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August 18-31
VOL.14 ISSUE. 26

Time to Refresh

Noelle Chorney
Published Thursday October 29, 06:07 pm
The Samurai is an institution, but it needs an update

Delta Bessorough (601 Spadina Cres. E.)

My first visit to the Samurai at the Bessborough was when I was a university student back in the ‘90s (Yup — the ‘90s. I’m amazed I’m that old too!), when I was treated to dinner there with my mom and my aunts.

I remember the teriyaki chicken livers, which I loved. It was also the first time I’d ever tried sunomono salad (a shrimp and bean-thread noodle salad in a vinegar dressing, which had the distinct mouth feel of chewing rubber bands, and yet I liked it), and we were wowed by the show that our chef put on, complete with a flaming onion volcano.

I went back 10 years ago, and wrote a review. I remember thinking it was an excellent place to go on a date, and my husband and I had a great time. We were disappointed to discover, however, that the onion volcanoes were a thing of the past, ostensibly I am told, due to local fire department regulations. Still, it was an overwhelmingly positive experience.

Fast forward to 2015, and my friends and I, with small kids at home, were super keen to get out on a Saturday night. And the prospect of going somewhere with a sprinkle of nostalgia and a splash of kitsch was appealing — and once we realized that none of us had been to the Samurai in gawd knows how long, we were excited to go back. After all, who doesn’t like dressing up and heading out with your significant other to the most imposing building in Saskatoon?

Turns out that a lot can change over the course of a decade or so. I don’t think the Samurai has changed much, but my gustatory and cultural lenses definitely have.

We found our seats, which surrounded the cooking surface where the chef puts on a show, and ordered a bottle of bubbles. We perused the menu, immediately zeroing in on the all-inclusive meals. Sure, you could order a specific appetizer and main dish, but why would you when for $10 more you could get a combo of flavours, plus miso soup and dessert?

We quickly agreed that while we each could have ordered something different, there was something appealing to trying it all — so each couple ordered “The Warrior,” a dinner for two that includes a plate of sushi, as well as “The Samurai” (chicken, prawns and scallops) and “The Hibachi” (steak, chicken and prawns), for $99. That way we were free to visit, and the food would keep coming.

We were sampling our sushi when we discovered something a bit distracting at the next table. That table’s chef, whose back was to us as he did his cooking performance, really needed to pull up his pants. His dramatic black outfit made his tighty whities stand out, especially when he bent down to grab something from his station. It was really hard to concentrate on the conversation with the chance of seeing a butt crack so imminent.

Our own chef seemed to put on less of a show than his colleagues at nearby tables (i.e., he had his pants belted properly), and he was friendly, but quiet. That’s not a reflection on him, but more a reflection on us, since we were so wrapped up in our own conversations that we didn’t really ask any questions. He did his job competently and without any wardrobe malfunctions.

My overall sense of the meal at the Samurai was that while it was tasty (and fun to have the food cooked up right in front of you and served hot on your plate), it seemed be very similar to the food served up at an Edo Japan outlet in a mall food-court — except we paid 10 times the price. (Admittedly, half of that expense was wine, which you can’t drink at the food court.) Also, the ventilation system really doesn’t appear to be able to keep up with the food preparation. We could see splatters from our cooktop and the table next to us rising into the air and settling onto our wine glasses.

And to top it off, they were out of green tea ice cream, and only had vanilla to offer. We declined, and instead went across the street to the James for a nightcap.

Was the food 10 times better than Edo Japan’s? Decidedly not. Was the meal worth $100/person with wine (which is what we paid)? Maybe. Could we have a more inspired meal elsewhere in the city for that price tag? Definitely.

I feel that by seeing the Samurai this way, I’ve somehow lost my innocence. (For those of you who came of age in the 21st century, and not the 20th, I’m sure you’re asking, “How did you hang onto your innocence for this long?”) The Samurai is an institution, and I’m supposed to love it — but I want it to be more. Not more quantity (there’s more than enough food!), but more authenticity, more effort and more creativity. There, I said it. And I’m sorry.

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