Some restaurant experiences are wonderful. Some are awful. Some simply need to be documented.
Sushi is one of our indulgences. The Sweet Partner in Crime and I cook a lot, as followers of the Vine know, but sushi is an exception. Finding sashimi-grade fish and other ingredients, the prep, the ritual – it’s just better left to the experts. We were lucky to have one of the Cincinnati area’s best sushi restaurants, Aoi, within a short walk from our front door at Newport on the Levee. Aoi was a modern, classy establishment with excellent service, a quiet atmosphere and some of the freshest, best prepared sushi I’ve had anywhere. We were so disappointed when it closed.
Fast forward a few months. We read that a new Asian restaurant called “Naked Tchopstix” was opening in the old Aoi space. Naked Tchopstix is a small Indianapolis-based “sushi, pan-Asian food, and bar” chain, and the Newport location is their first outside of Indiana. The SPinC and I had a mutual sushi crave, so we decided to take an evening stroll to check it out.
Naked Tchopstix is a big place. They annexed a small art gallery next door and converted the space into additional bar/club space. A sign in front announced the evening’s featured appetizer as Hawaiian pizza. My eyebrow arched. We went inside. The place had been somewhat redone. The Japanese style partitions had been replaced by a more open, traditional dining room, part of which was set up for tatami – which were all in the middle of a room rather in more traditional private nooks. New place, new design – we could go with it.
Aoi set a very high standard, so I tried to keep an open mind. However, after being greeted by a young woman in a Sinful t-shirt whose perfume smelled like overripe apples, I began to worry a bit. She led us to our table, dropped off our menus and a drink list, and told us that our server would be there soon.
The menu is overwhelming. Imagine porting the Cheesecake Factory dining concept to Asian food. The menu was 10-12 pages long. Sushi (nigiri and about three dozen types of rolls), sashimi, Korean dishes, various Chinese stir-fries, noodles of various preparations, almost 30 appetizers (including frites?) and salads, and on and on. At the end, they had a list of “suggestions for the undecided” – which consisted of “rolls without raw fish” and similar things.
As our eyes began to glaze over, we were approached by our server, who introduced himself, asked if we’d like something to drink “and the specials tonight are $2 Buds and Bud Lights and $3 Kentucky Bourbon Ales.” We asked for a couple of waters and I ordered a bottle of (nicely priced) Albariño. Our server said, “Is that all?” Erm…ok. I said yes and he departed, we assume to figure out what the heck “a bottle of “all beer eenyo” was.
Several minutes passed with no sign of our server. The SPinC suggested that I go check out the fish on the sushi bar. I looked it over – the fish looked good – and the sushi chef, who looked to be a recent college grad, asked if he could help me. I told him I was just checking out the fish. He said, “Yeah. We’ve got some really good stuff here.” I told him I was looking forward to it, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that he had just stopped short of calling me “brah.”
I returned to the table. Our drinks hadn’t shown up yet. At this point, a man who had been standing across the room pointedly watching our table, comes sauntering over. He looked like a thin version of Quarles from “Justified.” He asked in a raspy smoker’s voice if we’d been helped. I told him we’d placed our drink orders. He said, “Oh, OK” and walked off without another word. A bit creepy.
Finally, our server returns with a couple of waters. He puts them on the table and says, “And I’ll be right back with your wine.” Whew. At least we got the drink order cleared up. He returned with the bottle in a chiller. He struggled mightily with the screwtop for a minute before opening the bottle, turning to me, and saying – I shit you not – “Say when!” He poured some, I said when, and before I could reach for my glass, he started filling the other.
As I was checking the wine (which was fine), he then started telling a wonderfully ironic story about watching another server who “had never done a wine presentation” trying to open a screwtop bottle with a wine opener. He chuckled to himself about how dumb the guy looked. I tried desperately not to shoot wine from my nose.
He asked if we were ready to order. We decided to stick to our plan – sushi. We ordered the two-person minimum chef’s choice “Slow Boat to Tokyo” option. We said that we were pretty adventurous, so they could be creative. We just didn’t want any tempura. He told us that it would be about 25 minutes or more because they’d have to “work around the tempura.” We asked if it came with soups or salad or anything. He said that it didn’t, but added “That’s a lot of money, so I think I can find you some soup.” He returned a few minutes later with some miso soup which tasted OK.
We finished our soups as we waited for the sushi. After several minutes with our empty bowls in over on the edge of the table, Quarles returned and rasped, “I’ll take these for you.” We shuddered a bit.
The sushi boat eventually landed. When I order “Chef’s Choice,” I’m hoping for a little fun and a little flair from the chef. What arrived was a fairly standard array of nigiri and sashimi (tuna, white tuna, smoked salmon, salmon, yellowtail, snapper, octopus, eel) and two rolls – a “corona roll” and a “volcano roll.” I could have cobbled this array together a la carte more cheaply, I think. I asked the server what we had in front of us and he paused for a moment. He started pointing at the fish. “This is salmon…this is tuna…” and the SPinC stopped him, asking about the rolls. “That’s a corona roll and that’s a volcano roll.” I asked what those were. His face went blank.
He took a deep breath and launched into a story about how there’s a lot of things to learn on the menu. “And when the high rollers come in, they have these special kinds of tuna and shrimp that they only get in four or five times a month for them, and they have a whole other special menu we have to learn. You know, for the high rollers, like city councilmen and stuff.” I asked him again what the rolls were and he said, “Wow, you’re really testing me.” He came back with descriptions of what the rolls were and departed.
So…Sushi time! We dug in. And looked at each other with “hmmmm….” expressions. The sushi wasn’t *bad,* mind you. It looked really good, but with the exception of the yellowtail and white tuna, tasted completely unremarkable. The textures weren’t great, the flavors were OK. It was a step above what’s available in the fridge case at Kroger, but it was a huge step down from what had been such a wonderful dining experience for us for several years. When we’re going to drop sushi-type money on an indulgent meal, we’re hoping to be wowed. My overall thought was exactly what I told the sushi chef when he came over at the end of the meal and asked how everything was, “Eh…it’s alright.”
Naked Tchopstix isn’t gunning for the sushi-loving dining crowd. Their target audience is families, large parties of folks who want a mid-priced dining experience with lots of options, or twentysomething bros and chicks who want to feel adventurous before heading to the clubs.
Maybe I can convince Mayor Peluso or one of the other local “high rollers” to invite us to join them dinner there sometime. Otherwise, we likely won’t be coming back. If you’re a foodie searching for sushi, save your money for cab fare to one of the area’s other options.