As much as New Yorkers love a food gimmicks, it seems improbable that we didn’t have a conveyor belt sushi restaurant.
That changes on March 16, when the first New York location of British chain YO! Sushi opens at 23 W. 23rd St. in the Flatiron District, next to Eataly. You simply walk in, get seated and start grabbing color-coded plates of sushi, specialty rolls, sashimi, salads and anything else that looks good.
The color tells you the price, between $3.50 and $8, each a generous portion — three plates should be more than enough for lunch. Each dish is timestamped; the belt is checked every 15 minutes to make sure raw fish spends no more than an hour in transit, vegetable dishes three hours.
Don’t neglect the menu though. YO! is celebrating 20 years of motorized sushi and their biggest opening yet, so there’s much more than raw fish on offer. Of the over 80 menu items, about 30 are new for this location, many of them hot.
“We’re trying to make Manhattan different, so it is about celebrating all the different kinds of food and regionality and the izakaya spirit of sharing,” says executive chef Mike Lewis. “We’re actually calling it just YO! because it is a little bit confusing.”
Lewis takes frequent trips to Japan and has been building up the new menu over the course of two years by sampling not just restaurants but street stalls and even Japanese home cooking. The wide-ranging menu dips into giant, pillowy baos ($5-6) with fillings like kimchi salmon, a light-but-rich yuzu chicken ramen (think a Japanese twist on chicken noodle soup, $10), the instantly addictive katsu sando with fried chicken thigh and karashi mustard ($6) and sushi tacos made with crispy fried seaweed shells ($5-6).
The arabiki sausage is a delight among the tempura offerings, as are the premium aburi sushi (really, sashimi) that don’t make it onto the conveyor belt that get a light sear with a blowtorch. The menu claims it deepens the flavor; I say it was like tasting tuna for the first time (no, they don’t ever use the endangered bluefin).
The irony of Yo! might turn out to be that while conveyor belt sushi is meant to get you in and out quickly in Japan, New Yorkers may find themselves lingering over the novelty of the presentation. The soothing trundle of plates in front of you — the conveyor belt runs past every seat — and the 10 chefs constantly preparing new dishes in the open kitchen that runs the length of the restaurant can turn into a leisurely meal.
Plus, there’s bottomless miso soup ($3.50!) and a full bar including cocktails and Japan’s iconic One Cup Sake. And we haven’t even gotten to the small mountain of shaved ice, syrup, condensed milk, ice cream and fresh fruit that is their kakigori dessert, as well as rotating pastries of the day. If only our stomachs could keep up with that conveyor belt.