A few months back we held a colloquium with colleagues in the food coverage biz about the speeding-up of the review cycle— the fact that it seems inevitable that reviews from ordinary diners will hit online sites like Yelp almost immediately, and how that affects how long mainstream media critics should wait before evaluating a restaurant. Well, strike the "almost" from in front of that "immediately"; here's a perfect example of what we're talking about. Sumi Robata Bar, the new Japanese restaurant from ex-Japonais chef Gene Kato which we've covered here, had its soft opening last night. And it's not merely that some of the very first customers to eat there last night posted something publicly— literally the first three customers ever served appear to have posted their accounts at Yelp and/or LTHForum, offering praise for certain things but also critiquing others, and attempting to settle on an overarching view of the restaurant— based literally on its first hour of service. Does this make any sense? Is it inevitable anyway? Probably, but it's certainly food for thought on what you can actually say meaningfully about a restaurant when you're also competing to have the very first words to say about it anywhere.
The first review, duplicated at both Yelp and LTHForum, is by someone known as "Erick N." at the former and "Gonzo70" at the latter, who made a 5:15 reservation via OpenTable. By 8:27 p.m. last night, he had made his pronouncement on the new restaurant:
Sumi did not live up to the pre-opening buzz; while there is potential there were quite a few gaffes; the food was good, but portions small and not good enough to make up for a lack of energy and the missteps.
Erick N. (we're going to assume that's closer to a real name) has praise for a number of aspects of the experience:
The quality of the food was above average; everything was cooked well and was rather tasty with the egg appetizer (it was in a nice, sweet broth with roe and mushrooms; wasabi grated atop tableside) and the Japanese version of a beef slider was so delicious I ordered a second (the beef was shaped like a sausage and served in an open steamed bun with miso melted over the top).
But he also finds much of the robata experience unsatisfying:
Even though Chef Kato was just a few feet away from me for most of the hour and fifteen minutes I was present tonight, he never uttered a word to me or even made eye contact...
A problem is the robata items are simply served as the protein or vegetable on their own; no accompaniments, no bread service, no rice - nothing to really fill you up (each robata item is a few bites). Also what was really awkward was the robata items are each served on their own plate; the timing was off in that all five of my robata items were served within minutes as well as one of my two appetizers came in the middle - so I had a stack of six plates surrounding a somewhat cramped seating area.
Erick N. makes reference to a couple who came in shortly thereafter— and the woman of the couple soon pops up to offer her take on LTHForum:
I believe we WERE that couple sitting next to him last night and everything he said, we would echo. We ordered two drinks, two appetizers, four robatas, and the apple dessert for a bill (with tax/tip) of about $90. And yes, we left still hungry, but I wasn't going to keep spending money until we got full.
While the only other poster to date on Yelp ("Mike G."— no, not ourselves) seems as if he could be the male half of the same couple:
I suppose the concept of a robata grill and small portions is like the Japanese version of tapas. But for 100+ two people should come out of a restaurant relatively not hungry.
The net result is that on Yelp, Sumi Robata Bar now stands at a rating of 2-1/2 stars. On LTHForum, where there's more ability to interact, some users questioned the validity of observations and judgements made so quickly, and argued back that Erick N. was expecting the wrong things from a very specific Japanese form of dining:
Robata is always served a la carte. Never sides or rice or anything. I don't understand that criticism (or actually most of the ones raised for a restaurant that has been open for only a few hours).
Not to be confrontational, but do you think the fact that his first customer was snapping pictures of not only his food but also of him personally to post on the web had anything to do with the icy reception you received from the chef?
This talk of "potential" and "work in progress" is hilarious. Wonder how things went in hour 3 of service vs hour 1. I'd love to hear about the evolution of Sumi.
So where do we stand, after reviews from night 1? We don't, of course, think this will be the last word on Sumi— there was a lot of talk about the first day of service at The Little Goat Diner being a train wreck under the pressure of crowds, yet within less than a week they seemed to be running just fine, and as more reviews come in, more people will probably understand what to expect of a robata bar and how Sumi compares to the likes of Arami or other spots offering similar grilled foods. Ironically, we think one thing that has happened about amateur review sites is that over time, people have come to feel the need to pronounce definitively like old-school print reviewers; we tend to think that first night comments would have had more of a preview/provisional notes feel to them a few years ago, and not tried to do Phil Vettel's job based on one opening night visit. That kind of commentary, which acknowledges the "hey, it's early" factor more directly, would probably be more fair.
But either way, the arms race is on and the desire to be first isn't going away. In the meantime, though, we were talking with the editor of a major restaurant-focused publication the other night, and we both agreed that if anything, the restaurant scene needs more attention paid to places that have been around and grown into their potential. We cited the example of a place which got middling reviews at its opening in the spring, and has been forgotten since by the press— but which we think by now has grown into a great little neighborhood spot. You could certainly do worse than by checking places like that out now, and leaving the 5:15 seats on opening night to the others clamoring for them and the chance to be first.