Interactive Sushi Bar… Wot?

by Chikashi

I am about to try an unfamiliar hotel in Mumbai this weekend, so I was browsing the hotel’s web site to see where I might have a breakfast meeting and came across this description for one of the restaurants: ‘… a culinary journey spanning a wood fired pizza oven, an interactive sushi bar and an open kitchen that offers an extensive range of Western and Asian dishes to pamper the palate.’ A nugget of a copy, no? It sounds epic. That aside, call me an old fart, but I got all tickled by ‘interactive sushi bar’. What is that?

So, I searched the Interwebz and found 2 usage of the term. One is this:

It’s so geeky that the irony seems to be completely lost on the product designers: cutting out a significant part of human interaction from the restaurant experience and replacing it with tapping on some software application. And, call it interactive. Guys, really, you need to get out more.

The other is a pure marketing ploy that presents a ‘fresh’ take on the sushi bar to those who are less informed and gullible. And, what are those big white plastic bottles?

A sushi bar is interactive by definition unless, of course, you sit there and order hot food instead of sushi, in which case the allegedly novel counter design is irrelevant. You sit at the counter, chat to the chef about catches of the day (assuming that the restaurant source wild, not farmed, fish), order one or two pieces at a time directly from the chef, who makes it right in front of you, and stop ordering when you feel sated. It is interactive by default. If there is a refrigeration case between you and the chef, it’s normally transparent glass on both sides, so unless your seating height is wrong, you would be able to see the chef preparing your food.

The telling sign that the counter design was not conceived by a Japanese is one of the main selling point being the taller stools that enable customers to be at eye level with the chef. What for? Is he my date? Chef, if that’s love in your eyes, that’s more than enough because I’m just lusting for a meal, darling.

Sushi counters in Japan are the exact opposite: chairs have shorter legs than those used for tables so that the relative height of the counter becomes higher, making it more comfortable for the customers to sit and eat sushi. Not kaiseki, not shabu shabu. Sushi. At the same time, since we are talking about eye level, the traditional set-up allows your eye level to be more or less aligned with the case so you can see right through the case and witness the chef’s knife and hands at work. That is, if there is a case at all.

My favourite sushi restaurant in Tokyo, Tasuke Sushi, does not have a case. I don’t think they ever did for the last 3 generations. In fact, better sushi restaurants tend not to have a case. The counter design lacking a case is not original at all, but the designer is right about the lack of a case potentially enhancing interaction (unless you are being asked to just order from a printed menu) because the chef needs to tell you what he has hiding after having a conversation about what you are in the mood for, the season and the precious catch that the fish monger managed to secure for the restaurant that morning and will deliciously fulfil your mood of the day. If you are not a familiar face, then the chef will suss you out to determine whether you are worthy of the best pieces he has that day. If he thinks that you are not able to appreciate the extraordinary piece, he will give you the ordinary one. You can’t simply point to some lump in the case and ask for it. He brings out the fish, and you discuss the origin, the ambient temperature of the water where it was caught, colour, texture, fattiness and graining, and agree on how the sushi might be assembled today. With a pinch of grated ginger, perhaps? It does not get more interactive than that. However, that does not seem to be part of Bob Pasela’s counter design pictured above, judging from the explanation given in the article.

So, I wonder what interactive means in Mumbai.