Masters of (Almost) All They Convey
Kula offers sushi not as art, but as an assembly-line commodity—a good commodity, though
Kula isn’t the first revolving sushi bar in Orange County. At least three other restaurants have featured motorized conveyor belts as the mode of transportation for the raw-fish delicacies. From the jauntily popular Kura in Newport to the tiny-but-dependable Kaisen in Santa Ana and the recently departed Sushi 5 in Tustin, the formula has seen success and failure.
But right now, if you had to judge by the wait time alone, you would conclude that Kula is the only revolving sushi restaurant in existence. Come during the weekend dinner rush, and at least an hour will elapse before your name is called. To endure this wait will be painful. For one thing, the whole idea hinges on instant gratification. For another, you’ll be sitting in limbo while the sultry aromas emanating from the Diamond Jamboree complex’s other eateries seduce your nose. One minute, it’ll be the tempting scents of 85°C Bakery’s fresh-baked bread; the next, a garlicky Cantonese stir-fry from Capital Seafood
You stick with it, though, because if there’s an optimal time to visit a conveyor-belt sushi joint, it’s when it’s the busiest. But there’s also the discount pricing. While other revolving sushi bars follow a tiered pricing model, Kula levies a flat $2 per plate, which makes it as attractive to the masses as a Wal-Mart. The ardent sushi traditionalist would shudder at the thought, but their children, those who have not been spoiled by the artisanal product of masters, will love the place. That’ll be them stacking their spent plates into looming pagodas and taking snapshots of themselves flashing peace signs next to it.
This is sushi not as art, but rather as an assembly-line commodity. Gone is the sushi-chef-to-consumer interaction. Like Lucy at the chocolate factory, the sushi crew here is simply too busy to talk. Sit in one of the far booths, and you will be even more removed from the point of creation.
Other than the ice cream, the drinks, the heavily battered tempura and the hand rolls, there is no option when it comes to ordering. What you see rolling by on the treadmill is what you get. The idea is to eat a majority, if not the entirety, of your meal from the belt. If your love affair with sushi started with standard bearers of tradition at Sushi Shibucho or Hamamori, whose craftsmen cater to your every whim, a meal at Kula will start to feel like a long-distance relationship.
Nigiri slices are cut uniformly flat but not always so neat. The rice isn’t so much molded as it is clumped together. Some nori belts don’t go all the way around the sea urchin gunkan maki. Still, it’s a dutifully decadent bite for two bucks. A more ambitious gunkan maki features a raw quail egg and chopped tuna dropped into the well. Ama ebi shrimp nigiri features the sweet and slimy flesh, as well as its requisite deep-fried head—the last part alone already a good return for your $2 investment.
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The toro—zebra-striped with fat—looks like a slice from a multilayered cake but with a less-than effortless chew. Scallops can be had two ways, raw as their pink-split selves, or seared slightly by torch. And the rolls are topped with all sorts of ingredients, including avocado, jalapeños and more fish. Most will be stuffed with different species chopped to a pulp and mixed with sriracha, whereupon it will be labeled “spicy.”
If you’re going to do “spicy” anything, opt to have it this way, or as a topping to one of the crisped rice platforms. Skip the spicy hand rolls, as they seem to be made from scraps that didn’t make the cut for the nigiri—hard-to-chew, left in ragged hunks and masked by hot sauce before being crammed indiscriminately into nori cones like the gristly, inedible chum that it is.
The one exception to the rule? The salmon-skin hand roll, which is the one of the more revelatory items at Kula (next to the soybean-flour-dusted, nicely supple warabimochi dessert, that is). Consume it immediately because, though you waited an hour to eat it, the optimal crackle of the nori wrap and the confetti wisps of crisp skin won’t wait for you.
Kula Sushi Bar, 2700 Alton Pkwy., Ste. 133, Irvine, (949) 553-0747; kulasushibar.wordpress.com. Open Sun.-Thurs., 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 11:30 a.m.-midnight. Sushi, $2 per plate. Beer and sake.