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Does Raw Fish Rock? Venturing To Find Out at Sushi Roxx

Eater critic Robert Sietsema delivers an early glimpse of new Midtown theme restaurant, Sushi Roxx.

A portly man in a dark suit perches on the stairway clutching a microphone. Inscrutably, he’s flanked by two uniformed police officers. "I’m Jason Apflebaum," he purrs into the mike, "and I own this place. It was a dream of mine for 15 years, and it wouldn’t be possible without these policemen." He leans over to peck one on the cheek, and then hugs the other. Are the police really strippers, one wonders? No, they’re actual cops, and they turn to leave after his introductory speech.

Thus strangely begins my night at Sushi Roxx, a new restaurant on East 39th Street in Midtown, occupying a semi-subterranean space at the rear of the Tuscany Hotel. I went for an early visit with a friend after hearing about the garishly decorated sushi bar with a floor show, and wondering if the concept could be pulled off. Outside, a blue metal dragon snarls by the doorway; inside find a conventional hotel bar with a podium just beyond, where we were greeted by our future dancers/waitresses, and urged to wait in the bar and "have a drink until your table is ready." Two seatings are offered per night, at 6:30 p.m. and 9 p.m. in a room that can accommodate 70 or so.

Finally, conducted through a curtain and down the stairway, we wished we’d brought sunglasses. The walls are decorated with big screens that seethe with liquid psychedelic imagery; at the end of the room in big glowing circles stand Godzilla and a ninja looking fierce; Sumo wrestlers glare down at you from the ceiling; the wallpaper is silvery Art Deco; and a pink glow suffuses all, so it’s impossible to tell what colors things really are. Tables ring the room, with a communal one in the center, forming a horseshoe-shaped runway in which the waitresses/singers and busboys/dancers perform.

Above: Rock shrimp tempura and cocktails. Below: Chicken teriyaki.

First you are primed with apps. You’ll quickly discover that the servings are small for the price, though the food proves fresh and sometimes flashy. We appetized with a small bowl of rock shrimp ($20) — nuggets fried and strewn with black and white sesame seeds, presented with mayo. Chicken satays ($14) saw the menu going fairly far afield from its Japanese theme, mounting swatches of chicken breast on sticks and flooding them with liquid peanut butter. The best app we sampled was yellowtail jalapeno ($18), six panels of raw fish with a soy-flavored heaplet of cilantro and jalapeno on each. Not very spicy, though. We were served our apps in a rush within five minutes of sitting down.

Instead of emphasizing sake, the drinks program highlights tiki-style cocktails ($15 each), in common with other recently opened restaurants like El Cortez and Kings County Imperial. Tiki is the fad that wouldn’t die. In most places it denotes large, strong, sweet, expensive cocktails with too many ingredients served in molded ceramic or plastic cups. Here, all of these were true except the size and strength part. Sushi Roxx’s are not large nor particularly strong. Just as we were served our first cocktails — cobra kai (vodka, mezcal, watermelon, lime juice, and shiso) and kobayashi maru (rye, sage, blueberry, elderflower liqueur, lemon, and mole bitters) — lights began to flash and music hit the room like a bolt of lightning.

Six waitresses in Vegas-style costumes with sashes, bustles, and peekaboo panels came churning down the stairway like bulls in heat and arranged themselves along the runway. Swirling frenetically, pumping their arms and kicking their legs, they danced with tremendous energy and precision to a song we didn’t recognize. This would have been fine on a stage 20 or 200 feet away, but the fists flew and feet kicked uncomfortably near our noses. Every eye in the room was riveted on the dancers, and food was ignored. These numbers occurred at intervals of every 10 or 15 minutes. Many times, one waitress would be individually showcased, sometimes singing a song we knew such as "Big Spender" from the musical Sweet Charity or Beyonce’s "Crazy in Love."

Sushi bar.

In between musical numbers, the waitresses served drinks and took further orders; the busboys cleared and also ran dishes from the kitchen. It was exhausting to watch them, still steaming from their dance exertions.

The second course focuses on sushi rolls. There’s no sushi assortment or omakase to show off the sushi bar’s prowess. That sushi bar exists as an element of décor in one corner of the room. Staffed by three sushi chefs who lean over the usual glass case, the bar is decorated with an array of 100 waving Japanese kitties, who pump their paws out of sync. Apart from the sushi rolls, there are salads (some featuring raw fish), "roxx boxes" (like churashi, only with no bowl and not much rice), and a handful of hot kitchen entrees.

Absurd maki rolls are the hallmark of mediocre sushi bars, and here the rolls are limited to such ingredients as yellowtail, avocado, eel, Japanese pickles, salmon, jalapeno, panko, and mango — in other words, largely a compendium of the same ingredients that figure into the rest of the menu, focused on six common sushi fish. As one internet commentator put it, "This is definitely sushi for people who have never had it before and may be intimidated by the real thing."

Roxx box and surf and turf roll.

We went for the surf and turf roll ($22), which enwraps shrimp tempura, snow crab, filet mignon, avocado, and yuzu miso in vinegared rice, which is a lot of freight for one roll to carry. The meat was flavorless. "Hey, this tastes more like London broil than filet," my guest exclaimed, shouting to be heard over the music. The thing tasted OK, but the flavors mushed together so you couldn’t tell what you were eating, and the pink light didn’t help.

We also tried the "spicy tuna crunch roxx box" ($18), a square of rice low to the plate with a pink tuna mush on top mixed with sriracha mayo and concealed under panko, and the chicken teriyaki ($26), which turned out to be six slices of breast, a heap of broccoli rabe, and four conjoined drops of Russian dressing. Though the fish in the former was doubtlessly fresh, the entire effect was cat-foody; and the teriyaki tepid and unassertive. (The broccoli rabe was just fine, though it seemed absurdly out of place. Can I have a side of spaghetti, please?)

The evening began to tail off around 8:15 p.m. as couples and groups lost interest and started to leave. Unlike a Broadway show, there was no conclusion or finale that summed the whole thing up or reprised its themes. Ultimately, does sushi rock? Well, it doesn’t really, and pairing it with a Vegas show does a disservice to a dining tradition based on subtlety and contemplative quietude and enjoyment of the food. Like Times Square’s theme restaurants of 20 years ago (places like Mars 2112 and the All-Star Cafe), which Sushi Roxx harkens back to — we might as well have been eating cold dry hamburgers and greasy fries once the dance numbers struck up. 120 East 39th St, 212-726-9500

Sushi Roxx

120 East 39th Street, New York, NY 212.726.9500
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