Geisha is one of the few restaurants I can think of that looks better during the daytime than at night.
Geisha's dining rooms are below ground level, down a flight of stairs from its entrance on Charles Street, and at night you can feel a little sad in them, as though you've been confined to the basement while adults are having a party upstairs. By day, though, the room's rusts, cherries and ambers resolve themselves handsomely along clean midcentury lines, and the ambience feels more intentional, like an executive dining room.
The whole Geisha operation just seems more suited to lunch, when separate diners tend to gather at or near the sushi bar, instead of being spread around, spookily, in dining spaces that are too big for them. The lunch menu, unlike the dinner version, makes bento boxes available, and this kind of self-contained meal - miso, salad, dumplings, tempura, and then a choice of items such as teriyaki meats or Japanese noodles - not only helps diners navigate the menu, gathering up bits of this and tastes of that; it also helps the kitchen marshal its energies. At dinner, the kitchen and the service seemed rattled, as though one too many tables had upset a balance.
I'm glad I went back and had a satisfying lunch. I returned mainly because I thought there might have been something just off about our dinner there, but also because I needed to get information from the menu. (Geisha has neither a takeaway paper menu nor a Web site, which could be another factor in keeping its profile so low - other people, not just reviewers, have come to depend on these things.)
The fundamental difference at lunch is that there's less room and time for a diner to find disappointment, which, unfortunately, is mostly what dinner at Geisha was. For one thing, it turns out that even with its extensive sushi offerings, the food at Geisha is as much Korean as it is Japanese - hot pots, bulgogi, and bimibap. On a night when things start to go not so well, foodwise, a cuisine switcheroo can seem less like a bonus than a trick, and you wonder why they're not more upfront about it. The best clue I found was the slick promotional flier that Geisha has produced that looks targeted for a tourist market - maybe Japanese sells better than Korean.
Nothing we had at dinner really pleased us, including the special rolls we ordered from the sushi bar. These sounded good - spicy tuna and crunchy tempura flakes topped with avocado and tuna, for instance - but looked tired and tasted flat. I don't doubt the positive comments I've seen and heard about Geisha's sushi. But I had time enough to wonder how a sushi bar can flourish with the erratic business that Geisha seems to do.
Appetizers from the menu ranged in appeal from a satisfactory seafood pancake to an unaccountably limp version of that old reliable yakitori and a plate of avocado tempura, which people took one bite of and left alone. The only early bright spot was a cool, crisp, vinegary (and complimentary) cucumber salad.
The only one of four entrees that worked for us was a basic chicken teriyaki, just what the person who ordered it wanted - simply prepared and modestly seasoned. A Japanese noodle entr?e with shrimp looked like the kind you get in a mall food court, a gloppy pile on the greasy side, and the shrimp were those weird little ones that nobody hopes to see. A spicy pork stir fry looked no better and had the flavor exclusively of Thai chili paste. I think, had things been going better, we might have warmed up to spicy beef rib stew, but on this night, its fearsome blood-red appearance was decidedly a turnoff. It did taste better after a spell in the home fridge.
If Geisha managed dinner the way it did lunch, with bentos or suggested combinations, it would rally, I think.
On the menu
* Spicy tuna cocktail - $9
* Avocado tempura - $6
* Seafood pancake - $7
* Spicy beef rib soup - $15
* Stir-fried pork - $15
* Chicken teriyaki - $17
Where: : 201 N. Charles St
Contact: : 410-698-6088
Open: : Daily for lunch and dinner
Credit cards: : MC, VISA, AMEX
Appetizers: : $4 - $13
Entrees: : $10 - $23
Food: : ** ( 2 STARS)
Service: : ** 1/2 ( 2 1/2 STARS)
Atmosphere: : ** ( 2STARS)
[Outstanding: **** Good: *** Fair or uneven: ** Poor: *]