A surprising number of people dream about conveyor belts. I'm one of them. Having spent one summer in my teens putting labels on cans of peas, I can testify to some nightmares. But last week a conveyor belt figured prominently in the achievement of a good dream, a long-sought food fantasy the delicious and nutritious lunch that can actually be ordered, eaten and paid for during the average lunch break.
There is, certainly, a price for speed. A soothing waterfall fountain greets you just inside the door of Innsbrook's Sushi Go Round, but that, fish and chopsticks are all the Japanese traditionalism you'll get during your visit. The ambience in this strip-mall storefront seems inspired by the baggage pickup at the airport concrete floor, cheap furniture, conveyor belt and all. But if you pick a spot along the snaking counter and sit down, you'll immediately appreciate what you get in exchange for conventional sushi restaurants' gentle décor.
The food's already there. Actually, it's there and it's gone, as plates of paired delicacies and stacks of specialty rolls pass in a nearly continuous line of options. This is kaiten, the professional dream of Yoshiaki Shiraishi, who in 1958 solved a labor shortage problem by equipping his sushi bar with a conveyor belt.
But what started as a gimmick defied all critics by becoming a highly successful niche market. In Japan and San Francisco's Japantown, kaiten restaurants use boats passing on a circular watercourse to blend the technological element into the ancient ritual of this food art. At Sushi Go Round the balance is tipped toward industrial efficiency.
The open kitchen is set inside a narrow C-shaped conveyor belt onto which chefs lay their intimate creations a pair of nagari, a short stack of rolls. The items are carried off to pass within reach of the bar patrons (some regular service tables are available, but why miss the fun?). During lunch rush Sushi Go Round had two chefs working full speed, watching what was being selected by the crowd dominated by office workers.
The standards are always popular; slices of raw tuna or salmon on rice get snatched up fast. California rolls don't stick around. And it's easier to say what the heck to the unknown when it just happens to wander past your plate. On a whim, savor diminutive shrimp dumplings with scallion wontons. Try the sauce-drizzled tempura shrimp rolls and discover the spicy remoulade.
But be warned. The playful nature of this style of dining, including the camaraderie that comes from shouting out requests to the chef ("A couple unagi." "Yeah, over here too") and sitting nearly knee to knee, can distract one from the growing stack of plates at one's place; a stack that totals up both gastronomically (remember Lucy in the candy factory?) and economically.
The price list is stuck right behind the help-yourself jars of ginger and wasabi, so do yourself a favor and check it out. The prices are reasonable but vary widely ($2-$7) based on the color of the plate.
On a first visit, some sushi lovers (read: my wife) may miss the thoughtfulness and ritual of sushi dining the discerning order, the wait, the slow savor, the weighing of appetite, then ordering more. But to dwell on their absence is akin to longing for seating at a sidewalk cart.
My own critique leans the other way. If Sushi Go Round aspires to be Richmond's fastest good lunch (and it's close), I'd advise it to get up to speed. Quit seating patrons and let them make themselves at home. Replace the slow drink service with a self-service dispenser along the wall. There's no décor to ruin. Go all the way. That takes courage. It's a statement. It's about good food fast, centuries of culture be damned.
That said, here's my disclaimer: Fast food is fast food. If I worked near Sushi Go Round, I'd swing by once a week. But I don't. Traveling for efficiency defeats the purpose. And conveyor-belt food for dinner is just, well, my nightmare. S
Sushi Go Round ($-$$)
4040-H Cox Road at Innsbrook
Lunch: Monday-Friday, 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Dinner: Monday-Thursday, 4:30-9 p.m.; Friday, 4:30-10 p.m.; Saturday, 4-10 p.m.; Sunday, 4-8 p.m.