You may ask yourself, "How can Japanese cuisine, a delicacy which prides itself on small portions and artful presentation, adapt to an insatiable American culture that invented the Big Gulp and the Never-Ending Pasta Bowl?" Well stop asking; the all-you-can-eat sushi meal has arrived. And it's nice to see that the culinary ambassadors who managed such a symbiotic feat have learned a couple other tricks from us Americans--specifically, fleecing the customer for every last dollar in his or her pocket.
To experience this cultural milestone firsthand, I visited Sushi Rikyu on the Upper West Side. It's an unassuming, long, and narrow establishment nestled within a busy restaurant block on Columbus Avenue. Our party was greeted with hot towels, a nice touch for someone who is used to the high school cafeteria-like ambience of the permanently "half-price" sushi restaurants dotting upper Broadway. Sushi Rikyu has a fully stocked menu of all the perfunctory non-sushi items, such as shumai dumplings, tempura, and teriyaki everything. But we didn't come here to waste valuable stomach space by nibbling on edamame. We told our waitress we wanted the all-you-can-eat sushi special, advertised prominently in the window for $19.95 per person. The sushi chefs stopped their maki-rolling to check out their competition. A hush overcame the crowd. We felt like those New York City guys in the Pace Picante Sauce commercials. A look of utter seriousness washed over our waitress' face. "Do you know the rules?" she asked. She pointed to the bottom of our menu, where five small footnotes informed us of the technicalities involved when consuming an unlimited supply of raw fish:
Rule #1: You must eat everything including rice.
Rule #2: You cannot share sushi special with anyone.
Rule #3: You will be charged extra for any special rolls.
Rule #4: You will be charged regular price for leftover sushi or rolls.
Rule #5: There is a two-hour limit when the restaurant is busy.
We were handed an ordering card, which listed the approximately forty types of sushi and rolls available to us. With the supplied mini-golf pencils, we specified the desired quantity of each kind of sushi. Surprisingly, almost every type of sushi is available in the all-you-can-eat deal, even more expensive items like eel. The only items one won't find included are the house special rolls--the ones that usually include more than one type of fish and have cryptic names like Pink Lady Roll or Rock 'n' Roll Roll. Ten minutes later, our waitress returned with our first round, a slightly daunting platter consisting of 75 pieces of sushi. The sushi quality was average, on par with Tomo, but easily better than Café Swish. The individual sushi pieces were rather small, but that issue was moot since unlimited sushi is unlimited sushi, no matter how small you cut it.
But after my eighth or ninth spicy salmon roll, I felt as though something was awry. No, it was not dysentery--the sushi was fine. But somebody was watching us. One of my fellow dining buddies did not indulge in the all-you-can-eat deal. She had ordered à la carte, and this made her very susceptible to breaking Rule #2. My paranoia proved correct: our waitress informed us that if she even took one piece of sushi from any of our platters, she would be charged the full $19.95 herself. But apparently, our word wasn't good enough. Throughout our entire meal, there was always at least one waitress and/or manager watching over us to make sure we wouldn't sneak a maki under the table.
It was time for round two. We were rather stuffed so we ordered gingerly, well aware of the financial penalties as dictated in Rule #4. But when our food arrived, it was clear that someone was meddling against us. There was a lot more sushi than we had ordered--close to double. We cross-referenced with our order card. We clearly only ordered six pieces of eel, yet 10 pieces trembled before us. This was the case with every type of sushi that we ordered. Did they think we Americans were so bad at math that we wouldn't notice? Were they really going to charge us for all this unordered sushi that they knew we couldn't finish? We could have made a fuss, but I'm a uniter, not a divider, and we didn't want to transform this blessed union of cultures into an international incident. After all, if that skinny Japanese man can win the Nathan's Hot Dog Eating Contest every year, surely the four of us could polish off this overabundance of sushi. Forty-five minutes and three Pepcid ACs later, the last roll was washed down with a few gulps of ice water. We were triumphant, and you could see the look of bemused defeat on our waitress's face as she trucked away our clean plates. Sushi Rikyu played dirty, but we were winners. You can't beat Americans at their own game.
Sushi Rikyu is located at 483 Columbus Avenue between 83rd and 84th Streets. Telephone: (2121) 799-7922. Bring your A-Game.