Plagiarized platters?

UPDATE David Lin stopped by the offices of the Press Democrat today (10/11) to show BiteClub his newly redesigned menu. Chin has made a number of significant changes to the menu–deleting several dishes that also appear on Ume’s menu as well as reordering and renaming some dishes they continue to share. Chin asserts that many of his dishes are inspired by his work with the Japanese staff at Shogun and are classic Asian dishes. Is it enough to convince loyal Ume fans?

A serious sushi smackdown is brewing in SoCo. After BiteClub’s recent write-up of Toyo Sushi Bar and Japanese Bistro in Santa Rosa, the owners of Ume Japanese Bistro in Windsor are taking serious issue with the newcomer’s menu.

Kelly Shu, owner of Ume (winner of BiteClub’s “Best Sushi”), emailed BiteClub the following message over the weekend, along with copies of both her menu (click here) and that of Toyo (click here).

It was-brought to our attention by some customers that Toyo has an almost identical menu as Ume, down to the font. It’s upsetting to learn that our effort and creation can be blatantly plagiarized. We just wanted to clarify that although the menus are the same, Ume has no association whatsoever with Toyo.

A side by side comparison of the menus did reveal some rather startling simlarities. As in exactly the same dishes in exactly the same order in several places. The “Favorites” section is listed in exactly the same order from Ankimo to Black and Blue on both menus and even the descriptions and fonts are identical. (I compared the Ume menu with my own copy of the Toyo takeout menu, just for fairness’ sake.)

And while the ubiquity of California rolls, tempura, bento boxes and even “martini prawns” (on both Toyo and Ume’s menu described as Margarita Poppers) I get, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that this case seems to go well beyond a few similarities. Hmmm.

Smelling something not quite right, I called Toyo owner David Lin, who’s been around the Japanese block in Santa Rosa. Both he and wife Lisa, he claims, have worked the local Asian restaurant circuit including Shogun and Senju. Wife Lisa, he tells me, did work at Ume.

But Lin claims Ume’s accusations of plagiarism are misguided. “They make a dragon roll. We make a dragon roll. We’ve worked in the restaurant business for many years. We all have many of the same dishes.” Lin throws a counter-point, saying that he’s been having trouble with sake distributors who say they’ll only work with Ume. “Really, this doesn’t feel good,” says Lin. “We are all Chinese. I don’t know why they don’t help me. I’m in Santa Rosa, they’re in Windsor. We’re in different places.”

For years, many chefs have taken it as a matter of course that departing kitchen staff would likely lift their signature dishes and take them elsewhere. But lifting a dish or two is one thing. Lifting nearly an entire menu, almost word for word, is another. Recently, a NYC chef, Rebecca Charles, threatened to sue one of her former sous-chefs who opened an imitation restaurant, with nearly an identical menu, less than a mile away.

So, is this a case of great minds thinking a like? Or things being a little too close for comfort? Stay tuned.