I don’t know when chain sushi restaurants became a “thing”. Somewhere between the proliferation of the local hole in the wall sushi restaurant, and the almost rapid fire increase of the high end omakase joint, chain sushi restaurants set up shop in our cities and convinced us that they were good. That they were worthwhile. And that they deserve our money. But here’s a dirty secret – they’re not, they aren’t, and they don’t. With the exception of a few special circumstances – like Sugarfish in LA – chain sushi continues to fail miserably, because owners chase the dollar signs and the appeal of the masses over higher quality and a fresh perspective.
At Sushi Seki, the owners chase the dollar signs with pretty much the same effort as I chased Carmen Sandiego on my Windows 95 operating system. The difference is, Carmen Sandiego wasn’t making sushi for her henchmen with a tomato on top (this will all make sense later I promise). Some quick background, for those of you unfamiliar: Sushi Seki Chelsea is one of three locations in New York City, and while I haven’t been to the other ones, I am fairly certain that they are about as similar as a homogeneous carton of milk (I’m killing it with the similes today). To a certain type of customer, simply meeting expectations for sushi is all that is required. In fact, you might even be one of those customers. Regardless, just understand that at some point in your life/visit to New York City, someone will suggest Sushi Seki to you; and that will be because they’ve heard of it. But you – you’re too smart for that. You can do better. You can eat better. So you’ll say, “hey – let’s just check TheSushiLegend.com and find one of the 35 other sushi restaurants in New York City not content to simply go through the motions”. Great move!
It was somewhere between my 3rd and 5th bite of my snow crab handroll, that I started to wonder why this particular temaki tasted so delicious. “Maybe it’s the crab?”, I thought to myself naively as I licked my fingers. And licked them again. And again…until I realized that the spicy mayonnaise was what held my attention. Spicy mayonnaise – known by its friends as spicy mayo – is the greatest magic trick in sushi today. With a wave of his wand (read: chopsticks), a sushi chef can transform even the most ordinary of sushi offerings into an addicting masterpiece. But like most addicting supplements, this one is bad for the body, completely unnatural, and an affront to all that is good and decent about our (sushi) world. And as I sat there, contemplating the fact that I just ate crab, rice, mayonnaise and hot sauce, I thought surely this can’t get any more fake. And then I had a bite of salmon nigiri topped with sauteed tomato.
s Salmon and Tomato a bad combination? Not at all – I have it every Sunday morning as part of my bagel. But it’s not sushi. I wouldn’t care if Sushi Seki portrayed itself as a cutting edge restaurant. But when you’re a chain restaurant…and you offer standard omakase…and your waiters act like they invented sushi (to The Sushi Legend himself!)…newsflash: you’re a standard sushi restuarant. And sure I liked the Chu Toro (pictured bottom left), and the rice wasn’t awful. But if I want high quality sushi, there are plenty of better options in New York City. If I want standard sushi, there are plenty of cheaper options in New York City. And if I want more inventive sushi, there are plenty of more experimental options in New York City. Sushi Seki offers comfort food, dressed up as something more. For a first time visitor, I wasn’t impressed.
I guess the Sushi Seki space is nice enough at the sushi bar. I guess. I say I guess because my group was stuck in a private sushi room, which contained all the perks you could ever want: absent waiters, dim lights, and benches (!). I knew what I was in for when I asked for a sake recommendation and the waiter’s exact response was: “ummm….this one” (points at most expensive bottle). The setting within the restaurant is minimalist and open spaced, set up in a backwards “L” shape with more than enough tables to satisfy even the largest of families during their 7:00 pm reservation (all examples approximate). I know that Sushi Seki has its supporters, but to me, the atmosphere reminds me of a neighborhood joint that carries itself with the air of a three michelin star holy grail. I can do better. You can do better. Stay away.