I avoided Sushi Bar Ren for a number of years, despite it’s location which is conveniently close to me. After one visit recently, I realized I wasn’t missing anything, and wouldn’t return. Although their website says they are located in Signal Hill, they’re actually in the Richmond Plaza shopping centre near Canadian Tire and the Gym.
Conveyor belt sushi & service
In Sushi Bar Ren, sushi is delivered by train to stools around one of two counters. (While we were there only one was running, but there are two set up for when it’s busy.) The novelty of conveyor belt sushi has worn off for me, though it’s sure to amuse those who haven’t tried it before. However, there are many other places in and near Calgary that keep the novelty without sacrificing service or taste. Conveyor belt sushi is certainly less formal than table service, but I still anticipate a friendly hostess who keeps an eye on my drinks (and refills as needed), offers to explain the ordering system if needed, offers to take any orders of items not on the train, and pays attention to completion to bring the bill. Unfortunately, the hostess/waitress was not able to accomplish these tasks swiftly and without prompting. I suppose they rely on a black dry erase board behind the chef to communicate the ordering system with customers, rather than the personal touch.
I also like to think of sushi chefs as half chef, and half entertainer/host. Perhaps this isn’t why all chefs took up their trade, but I think that when you stand in the middle of the room crafting your dishes, you should come to the job with a smile and a desire to see your customers happy. Perhaps it was a bad day, but the chef seemed grumpy and unhelpful. After letting him know that we wanted to order a few things that weren’t on the train after he was done preparing a take-out order, he walked away into the back of the kitchen. I presume he had things he needed to do, but it would have at least been nice to give us a “be right back” nod or something. My companion assumed he was ignoring us and was done his shift or was taking a smoke break… When he returned and took our order, he didn’t give us everything we’d asked for, but with such an unapproachable demeanor, I wasn’t terribly interested in giving it another go.
Success with the train
One thing I’ve discovered with conveyor belt sushi, is that items left on the belt too long tend to get dry (or if the rice is too wet, the seaweed gets soggy and overly chewy), and loose their appeal. The one way to work around this, is to either order items not on the belt (which isn’t a problem for me, as many of my favorites aren’t the California-roll-standard that seem to make their regular rounds, over and over again on the belt.) and order your favourites directly from the chef. Another way of achieving fresh-sushi-success is to watch the chef with an eagle eye and only pick up the tasty treats that are recently placed on the belt.
I also watch my fellow customers, and avoid uncovered dishes. Unfortunately at Sushi Bar Ren, the majority of the train offered repeat performances of old sushi, and while there were a few covered dishes, most were not.
Onto the food!
I started off with a simple salmon nigiri sushi. I’d watched the chef put it on the train, and scooped it up for my first taste. Unfortunately the first one fell apart almost as soon as I picked it up, depositing a bowl full of rice into my awaiting soy sauce. I deconstructed the second sushi piece on my plate and struggled to eat the rice without it breaking apart. Not good.
A battleship of Tobiko was next, straight from the chef to the train to me. I wouldn’t have normally taken it, but I was hungry, and it didn’t look like the chef was making up anything else at that point. It was fine, though falling apart a little bit.
Next, my companion scooped up my favorite chopped scallop battleship roll, which was tasty despite a bit of green onion (which I don’t like) mixed into the scallops. I liked this one well enough that I ordered two more plates (four pieces) from the chef, unfortunately only received one. I presumed that this was a misunderstanding, but as I mentioned, I wasn’t keen to try to get his attention again.
Also in my request to the chef was Ikura – the large salmon eggs that I love. Normally salmon eggs are bright, sparkling jewels, firm and plump. They normally taste salty, just a tiny bit sweet, and really not fishy at all… The Ikura delivered to me directly from the chef’s hands were dull, cloudy, lifeless, and tasted very fishy. One of the two battleship rolls also fell apart as soon as I picked it up (resulting once again in a soy sauce bowl full of what would have otherwise been popped in my mouth).
At this point… I was done. Too many disappointing sushi experiences had turned me totally off Sushi Bar Ren.
My companion had an order of gyoza and an order of tempura, and also was just “done”. He wasn’t at all interested in trying anything else after seeing what I had tried.
I’d wager a guess that the hot food wasn’t much better than the sushi selection.
The gyoza looked ok, although a bit greasy, and slightly charred on one side as though the pan hadn’t been properly cleaned before they were fried. Apparently they tasted fine though.
The tempura plate was generous, with two pieces of prawn, two scallops, one yam, and a pepper. The plate also had a piece of tempura battered and fried nori (seaweed) though, which was kind of strange. I tried a bit, and really, it was kind of pointless; it just tasted like eating tempura batter. Luckily though, eating it quickly at least, the tempura was better than some of the other items – not too greasy, although a lot more tempura batter than I personally like.
Take out warning
Since the service at Sushi Bar Ren is nothing to rave about, you might be tempted to try take-out. I would recommend against it if you like freshly made sushi. While dining, we saw the chef make one new roll, but take two more off the belt to put into the take-out container for a customer’s order. This was the same sushi we’d seen go around the belt over and over again, and it had been there when we arrived. When I saw him take it off the belt, I assumed that he was discarding the food, not transferring it for a customer’s order.
If you don’t mind sushi that has been sitting out for possibly a few hours, go to the nearby Co-op and pick out a sushi tray from near the entrance instead – at least that sushi will be covered, and you’ll get a friendlier reception too. Sushi Bar Ren offers fast-food sushi quality at sushi restaurant prices.
Sushi Bar Ren
3915 51 St SW
Calgary, AB T3E