If you’re like me—and you probably aren’t, because I’m a little weird in this regard—you start to foam at the mouth each and every time some rando who once spent a weekend in L.A. starts to blather on about how much better and cheaper sushi is on the West Coast. For starters, it’s just not true—but what really drives me nuts is the self-righteousness that tends to back those sorts of statements. (I realize, of course, that my entire blog is a little self-righteous. But this is my blog on my little corner of the Internet, so it’s not as if I’m yapping away in an ever-so-slightly-raised voice in the middle of an otherwise quiet Japanese restaurant.)
Obviously, I love NYC’s sushi. I wouldn’t trade it for any other (American) city’s. Also obvious, though: I’m partial—and given that I’m aware of that partiality, I’m obligated to challenge it. But, um…continually challenging your long-held beliefs is Hard Work, and I’m usually not that good or motivated a person, so I’ll often opt instead for a little Self-Challenge Lite. Hence my meal at Sugarfish.
For the (lucky) uninitiated, Sugarfish is a sushi-hawking mini-chain that’s based in California but that’s recently reached out and wrapped a (12th) tendril around NYC. Over in L.A., Sugarfish is exceedingly well-liked; from here, though—and by “from here,” I just mean “from within my own head”—the place just comes off as obnoxious. Its cutesy name, its insufferable Hipness, its ENORMOUS EGO, its menu‘s outright refusal to use a single Japanese word…I mean, come on. Is “omakase” really too much of a mouthful for Sugarfish’s intended patrons? Must we call it a “Trust Me”?
Whether it’s meant to be cute or unique or just plain easy, the whole “Trust Me” thing just strikes me as an absurd instance of some sort of cutesy-sickly imperative to dumb-down. (I’m aware that it’s a little ridiculous for me to be so bothered by something so unimportant, and I’m also aware that my annoyance probably says a whole lot about me and my approach to food, too, but I stand behind that annoyance nonetheless. And while we’re between parentheses, I’ll add that this whole “Trust Me” really thing reminds me of that old Dunkin Donuts commercial that was bent on, like, endorsing and empowering American ignorance. Because all those people refusing to learn the names of the drinks they like is cute and endearing and relatable, right?)
See, here we go. I knew this would happen: I’m already getting carried away. Honestly, though, I really believed that Sugarfish’s food would save the place. There was no chance I’d like the restaurant itself; with all the bones I had to pick, revulsion was a given. But I figured the fish itself would be good enough to win me over—or to shut me up long-term, at least. I’d read absolutely nothing but rave reviews. And plus, I’ve found that sushi spots this confident in their methods, this openly rigid, tend to be pretty good. (Sugarfish is very adamant about their adherence to The Nozawa Way. No, they don’t call it that. But they do drone on about it.)
Of course, I was also drawn to Sugarfish by its prices. The most expensive Trust Me is only $51, and I’m always on the lookout for (relatively) affordable sushi, especially when it’s allegedly just as good as the more-expensive stuff. So I grabbed Sam, shouted a “serenity now” or six at Sugarfish’s pristine website, and made my way over to 20th Street. (After confirming that their kitchen was nut-free. It is.)
And that brings me to one of a few actually-significant things I hate about this place: the way they handle their popularity. They don’t take reservations. I don’t think they even have a phone that rings. So not only can you not book a table—you can’t even call to ask whether that day’s waitlist has any space left on it. You can’t do shit but show up, hope they’ll let you on the list, and then hope they’ll text you to come on back before you lose interest and/or starve to death. (Once you get the”it’s time” text, you’ll have 15 minutes to make it back to Sugarfish—which means that you’ll probably end up having to spend between 2 and 4 hours tethered to 20th Street. Nice.)
Now, I’m no stranger to annoying reservation processes. It took me weeks of nightly website-checking to book a table for three at Sushi Zo (I gave up on finding three spots at the bar), and I’m by now used to the text-us-and-we’ll-consider-giving-you-a-spot-but-we’ll-pretend-we’re-booked-if-you-happen-to-want-to-reserve-anything-after-7pm system at Sushi on Jones. But Sugarfish’s system (or lack thereof, really) is absurd to the extent that it comes off as disrespectful. I do almost nothing with my free time, and even I don’t have the time (or the patience) to bow to this stupid process. But of course, I did. Bow. To Sugarfish. For four hours a day, on two consecutive days. And on the second of those days, I was rewarded with a table.
Ambiance-wise, Sugarfish is a little weird. It’s incredibly dark in there (hence all these heinous photos), and it’s pretty cramped, too. The servers are unprecedentedly peppy, and the music’s not what I’ve come to expect of a sushi place, either. (I mean, I like The Strokes, but I’m not sure I like them alongside my toro.) None of that’s all that bad, though. I can get used to abnormality. I can get into abnormality. But the clientele? Oh, the clientele…
Let’s leave it at this: The woman sitting to my right dissected every single piece of food that came her way, and within 10 minutes, she had her husband following suit. For each piece of nigiri, she’d poise her chopsticks like fork and knife and proceed to slice the fish/rice combo in half, right into two bite-size pieces. Off each half, she’d eat first the fish, then the rice—and unfortunately, she was not the only person I watched implement some horrible tried-and-true method of Tackling Nigiri that night. This place is filled to the brim with slicers and/or separators. It attracts them. It caters to them—regardless of the fact that such behavior definitely isn’t accordance with The Nozawa Way.
Anyway—and that just might be the biggest “anyway” I’ve ever written—I should probably get to the food. So I’ll just go right ahead, then: It sucked. There were decent bites, but most of what I ate was surprisingly bad. It wasn’t worth the money, and it really wasn’t worth the trouble—but it took me some time to come to and realize just how not-worth-it my meal had been. I held on to some degree of hope until the very, very end of the tasting; but as course after course disappointed me, that hope began to morph into something much more like indignation. And by the time I was out the door, it’d dawned on me: Sugarfish is bullshit.
Sam and I both ended up with the regular Trust Me. We’d both ordered The Nozawa, which comes with a few more pieces of (the same) nigiri in addition to two extra pieces (of a “daily special”), but I guess there must’ve been some sort of mix-up. Like the other two tastings, the regular Trust Me begins with edamame, which was fine, though definitely too cold. (And too firm. It hurt my fingers. Not exaggerating.) Then came some tuna sashimi—pictured at the top of this post—which was covered with scallions and dressed in a sauce that I’d heard the girl sitting to my left describe as “this really weird sauce that’s the best thing you’ll ever taste.” I was curious.
…It turned out to be ponzu. Ponzu. (And it was also the only reason that dish was even half-decent. The tuna was flavorless. But I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I’ll enjoy almost anything that’s covered in scallions and ponzu.)
As for the sushi, not one piece was good. The salmon (pictured immediately above) was all right, but what little flavor it had was totally overwhelmed by the sesame seeds that topped it. Soy helped a lot, though we’d been instructed to stay away from it—but still, this stuff was so, so boring. Albacore (pictured above the salmon) was next, and it was passable, though certainly not noteworthy…and then came the yellowtail, easily the worst bites of the night. Truly, it was awful: watery, bland, and somehow still a little funky—and it wasn’t even close to restaurant-quality. (In fact, it really reminded me of all the unpleasant fish you’ll find in the freezer section at Whole Foods. That, and all the fish I’ve all-I-can-eaten at godforsaken Mika.)
The snapper (pictured immediately above) might’ve been fine, but I wouldn’t have known, because it was coated—not brushed, but coated—with a peppery glaze that was literally all I could taste, and then came some sea bass, which I can’t for the life of me remember. It’s safe to say that it, too, was bland and boring. I’d remember if I’d come across something tasty. Promise.
And that was it for the sushi. But before I’d had any time to process my disappointment (and shock!), we’d moved on to the hand rolls, which were better than the sushi, but not by enough to have saved the meal. We were given two—one with toro, and one with blue crab—and both were pretty good, but only because of the rice, which is actually some of the best I’ve ever had. (In fact, Sugarfish’s rice is the only thing that really sets the place apart from all those low- to mid-tier sushi joints that suck so much.) The toro was bland and watery—if the lights had been any lower, I wouldn’t have been able to tell it from grated daikon—but the blue crab was one of the tastiest things that showed up at my table. (Do remember: That’s saying very little.)
As soon as we’d finished our last hand rolls, our server showed up to tell us that our tasting had ended. Wholly unsatisfied, and in an attempt to find something worthwhile at Sugarfish, Sam and I each ordered a lobster hand roll, which we’d heard the servers recommend to just about everyone, and which we kept hearing all the regulars order, too. And while that hand roll was all right, it really wasn’t anything special. Lobster’s lobster, but…I don’t know. It just didn’t do it for me. Boring, again.
Obviously, Sugarfish’s food left me disappointed. But more than just disappointed, I was annoyed. And it took me a while to figure out just why. The reason, I think, is that Sugarfish just feels so…flimsy. So feeble. So lame. The atmosphere’s a very lackluster sort of trendy-bland; the menu’s Dunkin-Donuts dumb; everything comes without wasabi; even the fish itself is weak and watery. I don’t want my hand held. I don’t want to be coddled. I just want good fish at a reasonable price.
But Sugarfish isn’t that. It’s straight out of the middlebrow. It’s Snapchat Story fodder, good for very, very little beyond personal advertisement, beyond filling the frame of an Instagram post or two meant to broadcast a Personal Brand of Luxury—and it really isn’t even good for that, because, you know, the food in the picture doesn’t even taste good. So I guess I’ll be sticking to Zo for my L.A. sushi. (Just kidding. I can’t afford Zo. But you get my point.)
…Find Sugarfish at 33 East 20th Street, between Park and Broadway. But don’t show up unless you’ve hours to spare—and don’t forget to Snap the entirety of your meal.
(Sorry for the length of this post, by the way. I might’ve gone a little nuts. Lloyd Braun was right, I guess: serenity now, insanity later.)
[Edit: Told you so!! This just came out: a better-written (and less-angry) version of what I’ve written. What I’d give to write about food as deftly as Pete Wells…]