Monday, September 28, 2009

Restaurant Review: The Sushi Bar

I almost gave The Sushi Bar four spoons.

As my regular readers know, I don't give full marks very often. That's not because I'm trying to be difficult, or because I don't think this country has any great restaurants. I guess it's just that my standards are pretty high, and I haven't been met with a lot of perfect dining experiences lately.

Until, that is, I went to The Sushi Bar. Or so I thought. Then I looked at my receipt.

The Sushi Bar's been around since 1999, when it was, according to its website, the only sushi place in the Czech Republic. The little restaurant gets its most important ingredients from the partner shop next door called Seafood Shop, which also provides high-quality fresh fish to many local dining establishments.

The first, and still the best: that is The Sushi Bar's motto, and after eating their precisely crafted, unforgettable food – and comparing it to some of the more pathetic renditions of sushi available in this town – I can't argue otherwise. I would, however, add the qualifier that The Sushi Bar's sushi is not only The First and The Best, but also The Most Expensive. An eight-piece "exclusive" maki roll can run you as high as 1190 CZK, although you can also get a cucumber roll for 150 CZK or a salmon roll for 290 CZK. So if you're on a budget, order wisely.

But do order something here, at least once. They take the art of sushi-making seriously at The Sushi Bar. They're not doing it because it's trendy; they don't throw in a few maki rolls as an afterthought to a menu loaded with spaghetti and knedlík. They don't think, "most of our customers won't know the difference between good and bad sushi, so who cares if we use this borderline-rancid tuna fish?" And they don't offer Thai spring rolls and tom kha gai soups to appease people who aren't sushi-lovers – they do have a kimchi salad, but at least the menu makes it clear that the dish is Korean.

The menu, by the way, is a work of art in itself. An appetizing photograph of each dish is set against a background of matte white paper, next to loving descriptions typed in crisp fonts. Picking the right kind and amount of sushi can sometimes be tricky, but thanks to their carefully-compiled 'boat' sets and a clever graph system for the nigiri, it's easy to choose a well-rounded meal.

My table chose the nigiri sushi menu number 1 (990 CZK), a fairly straightforward six-piece combination that included salmon, tuna, and red snapper. But it also featured the less-common freshwater shrimp, as well as toro, or tuna belly, a highly-prized, fatty delicacy that melts upon contact with the tongue (only restaurants that order large whole tuna fish can offer toro, since the belly makes up such a small percentage of the flesh). Each piece of nigiri was just as it should be: small and easy to eat in one bite, with only a modest amount of vinegared rice covered by a cleanly-cut slice of raw fish. And it goes without saying that the fish was as fresh as fresh can be.

What's so exclusive about an 'exclusive maki,' besides the price? None of the sakana ura maki's (1190 CZK) ingredients – salmon, cucumber, seaweed, mango, and avocado – seemed especially luxurious. But bundled up together in a tight inside-out roll and draped with elegant slivers of salmon and cucumber, each bite was a gorgeous medley of tastes and textures: the cool, smooth salmon; the creamy avocado; the crunch of cucumber and the fragrant mango. The roll was not only sublime, but huge. I would order it again.

Throughout the meal, the service was fantastic – attentive, but unpretentious. Our table was wiped down after each course, and the waiters were happy to make suggestions. One of the fish that was supposed to be part of our nigiri set was unavailable that night, so it was replaced with two pieces of a different kind. We were also given full portions of tuna and avocado sashimi on the house, and each female customer got a red rose when she left. We felt like we were really being looked after.

I was especially impressed by what happened when my companion asked if they had any Czech beer. "We do," our waiter said, "but only bottled. If you like, though, I can bring you freshly-tapped beer from next door."

This was fabulous news. Next door, you see, is the gastropub Olympia, where they serve tanked Plzeň – that meant some first-rate beer to go with the first-rate sushi. The waiter promptly returned clutching a frosty mug of the good stuff, and set it down on a paper coaster in front of my friend.

Now comes the part with the receipt. When we paid the bill, I noticed that it seemed a little high. But it was only after I got home that I took a closer look and realized that the two next-door Plzeňs – the very same ones that cost 39 CZK at Olympia – had cost us 150 CZK each.

What. The. Hell. This was truly an outrage. Yes, charging a little extra – maybe even double – for the additional trouble is understandable. But charging four times the original price? Without any warning at all? Who's ever even heard of a 150 CZK beer in this town?

I posed that last question to my beer-loving brother. He thought it over for some time. "Once," he said, slowly. "When I was at a stag party at this strip club, Goldfingers. They charged us 150 CZK there." He shook his head, apparently distressed by the memory.

And I shake my head, too. Because I really wanted to give The Sushi Bar four spoons. But see? I can't go around saying the service is perfect and then have you dip into your savings fund to pay for a glass of beer.

The sushi, on the other hand – that might be worth going bankrupt for.

The Sushi Bar
Zborovská 49
Prague 5 – Malá Strana
Tel.: 603 244 882

Open Mon-Sun 12:00-22:00

photographs 1, 3 Lidové Noviny; all others

This review originally appeared in Czech translation in the 05/09/09 edition of Lidové Noviny.


Anonymous said...

Completely overpriced place in my eyes. Yes, the fish is good, but not in generous portion at all. Yes, you get a flower at the end, but so what!

A big disappointment for me.

Anonymous said...

The price is 150%-300% times more then Sushi in Los Angeles. Fly to LA and you can eat better sushi for less ....Maki sushi $ 12.95

Anonymous said...

I've been to Tokyo's Tsukiji -- the largest fish market in the world -- and eaten freshly-caught-that-morning otoro. I ate it in what was basically a canteen, with workers from the market. It was absolute heaven, superlative. And it was about $40 a bowl with rice. No service whatsoever (you even had to order & pay at a token machine outside).

Really good, fresh sushi is expensive and should be more so the further you get from Tokyo (though LA has a huge Japanese population and lower overheads). To paraphrase Anthony Bourdain, if someone's offering "all-you-can-eat" sushi for $5 (or whatever price, for that matter), you've gotta ask yourself what's wrong with this picture...

Grympy said...

Im sushi lover and when I saw these prices, I was reconsidering my hobby. By the way very funny review, it was pleasure to read it...And Im shocked by the prize of tapped beer too.

Joel said...

Thanks for your review. Sounds delicious. I've been looking for a good sushi restaurant in Praha. I am a little apprehensive about eating raw seafood with no sea around. People who complain about spending a lot of money on sushi have not been into the fish market lately. I especially get annoyed with the comparison to other cities. They are different markets, so of course the prices will not be the same (its called economics).

I am now an avid follower... keep up the good work.

Elli from Toronto said...

Great review and the sushi sounds delicious! And even looks like it. But what shocked me a bit was the beer, even though I've had Czech beer and I still think it's the best beer on earth, I don't think it goes along with sushi. Doesn't that spoil the taste? Maybe as an after-meal drink it would be ok I presume. But anyways, great review. If I ever go to Prague on a business trip again, I'll make sure I'll visit this restaurant. And if you ever get to Toronto, I advice you to go to the The Stockyards and write a review on it :) Great BBQ ;)

Take care, Elli

Anonymous said...

I'll add another nugget of information to this "expensive" sushi argument.

If you talk to sushi chefs in Japan, you will discover very quickly that this is a highly skilled position. At the very top Michelin-starred restaurants, you will find chefs who have been at that restaurant for 20+ years. Invariably, they tell the same story; as trainees they were not allowed to touch *** ANYTHING *** except rice in the kitchen until they could consistently pull EXACTLY 100 grammes of rice with three fingers. This normally is about 3 years if what I was told is to be believed. Even after 20 years at the same restaurant, these chefs were not always guaranteed the headchef job.

There is a dedication to craft in Japan that makes real sushi what it is; both an art form and a fantastic meal. It may look simple, but without top quality fresh ingredients and really good kitchen skills, it's just not what it's supposed to be. You are charged accordingly, though this of course doesn't stop bad restaurants from trying it on... It's up to us to separate the wheat from the chaff...

Mark said...

I love beer and sushi and think that it's a much better combination with the sushi than wine or carbonated water .. On the other hand, 150Kc for going next door to get a beer??? That's crazy ... Laura, why did they do that .. did they think you were tourists and they could get away with it?

Laura said...

Nope, they couldn't have thought we were tourists because we were speaking Czech. I guess that's just how much they charge... But I agree: beer and sushi is an amazing combo.

Thanks anonymous for the info -- super interesting. And Elli, I have family in Toronto, so I do find my way there occasionally. Thank you for the tip!

JSH said...

I appreciate the comment regarding the "expense." I have to agree wholeheartedly. Especially, in a place where there does not seem to be a body of water nearby to pull fresh fish. My thought, if you are getting "fresh" fish for cheap, there is something not right. Therefore, in Seattle (where I am from) you can find delicious affordable sushi do to the large Asian population and proximity to the ocean.

Therefore, if you are going to eat sushi, expect to pay a considerable amount, eat Sashimi, and drink Sapporo pivo.

Thanks for the review Laura!
Avid Reader.

Anonymous said...

Further to the Bourdain comment, I would suggest taking a look at the following videos (there are at least 3 different shows, though it is a bit of a mess sorting which part is which!):

Anthony's boss owns / owned a restaurant in Japan so he's been there several times and got to look in-depth at the restaurant scene there. I used these shows as a guide for my first visit there and can heartily recommend the featured places. Even my Japanese friends were impressed. I now understand why Tokyo has more Michelin-starred restaurants than Paris (it's true!); amazing. Oh man, I could really go for some soba in duck broth right now...

Anthony said...

Tried it and agreed with the first comment with some caveats. Sushi is expensive in Prague. Although priced as high as the top end sushi restaurants in LA, New York, Seattle, Toronto, etc, the quality of Sushi Bar is on par with your better-than-average, Chinese or Korean-run sushi restaurant in your local city which is 1/4 the price. If you are local and have money, go here, but this place is not for anyone who has been anywhere else.

My experience level: been to high and low end sushi in Tokyo, Seattle, LA, New York, Toronto, Vancouver, San Francisco, Taiwan, Hong Kong

Kitchen Sink Plumbing said...

Best sushi I've had so far. Granted, I haven't had much sushi, but this stuff is great. If there are a few people there, it can be a bit slow, but Jason does his best to talk to everyone and make sure you feel welcome.