My recent trip to the newly opened Yuzu necessitated some research into the history of conveyor belt sushi. Nestled in Artillery Passage, deep within the confusing tangle of streets that separate Liverpool Street Station from Spitalfields, Yuzu is the second branch of a modern Japanese restaurant that has been running in West Hampstead for several years.
By day, it is a conveyor belt sushi restaurant. By night, and through clever design, the conveyor track becomes a modern counter at which diners can share plates of carefully constructed Japanese comfort food served up by a friendly French duo, the owner and his head chef, in a modern tasteful environment, with hushed trance playing through the speakers, belying the solemnity of the industrial interior.
The first conveyor belt sushi restaurant was opened in 1958 by Yoshiaki Shiraishi, a small business owner with staffing problems. Not keen to employ more people, Shiraishi was looking for an efficient way to prepare and deliver sushi in his restaurant and was inspired by automation in the Asahi bottling plant. The idea caught on and he became a sushi magnate, with a real boom starting in the 70s.
I had always thought of conveyor belt venues as being on the cheap and cheerful end of the spectrum, but found out high-end places have also used them, although apparently my impression wasn’t totally unfounded: the late 90s saw a large number of inexpensive restaurants jump on the already popular trend.
Yuzu seeks to shift this paradigm by offering a place for City workers to grab an unpretentious daytime bite of very fresh, quality sushi, but morphing into a different beast in the evening with tasteful, slow-paced dining. The lunch service is the main one of the day: when we walked in for an early dinner we were the only diners.
A bottle of crisp white wine was served up in record time and we considered the menu while munching on crispy lotus chips laced with nori salt, akin to parsnip crisps but nicer. We ended up deferring to the staff on what to eat and a long succession of inviting dishes appeared on the counter, whisked away as soon as they were finished. Similarly, the waiter surreptitiously refilled my wine and water glasses anytime I was about to empty them – the service was genuinely friendly yet ruthlessly efficient.
As for the food, not all of it was strictly Japanese, but that didn’t bother us too much: the crispy duck salad definitely seemed like an Asian mishmash at best but who doesn’t like crispy duck?
The chef’s choice sashimi that followed was not limited to the yawn inducing and featured a selection of the freshest bits available that day including yellowtail and scallops.
The sushi that followed stuck closer to the California rulebook with crunchy fillings and avocado but was fresh and appealing comfort food. We continued with a yellowtail carpaccio of sorts with ponzu jelly and coriander chilli salsa, and a divine red miso aubergine dish, which was my favourite of the night. A chocolate pear concoction, which owed more to France than to Japan, was served as a coda to the meal.
The West Hampstead branch of Yuzu seems to do a big takeout trade, which I can understand as the sushi we had was of the fried, salmony, crunchy, filling sort, that you yearn to stuff your face with when hungover on the sofa on a Sunday. The difference being that the ingredients and execution were much better than that of a standard takeaway’s, although perhaps they do things different in northwest London than in Tower Hamlets where I reside, and if you believe the news, the average food hygiene rating is so low as to make eating out perilous.
While our dinner at Yuzu was winding down to a languid stop, two tired looking city workers lurched in for food and sat next to us at the counter. The chef asked them what they wanted to eat. “Sushi,” they responded in unison. I could see a trace of resignation in the owner’s warm response, and who can blame him? Yuzu’s inventive menu has a lot more to offer. But the sushi is good there, so it’s a fine place to start.
7A Artillery Passage, E1 7LJ