The Great (Sushi) Escape
Updated: Jun 29, 2020
A couple of years back now, my fishing buddy Steve and I planned and executed a self-indulgent trip to Canada to do battle with the huge and staggeringly prolific Pacific salmon that surge annually up the rivers of the west coast. We intended the trip to be a sort of 'Grizzley Adams' affair, all rustic and unshaven adventure, braving the wild elements, staring down fearsome beasts, and feasting upon a natural bounty of fresh salmon, nuts and berries, prepared in a blackened old frying pan with all the culinary complexity of a French farmers picket line setting fire to a beef-flavoured pot noodle delivery. It was part of the appeal; break away from the traps and trappings of modern life, and free the true hunter-gatherer within.
Of course, reality seldom matches the conjurations of a fertile imagination, and whilst the landscape and fishing in fact exceeded everything I'd hoped for, the whole 'wild man of the woods' thing pretty much lost its appeal after fishing in the incessant rain for two days, and finding out that growing a beard was really rather itchy. So, as the week progressed, Steve and I found our resolve to live on foraged food a particular challenge. By the time we were presented with a plate of raw salmon roe to eat by our guide and host, we'd pretty much gone off the entire idea. Indeed, we had already betrayed this ideal by virtue of sneakily stopping at McDonald's for breakfast every morning. Desperate men do desperate things.
One night however, things peaked. It had been a truly exhilarating and exhausting day's fishing. We'd fought Coho and giant Chinook until the light failed and the bears in the surrounding woods threatened to show us exactly what the 'Big Surprise' would be unless we pushed off, so exhausted and suitably ravenous, we trekked back along the trail and climbed into the car.
This particular day there were 5 of us as Steve, myself and Carl (our British guide) had been joined by Carl's friend Tim, a fellow Geordie, and Tim’s cousin, Ray. 5 large, middle aged and above all, hungry Brits. So when, on a rain sodden, dark, Wednesday night, at almost 9pm, squeaking windscreen wipers briefly reveal a warming pink and green neon sign proclaiming "all you can eat - $30", there was little we could do to resist.
We pulled over, shed some of our fishing attire on the pretext that waders would be of little use and possibly the smell would meet with disapproval, and entered the restaurant. It was a Japanese establishment, and really rather plush, with Japanese art adorning the walls, and latticed wood and paper screens partitioning the seating.
It was also absolutely dead.
There was a chef reading a paper at the bar and opposite him a rather severe looking Japanese lady in a striking kimono and wooden sandals, who accessorised her outfit by also wearing an expression that would turn Saki into vinegar. The chef looked up and explained that they were just about to shut up shop as it had been so quiet but they would serve us (apparently despite our appearance). There was an irritated sigh from the direction of the waitress in response.
The waitress begrudgingly showed us to a table and we gratefully sat down, ordered Japanese beers and perused the menu. After a few minutes, she reappeared and, summoning up the last reserves of her tolerance, gave us a thin smile and offered to take our order.
The smile definitely lost its fight with the rest of her face when we explained we didn't want to order from the menu, but wanted the advertised all-you-can-eat-deal. It appeared there was going to be some resistance to this at this point as she rolled her eyes and, muttering, shuffled off over to the chef. There was an inaudible but animated conversation before the chef disappeared and she returned.
Glaring at us, she explained they would indulge the audacity of our request, but that there were...conditions. The had chef wanted to leave and therefore, we had to order everything we wanted up front. Fair enough, thought the intrepid 5, nodding.
But then the 'smile' returned and this time it was sharp enough to slice limes with. There was more. We would have to give our credit card details and if for any reason we didn't eat everything we ordered, then we would all be charged an additional $80....each! There was a triumphant flourish to the last bit and a hint of smugness as the waitress expected us to protest and leave them in peace. But we really were very hungry, and as far as we were concerned, battle lines had been drawn, and the gauntlet was well and truly down. The word 'curses!' hung unspoken in the air as we proclaimed this was fine and took the special menu from her.
I'd never eaten Japanese before but Tim, having departed Geordie shores some years before and now resident in Vancouver, had plenty of apparent experience, so we delegated ordering to him. With the air of a consummate professional, Tim rattled off a list of various dishes and a selection of sushi, all of which sounded like mana from heaven to our party of ravenous anglers. Perhaps we missed the subtle change in the waitresses expression as she completed the order. It had a hint of smirk.
Ramen arrived, and its soupy, noodley goodness was quickly consumed. Teriyaki chicken was dispatched with gusto, and to universal plaudits, such was its sublime flavour. Then the waitress arrived with an extremely large platter of assorted sushi, almost a work of art. We were impressed. It did look rather a lot of food, and the first two dishes had knocked a considerable chunk off our appetite, but universally, we agreed it was fine; we could manage this and there would be no penalty charge... Alls well that ends well. We had a good hour or so, so it was simply a question of pacing.
Now, I don't know what it is about sushi, perhaps it's the density of the rice, or perhaps it swells in the stomach, but by the time we'd all had a few pieces, we were beginning to puff a little, and there were a few nervous laughs accompanying the comment of 'phew... It's a lot more filling than it looks, this!'
The waitress was watching us like a cat.
There was a call from the kitchen and she slipped from view. As she went out of sight, Carl mopped his brow and exclaimed that he was now stuffed, but that with some team effort we could manage the last few pieces and we would defeat the evil harridan who was waiting for our expected failure.
Buoyed up by Carl's stirring rhetoric, we soldiered on. 20 pieces left. 15. 10 pieces left then became 6, then 4, then 2, and finally the platter was cleared. There was some winking and one or two relieved back-slaps as the tension in the air eased and straining stomachs were patted and massaged.
Our relaxed smiles froze however as waitress reappeared. She was carrying another platter of sushi! The same unspoken thought process went through everyone’s head: Someone else must have come in. They must be tucked in a corner somewhere. Perhaps they're really short. That can't be for us! It is for us. Crap.
With a spiteful flourish and undisguised glee, the fresh platter was laid before our groaning bellies. Steve's repost was valiant, but futile. "We didn't order this as well..." he began, but the reply was sharper than a samurai's razor.
"This your order," she said "you check!"
Steve took the piece of paper meekly. A huddle ensued, with a degree of mumbling and words like 'really?' rising out of the murmur before ,with some awkward shuffling and accusatory stares in Tim’s direction, the order pad was handed back in silence. With what looked like a genuine smile this time, our tormentor bowed slightly and clattered back to her niche.
This was serious. None of us wanted to admit defeat, but this was a challenge that put fighting a nuclear powered 60lb Chinook on an 8wt rod on a footing with scooping leaves out a pond in comparison.
I managed a few more pieces, and was beginning to sweat. I decided to retire to the gents as the beer was also having an unwelcome effect. Some minutes later I arrived back and sat down. There was a loud snort from Carl, and Tim frantically said 'Shhhhh! She'll hear!". I glanced around and realised that the other 4 were all giggling helplessly, red faced. I started to ask what the joke was but was waved rapidly into silence as Ray whispered 'She's coming over!'.
The waitress approached and peered at the platter. Carl lifted a piece of sushi languidly in her direction whilst making universal 'yum yum' noises. She glanced at the platter and frowned. I followed her line of sight and could scarcely contain my surprise as a quarter of the contents had gone! Barely suppressed sniggering continued, as would be expected from 10 year old boys who'd written a rude word on the blackboard behind the teacher. The sushi hovered before Rob's mouth as she turned away, and the second she did, all four of them exploded into activity. To my amazement, sushi was rapidly snatched from the platter and stuffed into pockets.
"What on earth are you..." I started, before Tim hissed "Stop, stop, she's looking!". Everyone froze, and resumed the relaxed eating pose once more. Again the waitress turned and again pockets were further loaded. Once capacity was reached, there was a period of theatrical stretching and exclaiming that nature called or that cigarettes were required, and, whistling the uplifting melody from The Great Escape, my comrades left the room and nonchalantly shed their secreted sushi, returning once more to the laden table to continue the ruse. I was drafted in on the second shift and, pulse hammering lest I be discovered and put before a firing squad, I jettisoned my cargo of Nori-Nori in the Gents, only panicking briefly as a Californian Roll belligerently refused to negotiate the u-bend.
The vast platter steadily diminished. The waitress went through several distinct stages each time her regular patrol brought her back round to check on our progress. Mild surprise, underpinned with sure and steady knowledge that, despite our evident effort, she would triumph, soon started to morph into wide eyed astonishment, flashed-through with acute suspicion. Eventually, given the lack of witnesses to anything untoward, that became utter disbelief and then, suitably embellished by some more drama-school stomach patting and huffing on our part, the last pieces vanished and our nemeses' iron facade collapsed into a blend of defeat and deep, grudging respect.
Using great British resolve, grit, determination, stiff upper lip and capacious cargo pants, we had defeated our challenger, and we revelled in it. Had we had a union jack, it would have been raised to a tumultuous rendition of Land Of Hope And Glory. As conquering heroes we left the restaurant, victorious in both our day's fishing and our culinary adventures.
The statuesque moment of our departure was only slightly marred by the chef suddenly stepping out of the side-door and finding a large pile of his sushi on the pavement. There was a moment of silence and stillness as all parties froze, before Carl's guiding experience kicked in and he issued advice right up there with how to play a charging 20lb Coho in a raging river...