There’s something about sushi. Maybe it’s the simplicity: an itamae, a cutting board, a knife and some fish. Perhaps it’s the minimalist aesthetic. It could be the spiritual sense, the connection to tradition, the itamae’s role as chef, tour guide and confidant.
At Kula Revolving Sushi Bar (4609 Convoy St., Suite F), it’s none of that. Instead, it’s fun—lots of fun. Where the traditional sushi restaurant has a sushi chef making rolls behind a bar and handing it directly to the customer, at Kula, the sushi chefs are in the back and the sushi is delivered by an elaborate conveyor-belt system. When you see a plate of sushi you like, grab it. When you’ve eaten the sushi, deposit the plate in a waiting receptacle. Your bill is a tally of all the plates. All plates cost the same: $2.25 (with premium items, like toro and uni, consisting of one, rather than two, pieces).
Conveyor-belt sushi (kaiten-zushi) started in Osaka, Japan, in the late 1950s, inspired by conveyor belts at the Asahi Brewery. The first kaiten-zushi place grew into a 250-restaurant chain. The places are all over Tokyo now. But is it good?
The rice itself, the real mark of sushi, is certainly competent. It holds together well and is pleasantly seasoned. It lacks a bit of the glowing luster one expects from great sushi, but is nonetheless attractive. The story is the same with the fish (not top-quality product, but not bad) and the knife work. In each case, you’re getting quality that isn’t the best, but is far, far better than you’d expect from Sushi Deli or all-you-can-eat sushi spots.
The toro (fatty tuna belly) is dissolve-on-your-tongue rich. The uni (sea urchin) is not quite as good—the texture, in particular, was lacking—and definitely not worth the price tag. Yellowtail, sweet shrimp and conch were all excellent.
The Hokkaido scallops (if you ignore the fact that Hokkaido is just down-wind, and down-wave of the Fukushima nuclear plant) were even better, meltingly delicious.
My favorite item at Kula was the negitoro. It is ōtoro (the part of the tuna belly that makes the toro) minced into a paste and served gunkanmaki style—on top of a clump of sushi rice held in by the wrapping of nori seaweed—with a garnish of chopped scallions. The slight bite of the scallions perfectly plays against the richness of the tuna belly. It’s a nearly perfect bite.
Kula’s conveyor belt concept may not be connected to the Japan of yesterday, or the classic sushi bar, but it’s very reflective of the Japan of today. It is efficient, mechanized, fast, gives the eater at least the illusion of control and it creates a sense of silly fun. Kula is not the best sushi in town—it’s neither Shirahama nor Kiyo’s Restaurant (may it rest in peace)—but it’s quite possibly the most fun you can have at a sushi restaurant in San Diego.