Every day this week, we'll feature a Shitshow Week Review—a new assessment of a restaurant that at first glance seemed totally and completely off the rails. To give these places a fair shake, we revisited to pass new judgment. The fundamental question: shitshow or not a shitshow?
Oh sweet Ninja. The name conjures up so many memories here at Eater—perhaps our favorite of which was nicely encapsulated by blogger The Gurgling Cod back in 2005: "I think it would be worth considering if possibly Ninja is an elaborate joke, developed expressly to see what it would take to secure the lowest rating from Bruni." The comment came in the wake of the Times critic slapping the restaurant with a gruesome POOR takedown that October. (Sample BruniBash: "Ninja acts like a Disney ride, Space Mountain under a hailstorm of run-of-the-mill or unappealing sushi—but charges like Le Bernardin.") Yet two and a half years on, Japan's answer to Jekyll and Hyde isn't just hanging on. It actually, against all reasonable odds, appears to be thriving.
Setting the Scene: Let's be clear. If you're even considering going to Ninja, you're in it at least in part for the kitsch value. So the question for the ESAT earlier this week wasn't so much whether the frequent shrieks of HAI! from the Ninja-clad waitstaff would annoy the living fuck out of us (it would, of course, were we there under any other circumstances), but whether they're pulling it off in a way that could, perhaps, entertain Aunt Bernice from Illinois.
Crowd: Aunt Bernice from Illinois. And, along with the tourists, lo and behold, a number of couples who actually appeared to be on dates. Dates. At Ninja. Yes. Even more shocking: enough of the jail-cell-like booths were full just a little after 8pm that we were led to Table 22, quite likely the worst seat in the house: a booth with no sliding door (for initiates, half the schtick here is Ninjas slamming the door open and closed) with a robust view of an emergency exit. Still, bottom line: they're filling the place on random weeknights. Mercy.
Space: The absurd genius of the Ninja Village buildout didn't hit us until this visit: given that the entire restaurant, save for the entryway, is below street level, they've gotta be paying, what, $2 a square foot for the space? Sure, building the Disneyesque grotto of dining nooks must have cost some coin, but assuming they've paid off their startup costs by now, this place has to be minting money. This thought will now haunt us for a good while.
Food: Like a movie that was bad enough that you wish it could have been really awful, Ninja's cuisine is, ahem, tolerable. After studying the review of Yelper Carrie M. ("Yellowtail Scallion Roll- just...the best roll I've ever had..that's all") we ordered the Yellowtail Scallion Roll and got... a decent Yellowtail Scallion roll ($12). The theatrics of the "Ninja Art" dishes—dry ice, clams set afire and commanded to open—speaks for itself. See also, bizarre over-reliance on dill in dish after dish. And the bits of teeth-crunching grit that popped up in several courses can't be a good sign. But, credit where due, some dishes are better than mediocre; the Creamy Shrimp ($14) could almost pass muster at Nobu 57 on a really off night. Of course, all of this is done in by the cost, which remains a grotesquerie given the quality—a la carte dinner for two with one bottle of sake, $250. (For the record: were Bruni to re-review this joint, we'd warrant that it merits an upgrade to next-level goose territory, aka SATISFACTORY.)
Service: Upon arrival, the news that our night was Ladies' Night meant one in our party could have her choice of a free glass of champagne or a free shot of sake. Why how delightful! A decision was proffered, and the ninja scurried off, presumably to retrieve it; the freebie never arrived. Otherwise, service was as one might expect with a fleet on Ninjas doing one's bidding—stealthy, amusing, flighty, but competent. Except for this too-perfect coda: "You're supposed to get a magic act now, but everyone's leaving at the same time, so the magic ninja is a bit backed up." (Informed six tables were slated to get some sleight of hand before us, we opted out.)
Final Judgment: Let's just get this over with, a small part of us is about to die as we type this, we no longer believe in a loving God, not a shitshow.