Conventional economic wisdom has it that when two businesses compete, both firms' products and prices improve as the companies strive to one-up each other. Somehow, though, the rivalry between sushi restaurants Miyako and Cafe Japon, located across Kirby from one another, has managed to defy that logic.
Miyako struck the first blow in early '97, when it simultaneously canned its Sunday brunch all-you-can-eat buffet, expanded its happy hour to all day and raised its nigiri and certain hand-roll prices from $1 to $1.15. Japon had pioneered the all-day happy hour concept in the Kirby area, and its immediate response was to extend its hours to 2 a.m. on Friday and Saturday. And, for some reason, Japon's prices crept up as well, its larger selection of hand rolls coming to rest at $2.50, with individual nigiri ranging from a scant few $1 choices (fresh salmon and imitation crab, among them) to $1.25, $1.50 and $1.75 offerings. Over the months that followed, Japon added two more locations, bringing its total operations to five. On January 2, it officially opened the brand-new Sake Lounge at Bayou Place. Japon now controls twice the number of locations as Miyako and is spread considerably farther across the city.
What's sincerely puzzling is the drop in quality that's accompanied the price hikes. On my last-ever trip to Miyako, I met with several gaffes that no sushi diner should ever have to face. The first sin was squishy avocado in an order of California rolls -- a sign that either the premade, ready-to-slice rolls or the avocado itself had been left at room temperature far too long. An order of anago, or sea eel, normally served toasted and warm, arrived at the same temperature as the chilled pieces my table had ordered -- and, most unpleasant of all, our ika (squid) came out warm, slimy and chewy, rather than cool and crisp, and even the excess wasabi couldn't hide the lack of freshness.
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Japon suffers the same problem, though on a subtler and broader level. Though it's difficult to pinpoint any single variety of sushi that's deteriorated, entering the restaurant immediately calls to mind the First Law of Sushi: If you can smell the fish at all, eat somewhere else. And then came the same last straw as at Miyako: A recent visit turned up Cali rolls with warm, squishy avocado. Check, please.
Fortunately, there are alternatives. Old-timer Ginza perpetuates its extremely high you-get-what-you-pay-for quality; Kaneyama, on Westheimer near Gessner, provides a fresh and decidedly affordable choice; and newcomer Nara, out by Wilcrest at Westheimer, has some of the freshest and most innovative selections in town. Itadakimasu!
-- Meredith L. Patterson
Miyako, 3910 Kirby, 520-9797. Cafe Japon, 3915 Kirby, 529-1668.