November 18, 2008

Baba Sushi: Overloud, Overpriced and Overrated (a Worcester Restaurant Review)

After LL's talk last night, we decided to go out for some sushi and sake and unwind for a bit. Knowing that Baba Sushi (309 Park Ave., Worcester) had been voted the best sushi restaurant for 2008 by the readers of Worcester Magazine, it seemed like the place to go. Having now experienced it, I can only wonder why this place would top the list.

There was nothing wrong with the food. The fish was fresh and the presentation was nice. The place was packed, particularly considering that it was a Monday night. Then again, it doesn't take much to pack a place as small as Baba. There are six small tables shoehorned into an area about as large as a typical living room along with a sushi bar and another for drinks. We were seated at the last available table, and there was no more than a foot of space between ourselves and the diner at the next table.

The first thing we noticed was the noise level. Whether or not Baba Sushi is really the best sushi restaurant in town may be entirely subjective, but I have no doubt at all that it's the loudest. Much of the clientele appeared to be students from local campuses and those at the bar certainly had a few in them. The bartender was joining in with their revelry, and in such a small space the sound seemed to bounce off the walls and become amplified. Add to that the conversations of the diners and the nearly-constant ringing of cell phones, not to mention the more-than-adequate volume of the flamenco guitar music played over the speakers, and the sum is a cacophony so loud that carrying on a normal conversation was quite impossible. Everyone was shouting, it seemed. At times, the situation bordered on painful.

We were a bit taken aback by the pricing on Baba's menu. Sushi is often a bit pricey, but Baba's prices track toward the shameless in comparison to the many other restaurants of the same genre that I've been to, both in Worcester and in San Francisco. I never order the most expensive thing on the menu the first time that I go to a new restaurant. It's a practical thing; I get a less-expensive dish the first time rather than blow a bigger chunk of change on an expensive failure. LL and I decided to try the sushi and sashimi combination from the set menu, a chef's choice entree of 8 sushi and 12 sashimi ($36.00) and a carafe of sake ($15.00). Our waiter seemed disappointed by our choice. No, let me rephrase that. Our waiter disapproved of our choice and didn't mind questioning our judgment. Our impression was that we were being told that we simply weren't spending enough money; LL and I both were surprised by the pointed manner in which we were asked, "Is that all you're having?" I can't say that I recall ever being asked that question before.

At other sushi restaurants to which I've gone, a fixed menu entree is usually accompanied by miso soup and a small salad, so when our waiter asked if we wanted those items, we assented. At Baba, though, there is an extra charge for these things, so if you don't want to spend the extra money for them keep this in mind. The salad, a combination of seaweed and shredded daikon, was presented nicely in a blue martini glass but was nothing different from what I've had at any number of sushi restaurants previously and the miso soup was, well, miso soup. The small carafe of sake was, similarly, just like the hot sake one gets at sushi restaurants that don't have extensive wine lists. The difference is that it cost almost twice as much as it does at those other places.

When our entree arrived at our table, we were a little disappointed to find that the chef's choice in this case was to give us the most pedestrian of combinations. Both the sashimi and the sushi consisted entirely of maguro tuna, salmon and a white fish that I suspect was mackerel even though the last is not on the menu. There was no variety here, and while the fish was fresh, it was nothing particularly interesting. The presentation of the entree wasn't bad, but it wasn't brilliant, either. It was, in short, like any other sit-down sushi restaurant I've ever been to.

After the main course, I ordered 2 pieces of tobiko sushi, a favorite of mine. The small portions of flying fish roe were served in a thick seaweed wrapper which, in turn, was warmed up a bit. This was a nice touch, perhaps the only one we witnessed during our visit. There was nothing about our meal, certainly, that made up for the terrifically noisy, crowded conditions nor the slightly grungy physical environment.

All in all, LL and I agreed that we won't be going back to Baba. It's not our kind of place and, to our thinking, not at all worth the prices charged. We can get the same food for less at Sakura Tokyo, which is far more spacious, cleaner, and quieter than Baba, not to mention lacking the general attitude from a snooty waiter with which our order was taken.

I don't know the mechanics of Baba's winning accolades from WoMag's readers worked, but I can't say that I found any reason to agree with their award.

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