Over the months in which Restaurant Roulette has existed, at almost every dinner people have asked me, when’s sushi night? I always said that it was on the agenda, but as I wanted to find just the right venue, I had not scheduled sushi yet. For months I was mulling over the possibilities. My favorite place, Yoko’s Sushi, was too small for any group larger than four (and sometimes that’s a stretch.) Takahashi on Holgate was always decent, but too felony flats. Other places I like such as Mio Sushi and Hama Sushi are just too simple and don’t do reservations. Todai, too expensive, touristy, and generally thought of as lacking in quality fish. Restaurant Murata, Masu, and Sinju, all places known for their wonderful decor and high quality sushi, but at $12 – $18 per roll, out of my humble league (at least with my appetite.)

After a co-worker mentioned a favorable review in Willamette Week, and I did a bit of web research, I selected Meiji-En on NE Broadway, as it had excellent ratings for its fish selection, a decent sized space, took reservations and had no qualms about large groups, and was said to have pleasant decor and seemingly private tatami rooms. I tried to be the best hostess possible and warned everyone to adjust their footwear accordingly as toes would be on display. So I happily made our reservation for nine people, a number multitudinous enough to provide conversational fun and variety for all, but not so unwieldy that people could be lost in the pit under the table and I wouldn’t even notice their absence.

Perhaps the crucial piece of research I neglected was to seek out the English translation of Meiji-En, which as we all know now means “service as arduous as an ailing snail with a slow metabolic rate.” The heartbreak I could have avoided  for all of us had I just found this out in advance, afterall, Yuki was right down the street (so what if my “former” used to call the place Yucky. He could be pretty yucky himself.)

Meiji-En is a fair sized place with pleasant enough decor, if someone would just throw that ridiculous TV perched above our table in the dumpster. Fine dining and TV to me is like a werewolf in a stylin’ bikini, it’s just not right. It ruins the effect. Although the tatami rooms were a tad woody for my taste, the table layout was nice enough, we had decent cushions to sit on and a nice big pit to put our semi-naked feet in. There was no privacy like you see in the average Americanized Japanese tatami room though, the two large tables presented in this fashion were side by side with no partitions in between or at the entrance. So they were more like elevated tatami pits than tatami rooms. I mention the elevated part because it seemed to make “service” difficult, the people bringing the food would basically stand “down below” and hand off food and drinks to one or two people to hand around the table.

I suppose I should have raised a red flag and sent everyone in RR scampering when I walked in the door and had no employees greet me or acknowledge my presence in any way. Luckily I saw several beliked ( a more reasonable form of beloved,) regulars already seated at our perch, and knew where our table was.

It was hard not to notice from the very beginning the disorganization of the staff at Meiji-En. No one even approached our table for at least thirty minutes, and various of my table mates had to practically bellow for water, drinks, and menus. Even after asking for water, I finally had to write it down on my order sheet and then ask again to finally receive a glass. Several people at the table were never offered water, to me, a wasabi freak, a major faux pas. When people asked for tea it seemed a total hit or miss situation as to how much they brought, and a similar situation occured when random bowls of Miso soup were plunked down without regard to who might have ordered them. No one was really certain what to do about ordering their rolls, as the customary sushi slips and pencils were no where to be found. Finally, out of desperation we each started to scrawl our preferences on coveted bits of paper, post it notes, napkins, and business cards, and then after we had done that, the sushi slips finally appeared. Any items that were not sashimi or rolls we were told we had to write in the small space at the bottom, and at the last minute we were instructed to add our names on the top (it reminded me much of filling out those customs declaration forms you must do before the plane lands. No wonder I accidently added my SS #.)

At least 1 – 1.5 hours in, the miso soup arrived, with the previously mentioned distribution confusion. Little did I know that was the last substantial food the majority of the table would see again for a very long time. Several people at the table had mentioned to me earlier in the meal just how famished they were on this particular evening, and by the time the random smatterings of food arrived later, I could have sworn I saw distendended bellies across the table from me. The north end of the table had ordered salad rolls and other snacks, and those did come within a couple of hours. For the rest of us though, it seemed like the sticky rice was being cooked and assembled one grain at a time.

Finally, (after 2 hours perhaps,) the staff sheepishly approached from various angles, carrying complimentary bowls of edemami and strange apologies about having a busy night, few staff, and having run out of rice (running out of rice, I can certainly understand that, afterall, rice is such a rare and expensive commodity, what Asian restaurant doesn’t run out of rice nightly?) We were told, however, that rice was being cooked and that all our food would be ready in 20 minutes. A good indication of how hungry people were by this time, people fell on the salty but bland little soybean pods like pimps at a ‘ho convention. Some of us were so frantic for food we neglected to remove the pod (man, those stingy little suckers go down rough.)

Finally, after about 2.25 hours, the north end of the table got up to leave just as their food was arriving
( seemingly non sushi items were not affected by the heartbreaking cooked rice shortage.) These two had had enough, food or not by then, and fled the area for greener (and more food abundant,) pastures.  So then there were seven, seven kind and tolerant, but by now totally frustrated and only soybean sated diners tired of everything Meiji-Enish and just wanting to get their food and blow that Japanese popscicle stand. By this point there was much talk of full scale revolt and leaving. We had been there almost 3 hours by then, and everyone else in the restaurant had been served and left, and the faces at the sushi bar kept changing.

Finally, little waves of sushi washed over in the direction of our table. Despite our carefully filled out sushi declaration forms, many items around the table were missing and others thoughtlessly intermingled. Although a few people were served abundant portions of sushi, others were served nada, or the wrong item with their name on it. Many people had been interested in the “Dynamite Roll” with soft-shelled crab, but Meiji-En delivered only one to the table, and as I thoughtlessly gobbled mine down, others were later told they had ran out, and no more was coming. (Great, frustration and guilt too.) Everyone was trying to share what food they did have, but by this time many appetites had gone south, so although sushi was offered, little was accepted. The general mood was to find something on the table that had a semblance to you order, shove some down your throat, and leave the weird and wanting world of Meiji-En behind forever.

So the ultimate question, was the food at Meiji-En good? I really have no idea. Although the Miso Soup seemed rich and adequate, by the time the rest of the food arrived, people were cranky and desperate and seemingly no longer willing to wax rhapsodic on the pros and cons of the consumables. Considering the way our group of nine overwhelmed Meiji-En, I was a bit surprised to see that when rolls finally did arrive they weren’t sloppily assembled with bits of seafood and flecks of rice all akimbo, they looked like the same rolls you received at other sushi places after about 20 minutes, even though they had taken 3 hours to make. I will say the eel roll I had was very good though, perhaps that’s why our dinner took so long, it had slithered all the way from Japan.

It would have been nice to say that the food at Meiji-En was so good it negated everything that came before it. But when it gets to the point that you’ve totally had it by the time the food arrives and you’re barely even hungry anymore, and you just want to have some sustenance and go home, very little can be achieved in the way of redemption. And it does nothing to help the situation when you sit there at the end of the meal for a long time, waiting for ackowledgement from management of a very bad situation, and you are met with compounded confusion and evasion. When we were given access to ownership, the opinion seemed to be that everyone at Meiji-En had had a rough night, we were not alone is having to wait a long time (3 hours?,) and that since we had gotten much of what we had ordered, and had eaten some, a small discount was in order. I did feel somewhat badly for the owner, he had limited English skills and had been behind the sushi bar forming rolls all night, but his refusal to admit that our group deserved more than a few bucks off was extremely frustrating, especially when charming types at the sushi bar started chiming in comments like “go eat out in South America if you don’t want to pay for your food like everyone else.” First of all, is there something going on in South America I don’t know about? (Free meals???) And secondly, we probably could have scheduled a dinner for South America and been back before we were served any food at Meiji-En.

After much bad feeling on all sides, and some very impressive New York style arguing from our newest member, Jody, we unhappily agreed to pay approximately 60% each (those of us who had stayed at least,) and we all dispersed out in to the crisp and biting night, happy to at last have the ordeal that constituted Meiji-En behind us.

A final comment, although the dining experience basically sucked from birth to death, I believe our group experience, if extricated from the wreckage of Meiji-En, was a positive one. R.R. has not had a dinner since November, and people seemed happy to see each other and to be co-existing in our weird little dining forum. I know I was happy to see many of my regulars back and to welcome two new faces. And the conversation reached new peaks of the interesting and absurd, even though alcohol consumption was very limited. To quote our always erudite friend Marnie:  “I have to say, I’m still laughing about last night. I know it was absurd,but you have to admit, the conversation was so fun, it almost wasn’t that bad that the service sucked donkey balls.” Donkey balls indeed. Not to mention chats about nude housekeepers, rude fornicating neighbors, and the presidential front-runners in the democratic party. And all discussed in the most adult and intelligent manner possible. So thank you my fellow co-eaters, I look forward to seeing you at coming dinners, and I thank you for at least providing something positive from that hell-night that was Meiji-En.