Albany NY and Capital Region Restaurants

Friday, October 13, 2006

Totem Sushi

Amongst the many reasons I decided to start a food blog about restaurants in this area is because of the lack of blogs that address the subject. Sure, we have the Times-Union and the Metroland, but I really enjoy the landscape which includes fellow bloggers "Albany Jane," Warren Redlich, Dish and Dirt, and now, Liberally Seasoned, all of whom have their own views and opinions on all things foodstuff that the Capital Region have to offer.

Given the finite number of restaurants in the area, however, there are bound to be some restaurants that each of us will visit and have differing opinions on. It happened during last week after Albany Jane and Dish and Dirt each reviewed Tai Pei and each had a vastly different experience. I suppose this is symptomatic of dining at a non-chain/franchised restaurant -- you may never have the same experience twice. Anthony Bourdain, in an interview with the 92Y blog said that one positive result of all this blogging is that it raises the stakes for every plate of food a chef sends into the dining room. He added that "it’s on balance, a good thing. Anything which raises expectations, places more value on consistent excellence, which pushes chefs to be better and encourages diners to be more knowledgable and to try new things--is good for the world."

For all its faults, I still love seeking out those one-off places that aren't chains/franchises (although Chili's does hold a spot that's near and dear to my heart). Albany is full of those places, and because of that, there should never be a shortage of dining experiences to write about.

My digression above leads me to write about my latest dining experience: Totem Sushi. Totem is the newest addition to the ever changing Lark Street dining scene. Noticably absent from that scene was a good sushi place; unfortunately, thats still the case. Totem does, however, have two things going for it: (1) location, (2) a clientele that is not necessarily inclined to drive to better, yet farther sushi haunts in the Guilderlands or Latham, for instance, and (3) depth and variety of its rolls.

Totem offers an unassuming storefront facing Lark Street. You enter into a long and narrow space with subdued lighting. You could almost picture the previous space to be a bar which they had retrofitted with 2 and 4 top tables and a large, with long bar in the back. A large plasma television hangs over the bar area. My impressions were favorable upon entering: the dining room was full of 20-somthing and 30-something patrons. Since there were no tables available, my dining partner and I took a seat at the bar. This was not, however, a sushi bar, but a seat at the bar from which they apparently serve wine and beer. Unfortunately, the bar wasnt made to dine at, since there was no room for your knees so you had to sit about two feet away from the counter space. Moreover, the sushi chef is working on a small counter away from the bar, so a seat at the bar is not necessarily the same as sitting at the sushi bar.

The menu is balanced -- it offers a few appetizers, some sushi/sashimi/roll combination plates, and what I believe is their twist on a sushi menu - 26 unique rolls - lettered A through Z (e.g., the "C" roll is a crab roll and the "S" roll is a spicy tuna or spicy salmon roll). I settled on two rolls: the rainbow roll ($10) and the spicy tuna roll ($7), and my dining partner ordered a philadelphia roll ($7) and the "house" roll ($15) which was basically a spicy tuna roll, tempura battered and flash fried.

I know this is where I lose sushi connoiseurs -- they're all thinking "how can you order such 'gringo' sushi" - that stuff's for kids, etc. My point is that those rolls are all familiar, I can get a consistent experience for purposes of comparing Totem to other places, and most of all, since I didnt see any fish displayed in the sushi case, I wasnt about to try Totem's sashimi plate.

Considering that there was only one sushi chef making dishes for over 40 diners, the service was satisfactory. All of the rolls arrived within 20 minutes of ordering.

Two large plates arrived with the artfully displayed rolls - the house roll with a brightly colored slaw of carrots draped the roll, and the kaleidoscope-like colors of the rainbow roll took the stage front-and-center.

I was immediately turned off by the apperance of the spicy tuna roll, and in fact inquired to my dining partner whether I had ordered that roll. The roll featured a faint pink filling and my dining partner advised me that was my spicy tuna roll and added that perhaps they put too much mayonnaise inside it (I then reminded myself that there should be no mayonnaise inside a spicy tuna roll). The first bite was tell-tale: the sushi rice was incredibly dry and almost "al dente" - meaning it was either undercooked or had been sitting against the walls of the rice cooker for too long. The spicy tuna "filling" left much to be desired, to wit: spice and tuna. I was incredibly unimpressed with the roll and dismissed it as being one step above grocery store sushi.

I ventured into trying my dining partner's house roll. Upon examination the tempura batter was dense and heavy. The roll had been cooked to the point that each layer of the roll was uniform. I took a taste and my initial thoughts were confirmed: the tempura was nearly as heavy as pancake batter, or batter one would use to coat a chicken tender, and the oil had picked up the "greasy" flavors of prior dishes cooked therein. It was more of a disappointment than the last roll considering that the "house special" more than double the price of the spicy tuna roll.

The rainbow roll was the only redeeming item of the night. The fish tasted relatively fresh and the cucumber and avocado was bright and refreshing. Unfortuantely, the overly dried out rice really detracted from an otherwise decent roll.

I grudginly left Totem, and unlike other dining establishments of the past, vowed to never return -- unless its after a late night of heavy drinking on lark street.

22 Comments:

  • This review was right on, Chirag. I really liked Totem when it first opened, but the last several times I'be eaten there, the food has definitely been lacking. Maybe the food was great at first, because they felt they had to prove themselves? Now that they've made it past the one year point on Lark Street, perhaps they're getting a little too comfortable?

    By Blogger Liberally Seasoned, at 11:27 AM  

  • Uh, oh. I'm sensing a mirror to Sushi House... Starts out really great, and then once it gets press/steady stream of customers they don't put in as much effort.

    I still think they're one of the better places in Albany, but if Saso's were open late night, it would be no contest!

    Also, it's more of a place to see and be see, since it's on Lark St.

    By Blogger Albany Jane, at 3:31 PM  

  • i just checked out totem last night with my friend. it wasn't too crowded and the service was super slow. i really enjoyed my healthy combo(no fish), but my friend said the fish was not fresh. she didn't finish her roll and then mentioned it to the owner. he said thank you and still charged her for it. that made me not want to return.

    i love sushi na in clifton park. it's in a strip mall on route 9, but the rolls are delightful (although it always takes forever, but it's worth it).

    so i just discovered the albany eats and dish and dirt blogs. if you like to cook, check out my cooking club almost foodies. we do it up potluck style and occasionally hit the restaurants.

    renée

    www.almostfoodies.com

    By Blogger renee, at 12:52 PM  

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    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 2:33 PM  

  • man, coo coo heads in albany i guess

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 3:15 AM  

  • yeah, don't go to Totem Sushi, the owner Ericka is very dishonest person...who knows what you are getting is really sushi?

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 3:16 AM  

  • check this out...

    On Thursday November 8th I set my hair, applied my
    makeup and polished
    my nails perfectly. My boyfriend Ryan and I decided
    to take our friend
    Noah out for dinner for a vegitarian meal. I thought
    it would be a
    wonderful idea to join the festivities at Totem on
    Lark Street for a lovely sushi dinner.
    I had experienced some questionable service the last
    time I ate there
    with a few friends when we sat on the patio and our
    waiter forgot about
    us. Having worked in the restauraunt buisness for 2
    years at a cafe in
    stuyvesant plaza I decided that this mistake was
    forgivable, although we
    had to call the restraunt to ask about the forgotten
    bannana tempura
    which was the 2nd choice since they were out of green
    tea cheese cake.
    Our friend Noah is an AASI fully certified
    professional snowboarder on Burton Snowboards Global
    Test Team, straight-edge vegitarian, thin with long
    dark hair and a dark beard. On the
    car ride there he was saying he needed to use the
    restroom. When
    we arrived he got a headstart to the bathroom while I
    parked the car.
    Ryan and I quickly followed him until we were
    abruptly greeted by Noah
    being shoved out the door. Erica ---- the owner, whom
    I had met several
    times before was escorting noah outside and making it
    clear that she
    wanted him to "shoot up in someone elses bathroom". I
    was in complete and
    utter disbelief, shock, and disgust at this person as
    she, without
    hesitation, threw my friend out of her "home", based
    solely on his
    appearence. I was extremely disapointed since I was
    looking forward to a
    philadelphia roll but even more disapointed that she
    had blatently insulted
    me and my friends. I told her I was upset because I
    loved her place
    but I would no longer be a customer of hers. She
    responded by saying "you
    can stay and eat if you sit down and keep your mouth
    shut." I had never had
    a more awful experience at a resturaunt before I had
    even been seated.
    She followed this by yelling in front of a full
    dining room that her
    loss of our buisness would not affect her ability to
    pay her car bill.
    Noah had already gone next door to Soho and was
    enjoying a slice of
    cheese pizza. We stood on lark street mind boggled.
    But before we could
    even get a chance to question ourselves she had
    marched out onto the
    street to try to explain herself. I was expecting an
    apology but that was
    the last thing on her mind. She continued with her
    argument about
    crackheads in her bathroom. She looked at me and
    insisted that I didn't know
    what it was like to clean up "poop...and puke" and
    again I expressed my
    disapointment that I would no longer be able to dine
    with her. Once
    again she made it very clear that she would not miss
    our buisness and
    went back to work with her threatening sidekick table
    busser or
    dishwasher friend. I hope that having experienced
    this discrimination without
    apology will make my friends and I stronger people,
    although I can only
    hope that other people will learn from my dreadful
    time at Totem and
    boycott this restauraunt. I am a resident of Albany.
    I was born 5 doors down
    from ericas restauraunt. I refuse to live in a
    community where you can't
    even get a table at a fine restraunt because having
    long hair and a
    beard makes you look like a "bum" or a "crackhead". I
    look forward to your response to my
    letter.
    Sincerily, Camille Carnevale

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 6:01 AM  

  • The owner of this place Ericka is very dishonest and horrible person - I've dealt with her on eBay transaction and left me with the worst experience ever on eBay. See Ericka's feedback on eBay -http://myworld.ebay.com/emokhiber

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 1:50 AM  

  • I ate at Totem once last year, and it was fine. The sushi was okay, certainly not the best I've had, though not the worst.

    After a visit this weekend, I can now say with complete sincerity that I will never, ever, ever go back to that restaurant. I was the subject of the rudest, most bizarre treatment by a restaurant owner I've ever seen.

    40-45 minutes after ordering, we had not gotten our order. So, on my way to the restroom, I passed our waitress (who I think may also be the owner... not sure). I said "do you know if ours is about ready? It's been about 45 minutes." Her response was a VERY rude "When it's ready, I'll bring it out." (I wish words could describe her tone and expression.) Okay, fine. "I'd appreciate that" is my response. On to the restroom.

    I never reached the restroom, because as I was waiting for it, the woman returns to me to inform me that I was lying to her about how long we had waited (I wasn't). She yelled at me and told me I was a liar. After she continued, I told her that my party and I were going to leave because of how she was treating me. Her response was to follow me to my table, yelling at me all the way, to inform me that if we left, she would call the police, because we "owe her money."

    After I sat back down, she continued to yell at me after I was clearly ignoring her and wanting her to leave. She insulted everyone at the table, "I held up your order because your lovely friends were late," "if your friends weren't late I would have had it out sooner." All this without anyone at the table speaking to her. When she finally begins to leave, I say "unbelievable" to my friends. Hearing this, the woman turns around and exclaims "YOU'RE unbelievable!" and yells at me some more.

    All this in the middle of the full restaurant.

    Never, ever, ever again will I set a foot in this

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 7:46 AM  

  • I actually LOVE totem. I have gone at least bi weekly for over two years. I have had sushi alot of place and this place is very good. You have to take into codsideration that fish is a very touchy food and that some times textures will vary. But i have NEVER had bad service here. I know the owners annd they are both very HONEST and kind poeple. I also know they are take no BS kind of people which you sometimes need to be on a street such as Lark. I call ahead and they have my order waiting for me to sit. They are always there. ALWAYS! If Chris is not Ericka is and vice versa. I also know they have a family at home. And for one of the owners to ALWAYS be there shows a huge level of commitment on there behalf. They are open seven days also, so obviously they are not as some of you say "getting comfortable". But to each there own. I continue to go and it is always busy. So some one must be doing something right.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 3:09 AM  

  • I am from NYC and I travel to Albany for wook monthly. I think all of you should open restaurants and see how well you do. I would love to see any of you make it more then 3 months. It is a great spot and even if the owners were not nice (which they ARE SO GREAT!) you don't go there to see them. They are NOT the one's onstage. The food is. I like totem but mostly I like that someone took that old decrepid building and made it into something nice. Now I know why half of this city looks like a total getto. someone tries to do some nice small buisness and you all do nothing but bash them. I like totem and I WILL GO BACK. Best sushi and sevice this side of NYC.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 3:16 AM  

  • User Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
    by mandurss 01/19/2008
    Totem has the BEST sushi, very attractive atmosphere, and great service.
    Was this review helpful? 00 Report Abuse
    Comment on Review

    Post CommentCancel User Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
    by nini B 01/15/2008
    I love love love love totem.. Best sushi in Albany or anywhere else without a doubt.. And i read the story below but you do have to understand how many people actually like that they deal with..Its the way you may carry yourself and you cant get mad at a restaurant trying to establish there self.. They dont want bums and crack heads in the bathroom? wtf who would.,.clean up if your going out.. Good your friend isnt but what is the the 1st out of ten?? How do they know?

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 3:22 AM  

  • by mandurss 01/19/2008
    Totem has the BEST sushi, very attractive atmosphere, and great service.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 3:24 AM  

  • by jbaker0412 10/26/2007
    best sushi in albany. so much better than itchiban. the beer and wine selectons are great. it's a charming, trendy place with outstanding authentic japenese

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 3:26 AM  

  • by malone3155 06/25/2007
    sunday all you can eat: I went on a sunday night and it was all you could eat rolls. everything was very good. along with yoshi sushi in latham it is the best in the area hands done. if you go to places like ichiban or other albany japanees joints in the area you'll be pleasnatly surprised by totem. good fish at a fair price

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 3:27 AM  

  • a Yahoo! Local User 01/10/2007
    Very cool neighboorhood place: It is nice that the Lark Street area finally has a sushi and asian food restaurant. I was there on a Friday night and every table and the bar area was filled - the place was hopping. The restaurant is small and is a fairly unsophisticated operation, which frankly, adds to the charm. Totem serves beer, has a large selection of wines and serves western desserts (try their killer green tea cheesecake). I have only had the sushi, so cannot comment firsthand on the other food served, but it certainly looked good.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 3:28 AM  

  • by jcavanaugh4 07/27/2006
    Best Sushi in Town!: That says it all. Best in town and the prices can't be beat

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 3:29 AM  

  • Lark Street is one of the best neighborhoods I have ever known. The diversity of the people and the street is amazing and that's why it was the ONLY choice for us. There is rarely a time when one of us is not on the premises. We take pride in our business and our customers.

    We really do try to make sure everyone has a great experience at Totem. We love what we do and I feel it shows. Our customers have and will always be our top priority. If given the opportunity I always make it right. I would never intentionally let someone leave unhappy! As for the few unhappy customers we have had,this includes these bloggers as well. Feel free to contact me at Labellaparadiso@aol.com as I would love to address your issues. I would love for you to experience the Totem that I and Chris are so proud of. I may even pay the tab.

    Sincerely,
    Ericka Kienle

    By Anonymous EMK, at 4:24 AM  

  • Me and a few friends live about half an hour to fourty five minutes from Albany, but we try to make it out to Totem at least once a week. Ericka and everybody else there are consistantly awesome with the service.

    Of course service takes a distant back seat to food when you're talking about restuarants, and I'm also happy to say that Totem has an all around great selection of sushi, sashimi and drinks. Of course, I've got tunnel vision when it comes to the sweet potato rolls, but that's another story.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 10:37 PM  

  • I heard the owner puts up all the positive comments about Totem...and if you look, there's one at 3:20a.m., 3:22a.m., 3:24a.m., 3:26a.m., 3:28a.m., who in the world would be posting comments about a sushi restaurtant one right after the other...kind of funny! Nice try!

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 10:44 PM  

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