink toro sashimi, served with dollops of pickled wasabi and gem-like heaps of yuzu-scented flying fish roe. There was ultra-fresh kinmedai (big eye snapper) on compact balls of tender sushi rice; traditional aji nigiri topped with dabs of grated ginger and scallions; and fabulous gunkan-maki overflowing with sweet, creamy ankimo (that's monkfish liver, and if you've never had it, you're missing out — especially if you like foie gras).
The saba roll was nice as well, a slender, spinach-topped inside-out roll filled with mackerel and avocado. It was served with a puckery pink dip that was supposed to be plum, but tasted more of rice wine vinegar — alas, another coy sushi chef wouldn't reveal the secret ingredient.
Besides the sushi, I also enjoyed the ohitashi. It's tangy chilled spinach served with shavings of dried bonito — a traditional dish that I've eaten countless times, but for some reason haven't seen on many menus in the Valley. Homemade tofu was tasty, too, served three different ways: with sesame oil and scallions; with a slice of black truffle and truffle oil; and with olive oil and a gob of black caviar. There was also a pinch of truffle mushroom salt on the side.
My affection for Sushi Roku ended at the sushi bar. Cold sashimi-style appetizers, like the yellowtail topped with diced chiles (which had no discernable flavor), or the salmon and scallop carpaccio with shichimi aioli, were simply not worth the money. The fish was sliced so paper thin that neither dish was satisfying to eat, and the carpaccio actually required scraping to get it off the plate. Sorry, there's no dignity in that.
The mixed seafood and vegetable tempura was a train wreck on a plate. Not to say that the whitefish, shrimp, eggplant, sweet potato, and other goodies weren't fresh. They just would've been better naked. It was the heavy, greasy fried batter that ruined them for me.
But wait, it gets worse. Fatty lamb chops marinated too long in soy sauce. Barbecued short ribs salted to high heaven, served bone-in — which meant little bits of bone in the meat around the ribs. I stopped eating as soon as my teeth crunched into some. Overcooked pan-fried jumbo shrimp, served with a heap of homemade potato chips (those were good) and heavy-handed chile sauce that covered the flavor of the shrimp. And overly seasoned lobster, scallops, and prawns, smothered in pink peppercorn olive oil and roasted until they were verging on tough. Eating those, I wanted to cry, just thinking how good they might've been raw.
Grilled filet mignon was actually juicy and perfectly charred. Still, I hated the sugary, Americanized teriyaki sauce that came with it, as well as the tempura onion rings.
That left me with an appetizer portion of Kobe beef tataki, seven tender, mouthwatering bites of meat, served in lightly garlicky pools of ponzu. It was undoubtedly delicious, but after that, the unoriginal desserts (molten chocolate cake, green tea mochi ice cream, and an out-of-place lavender crème brûlée) were anticlimactic, to say the least.
Yep, I should've stuck to the sushi.