Kaizen Sushi Bar and Restaurant

4075 Ste. Catherine West

While most restaurants pay lip service to customer service, a few others go out of their way to pamper their patrons, offering an exceptional dining experience that goes beyond the food itself. Customers return home with pleasant memories of a friendly wait staff, prompt and attentive service, and above all, mouth-watering dishes.

Then there are those, like Kaizen, that take the opposite approach. Back in March, we bid on some $50 gift certificates that Kaizen had placed for auction through the Gazette, ending up with a chance to try this upscale sushi joint for half price.

Kaizen, or at least, its management, under the direction of Michael Sniastowsky, deems auction winners unworthy of being seated in the restaurant, so we were only entitled to take-out dining. Fair enough, we figure; after all, it's sushi, so the dishes should survive the transport back home. Of course, as a result, we can't comment on the decor.

We consult the menu and place our order by phone: some nigiri, asparagus, California rolls, the riceless maki "lambas" tuna rolls, an agadashi tofu, and yakatori chicken for the kids. Given that we're light eaters, perhaps we should invite some friends over to help get through all these dishes! Then 15 minutes later, the first surprise. We're called back and told that our order has to be placed through the Internet. Umm, didn't you just take our order? "Sorry, you have to enter it all again yourself."

Back to the computer it is, and we spend another 15 minutes navigating their confusing (computer) menus of menus. The bill comes to $47.20, plus taxes of $6.50, so just a few dollars over our $50 coupon. Funny though, as we were already charged taxes on the auction purchase. There's also a line that includes an automatically calculated "gratuity" (tax-free) of $4.72, but no way to change the amount. Wait a minute... a default tip on take-out? Look, I have no problem with a polite suggestion that customers pay a bit extra for really good take-out service, but being charged a tip by default is something I've only seen done at other restaurants for dining-in, typically for large groups.

I add a note in the "instructions" box of the web order that gratuities should be at the customer's discretion. Someone from the restaurant calls me back, eventually passing me to the boss. Sniastowsky explains that all tips are shared by the house, so if the kitchen staff don't receive a gratuity, they have no motivation to prepare my order. Did I hear that correctly? He adds that after discussing this point with their customers, the restaurant decided to charge a fixed gratuity on take-out orders at 10%. Yeah, right.

I consult the dictionary, and read out the definition of gratuity: "something given voluntarily or beyond obligation usually for some service". Sniastowsky responds, "Well, that may be the technical definition, but we live in a grey world where things aren't so cut and dry. If you don't like our policies, we'll refund you for the vouchers and you can take your business elsewhere." Wow, is this the restaurant business or United Airlines?

A quick check on-line and I find that I'm not the only one to meet with some attitude. A poster on montrealfood.com describes his deep fried frozen brochette of chicken teriyaki, still cold in the middle, among other injustices to the dish. Sniastowsky's response? "Anyone who knows food knows chicken should be served pink in the middle, and that this is the way chicken should be served, any gourmet knows this." Mmmm, count me in for the next gourmet salmonella special!

As I had already committed to bringing home dinner and wanted the chance to review Kaizen at their new location, I suggested we remove the asparagus from the order so that the total with "mandatory gratuity" was just slightly over the $50 coupon value. In Sniastowsky's defence, the coupon states "gratuity not included", although I didn't notice this until a later call with the restaurant, and in any case, he agreed to the suggestion. The total now came to $51.69... just an extra toonie out of my pocket. Fortunately for our boys, the chicken was actually cooked through. Unfortunately, $51.69 doesn't go far quantity-wise and we had to supplement the meal with some extras from the fridge. Worse yet, the agadashi tofu was tough, dry and flavourless (and I mean with the sauce) although the nigiri and lambas were decent as far as fusion sushi goes.

A few weeks go by and we try again. This time, we ordered the $15 Kobe burger, some maki, salmon kamikaze, and again, the California rolls. The total with tax and the $4 "mandatory gratuity" comes to $50.20. But again, there's a surprise. This time, someone calls from the restaurant to tell me that I'd have to pay the full gratuity in cash as it's not covered by the coupon... did I want to add another item to the order to bring the "pre-gratuity" total to $50? I explain that on my previous order, the coupon covered more than half of this charge, but no dice. The girl at the other end replies ever so diplomatically, "Well, maybe this was done once to placate you, but we won't do that again. Do you want your food or should I cancel the order?" That response does wonders for customer loyalty.

Ok, so the food. This time, we've learned our lesson and make a separate dinner for the kids. The slightly overcooked Kobe burger was a joke. We lived in Japan for a year and sorry, the only beer this cow experienced was watching a human drink. The garnishing was a little more interesting, but any flavour was drowned by the listless bun. The remaining items were just enough for the two adults. Again, decent fusion sushi, although nothing to warrant a recommendation. If we compare take-out offerings in town, $20 will get you about double the quantity in truly delicious food from Cuisine Bangkok, just a few blocks down the street, and there wouldn't be any of this mandatory gratuity nonsense.
Kobe Maki ($12), Salmon Kamikaze ($7.25), and California rolls ($6.25) half-eaten "Kobe" burger ($15)

By now, we'd had enough, and I emailed the boss to take him up on his previous refund offer. No response for a week, so we ordered one last time, picking a mix of nigiri and lambas, the "sublime" dessert ($11), and an appetizer of edamame ($7). You've got to admire something about a joint that charges $7 for a handful of boiled soy beans with a slice of lemon. Taste-wise, nothing disappointing but the only memorable dish was the dessert. How sad. One of the city's supposedly top sushi joints only stands out in French-inspired sweets... and a menu that is only reasonable at half-price.
nigiri and lambas edamame ($7) and "Sublime" dessert ($11)

At pick-up time, I hand-delivered a letter of demand, in which I offered Sniastowsky three options, or the risk he'd face legal action:

He quickly called back and agreed to option (c), although not before trashing his employee who had previously contradicted the explanation for the pre-calculated gratuity on take-out orders. I guess he figured the jurisprudence wasn't to his advantage. Then again, anyone running a restaurant should know better than to insult his customers.