Joss Cafe & Sushi Bar: Goodbye, old friend…

This downtown Annapolis mainstay continues to grow in size and popularity

Everyone has at least one: a go-to restaurant you adore, that serves as the setting for everything from special occasion dinners to a sweet little lunchtime or after work diversion.

For us, that’s been Joss Cafe & Sushi Bar in historic downtown Annapolis. Joss is Japanese seafood shanghai la; the place where our entire family lost its collective sushi virginity. (And let’s face it: we ALL remember our first time, don’t we?)
Since 1995, Joss was our setting for countless birthdays, anniversaries, and business deals, offering fresh, mouth-watering sashimi and nigiri, dee-lish rolls, tempura, and the best miso soup we’ve ever tasted. Over the years we watched Joss grow up, from the tiny little spot on Main St that previously housed French fave Cafe Normandie back in the 80s, through numerous expansions and the addition of a 2nd location in Baltimore. It’s long been our spot to impress out of town guests, as well as our top GB recommendation for anyone visiting historic downtown Annapolis.

Here in 2013, the good news is that the Joss fare remains as marvelously and consistently good now as it was in the beginning. But beyond that, Joss has sadly matured into an absolutely unforgivable mess when it comes to customer service, trending further and further south of competency on each of our last several visits.

Mrs Bunny and I stopped in recently, on our way home from an O’s game, the lure of the food and our long history with the place more than enough reason to look beyond recent disappointments there. Saturday summer evenings are always insane in Naptown, but we found parking without too much cursing, close by on State Circle, and walked over to see the usual crowd out on the sidewalk, waiting for a table. Joss has fastidiously never taken reservations, but in the old days, you could give them your name and then pop down a few doors to Castle Bay Irish Pub for a pint or two and someone would eventually come down and get you when your table was ready. The volume Joss does these days makes that concept an impossibility now, but you’d think that amidst all of their multiple build-outs they’d have added their OWN bar at some point for patrons waiting on a table. And you’d be wrong.

We were told that the wait for two would be about 15-20 minutes, and then hastily directed to the “waiting room”, as if we were visiting the dentist. Picture a back room full of hungry people all doing a Pavlovian drool stare at their menu slideshow on the small wall-mounted TV.
Cocktails are technically available before you’re seated, but you order them at this funky server stand thing on the opposite side of the restaurant from the designated waiting area, and someone eventually delivers them to you (in theory). Honestly, the whole waiting ordeal is just plain wacky, and ripe for improvement. Bear in mind that the entire original dining room now serves as just the hostess foyer, and said waiting room is now what was the first expansion’s added dining area. In other words, there’s plenty of room for a proper bar, but instead it’s a head-scratchingly dismal use of available space.

So, after what turned out to be 40 tortuous minutes of staring at delicious color photos of the food were were craving, the hostess finally came to get us. “Is the sushi bar ok?” she asked as she led us there. “Do we have a choice?” I asked. The hostess didn’t answer. Perhaps she didn’t hear me.

Joss’s sushi bar is cramped. I don’t mind intimate, but it felt like the woman next to me was practically sitting in my lap. But whatever. Just bring on the yummies.

Our server greeted us and turned our drink order around quickly. Unfortunately, that was her high moment. The 40 minute waiting room visit had been more than enough time to decide what we wanted to eat, so we grabbed a pen and filled out our sashimi and roll checklist as soon as we were seated: Spring Roll Salad (which is less like a salad and more like big hand rolls) with crab stick, avocado, and an exquisite orange yum-yum sauce that’s to die for, Key West Roll (spicy conch w/avocado), Alaska Roll (salmon, crab, avocado), and crunchy tempura shrimp roll, plus tuna, fresh water eel, and conch sashimi. Oh yeah. Our server continued to pass us by as I sat there with the ready-to-go checklist in hand. Finally, I literally held it out in front of her as she was cruising past yet again, getting her attention like a State Trooper stops a speeding Corvette, and instructed her that we wanted the salad first, as an appetizer.

spring roll

Spring Roll Salad. We could bathe in that sauce.

 

And technically speaking, it did arrive first. Not long after ordering, another server dropped it off between us and disappeared, no side plates, nothing. Yet before we could even discern how to logistically manage the appetizer our sushi showed up, but this time we were quick enough to ask for side plates before they ran off.

So there we were, cramped space and two hefty platters of food, trying not to elbow-check the diners next to us as we dug in. Once again, the food was Goddess-worthy. The sashimi was perfect, not fishy in the least, with a nice snap to the conch, and the tuna sweet and meaty. The spice of the Key West roll had real pop, but not overbearing, while our Crunchy Shrimp was lightly battered and crispy, if a tad on the salty side.

Nonetheless, it wasn’t long before the sodium, spice, and wasabi kicked in and we needed another round of drinks. Mission Impossible. For all we knew, our server had gone back to school for her Master’s Degree since we’d ordered dinner. We literally never saw her again after I gave her our checklist. No stop by to make sure the order was right, no check in to see how we were doing. Nada. Hell, we made it all the way through dinner and were sitting there, dirty plates and glasses before us, for a good 10 minutes with no contact from anyone, even though the dinner rush had clearly died down by then. Me, I was morbidly curious as to how long they’d actually leave us hanging, but Mrs Bunny took a more pro-active approach, stopping a passing manager and heatedly expressing our disappointment like an AK 47 burst. His response after her barrage? “Oh…ok.” And he walked off, perhaps to join our server in search of post-grad education. We don’t know; we never saw him again either.

desert

So…..thirsty…..

If we didn’t know better, we’d guess that Joss had only recently opened, and had yet to put a concerted customer service training program in place. That’s how brutally and shamefully disorganized it was.

So we headed over to that silly server stand thing where you order drinks while you’re waiting, got our check (from yet ANOTHER server), paid it, and left behind the mess that used to be one of our very favorite noshes on the planet. Never again.

RIP Joss. We shall miss you.

man woman hands holding broken heart

GB Quickie: Lewnes Steak House is pretty close to perfection

We decided upon Lewnes Steakhouse on the Eastport side of downtown Annapolis for our anniversary dinner, on a monsoon-laden Friday nite last week.

Lewnes Steakhouse in downtown Annapolis is world class prime.

Heidi raised a good question, over the first glass of wine.

Why are the best steakhouses called “houses” and not merely “restaurants”?

Honestly, I have no idea. But after we each took the first bite of the medium rare, USDA Prime Petit Filet and NY Strip in front of us, they could’ve called it a Steakbrothel for all we cared. The food, the intimate atmosphere, and the service were THAT fantastic, to the point where I started making those annoying-yet-involuntary “mmmmmmmm” noises that always seem to emanate from Adam Richman on “Man vs. Food”.

Yes, the food and wine were so good, it was borderline decadent. The only thing that wasn’t up to snuff was the pecan pie I attempted for dessert. Our waiter confirmed that it was freshly made at a local bakery over in St. Margaret’s, yet on the bland and tasteless side. Heidi’s Key Lime Pie on the other hand, was truly Florida-worthy.

Likewise, the service was equally impressive. From the front desk to the busboys, there was an air of engaged professionalism, yet with a natural “human” element that was thankfully never stuffy.

In all, Lewnes Steakhouse was one of the best meals we’d had in some time, and to our minds, made the Ruth’s Chris on the next block seem like a poorly-run Sizzler. It was on the expensive side ($175 before tip for two entrees, one shared salad, one shared side, two desserts, a bottle of wine, and one cocktail, but we’re already looking forward to returning.