Olivia Potts experiences AI table service at Sakura in Cheetham Hill
I saw someone complaining on Twitter recently that all restaurant writers now just review the same places; that critics were drawn thoughtlessly to the same new openings, that restaurant criticism was becoming homogenous. Not me, I thought. So imagine my surprise when, a couple of days before I was due to go to (the not-new) Sakura in Cheetham Hill, a review in the Guardian shows Jay Rayner heading in literally the same direction.
It’s a novelty. It’s a gimmick. Kids would love this. My husband would love this. Even I sort of loved this.
But fear not, by the third paragraph of the review, Rayner realises that it is not the Japanese restaurant he is supposed to be going to, but a Hong Kong cafe of the same name in Salford. Speeding away in a taxi to the ‘other’ Sakura, he exhorts, ‘If you have been to the robot-assisted Sakura, do let me know what it’s like. I’m intrigued.’ Well, Jay, this one’s for you.
Sakura is a large, all-you-can-eat Japanese restaurant (£27.99-£28.99 per person); outside it could be anything – a sofa showroom, an office block. But inside is all mood-lighting, booths, and a riot of pink, plastic cherry blossoms.
It is also the ‘first restaurant in the North West’ to use robot waiters. Of course, I do my research before I turn up (I’m nothing if not diligent and a bit greedy). A discretionary service charge, the website informs me, will be added to my bill. What are these robot waiters using their tips for? Is one of them getting a round in at the end of service for his robot colleagues? Are they using their tronc payment to save up for the latest iPhone? To take a robot vacuum cleaner out on a date?
The robot waiters are adorable if – perhaps predictably – a bit weird. They look like a cross between a tray trolley and a roomba. Little animated cat faces light up when they engage with you, and electronic letters occasionally flash across their back proclaiming ‘staff,’ as if you might accidentally identify them as just another all-you-can-eat sushi punter. Most are formally dressed, with a tuxedo decal sticker on their front, although one is still bedecked in a red Santa outfit. They have very high pitched voices. Three times during dinner, a robot glides up to a table and starts singing happy birthday to a lucky diner, a small cupcake perched on one of its shelves. A human waiter lurks behind, because it seems robot waiters cannot be trusted with fire.
The food itself is not good, I’m afraid. There are bright spots: a snappy temaki roll is vibrant with super fresh greens and generous tuna. Amongst a bunch of forgettable nigiri, the grilled eel is fun, slicked with glossy, sweet glaze. What looks like a McDonald's hash brown, but is actually a deep-fried pumpkin cake, is gorgeous: sweet and savoury, and so compulsively crunchy it’s a good thing the restaurant was closing, or I’d have ordered six more. The masago-topped (capelin roe) gunkan maki is a delight, the eggs so tiny that they feel almost sandy before bursting in the mouth. But the crayfish and tuna tartare gunkan maki are both swamped by mayonnaise.
On the whole, it’s all a bit of a damp squib. The karaage chicken is nicely marinated but the batter is soggy. The inari – deep-fried tofu skins stuffed with sushi rice – is promisingly blistered on the outside, but turns out to be flabby. The rice is bewilderingly mixed in quality: some of it is good, but on other occasions underseasoned, sometimes cloyingly sweet, some claggy, some loose. The sashimi (charged in addition to the all-you-can-eat) is almost entirely flavourless.
But let’s be honest, I wasn’t there for the food – and if you go to the region’s first restaurant with robot waiters, the likelihood is that food hasn’t drawn you there either.
As we waited for our order to arrive, I can’t deny that there was a weird excitement to it. As each robot waiter approaches our table and then swerves away, the feeling I have is exactly the same as I had in the Pacific Bar and Restaurant on Newcastle’s Northumberland Street in 1997, where you could place your order electronically. I expect it’s the same feeling my Mum and Dad had on the Tuxedo Princess on the Quayside in 1979, when there were phones on your table which allowed you to call another table.
It’s a novelty. It’s a gimmick. Kids would love this. My husband would love this. Even I sort of loved this. My dining companion texted me afterwards with a video of the robot waiter, with one word: ‘obsessed.’
All scored reviews are unannounced, impartial, paid for by Confidentials and completely independent of any commercial relationship. They are a first-person account of one visit by one, knowledgeable restaurant reviewer and don't represent the company as a whole.
Venues are rated against the best examples of their type: 1-5: saw your leg off and eat it, 6-9: Netflix and chill, 10-11: if you’re passing, 12-13: good, 14-15: very good, 16-17: excellent, 18-19: pure class, 20: cooked by God him/herself.
Very mixed, even amongst the same style of sushi.
We’re all here for the robot waiters, but be warned that if you get stuck behind another table’s sizable order, you can be waiting for some time.
A surprisingly large number of people celebrating here on a Tuesday night – but the hard end at 10pm is a bit of a party pooper.