Not realizing that Jewel Bako had just been written up in Gourmet Magazine and gastronomically beatified as Eric Asimov's personal favorite, we recently had our fifth meal there. Our reservations were at the sushi bar at 9:00 on a Saturday. Expecting the sublime experience that has made us rave about this place, we placed our usual order -- the premium omikase. We were very disappointed.
The service was extraordinarily slow -- a failing that was all the more unusal and apparent to us because we sat at the bar, watching the preparation of everyone else's delectable-looking food. Around 9:25, we received our first of three appetizers, which were spaced about fifteen minutes apart. Approximately an hour and half after being seated, we had only finished the appetizers, which were good but not as interesting as what we have had in the past. When I told the owner that the pace of the meal seemed off, he said he would tend to it. Despite his reassurance, the pace never really improved. (We got our check at 12:50). Explanation of dishes served us also lagged well behind their placement before us. Plates were not promptly cleared, leaving us to ponder prawn heads as we wondered when and if our next course might arrive.
We speculated that our service and experience may have suffered because of the time of our reservation and our position at the bar -- the last two seats nearest the short hallway to the bathroom. Our interaction was with the chef's assistant, rather than the chef, who seemed to be working quite furiously trying to catch up on the evening's orders. (We may not have been the only disappointed diners that night -- we saw some plates linger on the counter for at least 15 minutes.) Waiter's reaching and leaning over us to retrieve plates from the counter in front of us did not enhance the experience.
The quality of the fish seemed significantly lower than in prior visits. The sashimi course was good and fresh but fairly standard. Some of the sushi seemed dry (although purportedly dressed by the chef's assistant) and -- I hate to say it -- at least a few pieces tasted a little too fishy. Also, by this point in the evening (11:30 - 12:00), a powerful odor emanated from the fish locker (directly in front of my companion) when it was opened by the chef's assistant.
The owner knew our experience was sub-optimal (his word: "tortur[ous]") and, tossing in a few complimentary items, seemed genuinely apologetic. We expected so much more from our $300+ meal. When I read Asimov's praise of the service (so "attentive [that the] hosts who would sooner toss your bill away than allow a water glass to go unfilled or a gesture unrecognized"), I had to laugh. That may be true when you're a restaurant critic for the Times, but it doesn't seem to apply to those at the end of the sushi bar.