By Laura Reiley
Times Food Critic
When does a gathering become a party? Is it purely numeric, or is it more about energy and mood? Either way, what's going on in the courtyard of the Plaza Tower building has crossed that line: It's a party.
The Ale and the Witch, Sab Café and Wine Madonna have anchored the recent revival of this business cluster just a block from BayWalk, but there are more showing up at the wingding all the time. El Metate Mexican Grill opened on the second floor of the building in October. As it stands, it will have to work harder to lure the courtyard's throngs of customers upstairs. But brand new Rollbotto Sushi, which held its grand opening last weekend, offers plenty of reasons to extend the party past the courtyard and across First Street NE.
Rollbotto brings St. Petersburg the first taste of a new trend sweeping Japan: robot chefs. At the most recent Tokyo Robotics Expo it was clear that much of Asia is anticipating a labor shortage, especially in the service sector. Partly for that reason, and partly because it's just so dang cool, there are now Japanese ramen houses presided over by robots and robot servers in Korean restaurants.
Rollbotto's robots don't look exactly like something from Lost in Space. In an industrial room shiny with chrome, Rollbotto is an order-at-the-counter, pick-your-own-ingredient sushi bar. At one end is a big square robot box that, in the blink of an eye, spreads the sushi rice on the nori. Then humans do the filling and rolling and another robot box finishes things up by neatly slicing the long rolls into 10 perfect futomaki (those are the fat rolls) slices.
If I were giving Rollbotto owners Max Silavutiset, Hoa Ly and Crystal Nguyen a bit of advice, I'd suggest turning those machines around so customers can watch the razzle-dazzle. If you're going to import an AUTEC Maki Master from Japan at great expense, flaunt that baby, make it part of the show.
Sushi is the way to go here (ancillary items like miso soup and potstickers are forgettable), either from the lineup of signature rolls or those of your own devising. Bins a la Subway pack the nuts and bolts, from proteins like grilled eel and sweet tofu, to veggies like spring mix and asparagus. Then there are sauces (Sriracha, ginger dressing, spicy aioli) and texture bits (sesame seeds, tempura chips).
Presentation is fairly no-frills, rolls served on paper plates with a "condiment bar" for you to round up your own soy sauce, wasabi, pickled ginger and such. But the prices reflect this, none of the large signature rolls creeping past $10, even for the fully loaded and topped versions like "the overload" ($9.95), a hootenanny of tuna, grilled eel, cuke, green onion, crunchy tempura bits and a dab of smelt-roe-dotted crab salad. All rolls contain two ounces of protein, additions priced by the ounce. And if you're not in the mood for nori, or even for white rice, soy paper and brown rice are options for just a bit more (as is a salad of your favorite sushi ingredients on a bed of lettuce, $3.95).
Rollbotto isn't stocking big-ticket fish species. It's the basics, but well rolled and accompanied by a broad lineup of Japanese beers and domestic craft brews. The overall feel of the place is hip and youthful, a nice spot for a post-courtyard nosh.
Despite the occasional mariachi band, El Metate is a harder sell. It took over the space of Zapata's, another Mexican restaurant, doing a perfunctory renovation that leaves the space a hodgepodge of murals and stained glass and disco-ish mirrored ceiling tiles. Tabletops tend to be sticky, and hand-numbered white stickers inelegantly label each table for servers' convenience. The servers themselves are a mixed bag, from utterly clueless to reasonably efficient.
It's a big restaurant, often underpopulated even while the courtyard below is booming. The culprit: what's on the plates. Meals begin with nice tortilla chips and pleasantly piquant salsa served in little carafes, but things go downhill from there. Soft refried beans, Mexican rice, guacamole and shreds of iceberg recur on many plates, all of it pedestrian. Tacos and chile rellenos are filled with bland ground beef. In a town that is increasingly crowded with tacos worth a little excitement, El Metate has got to step it up if it intends to stick around.
It offers affordable and ample draft beers ($2.50-$5.95) and margaritas from the regular ($5.25) to the absurd (60 ounces for $24), but it's the basic building blocks in the kitchen that might keep El Metate from joining the party.
Laura Reiley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2293. Reiley dines anonymously and unannounced. The Times pays all expenses.