GRAZING: If you are dead, eat sushi
Kura is a revolving door of tastes
Sushi revives the walking dead. Let me explain. In the mid ’80s, I moved to Houston to edit a huge glossy magazine for people with too much money. It was the most soul-sucking job of my life. I became so good at doing something horrible, I received an unsolicited job offer from Architectural Digest to write about kitchens and culinary crap. I knew the offer meant something had gone very wrong with my life. So, I began to tamper with Buddhism in quest of … something. I met a Japanese-American roshi — a spiritual teacher who taught Zen meditation, which amounted to sitting on a pillow and staring at a wall. I constantly told Roshi that I felt like I was dying. This was when all my friends really were dying from AIDS and, as I said, my soul was suffocating.
Roshi told me that, yes, I was in fact dying, that we are all dying. Whatever! Then for the next few weeks, we drove to a huge cemetery and set up camp in a luxuriously gardened section for very wealthy corpses. Our mission was to meditate beside freshly dug graves awaiting their tenants. It was actually edifying for many reasons and, I later learned, a classic practice. I guess there’s value to being at peace with death, even for 30 seconds out of an hour spent distracted by worms, ants, and the conspicuous excesses of the one percent’s dead people. The magazine I was editing was all about beauty, which I value, but it was, like the cemetery, largely focused on material beauty. I didn’t want to die feeding rich consumers.
A breakthrough occurred when I joined three other students for the famous tea ceremony. Everything about it reveals — perceptually more than intellectually — the natural beauty in which we are always present. Before you sip the shared green tea (made with matcha), you eat a few sweet pastries that contrast with the tea’s bitterness, effectively piercing the binary cluelessness that can seriously fuck up much of life. All of the ceremony’s implements, like raku pots, were beautiful but not ornate to my eye. There is great value in this ceremony when taken seriously. Once COVID isn’t so much an issue, find one. I’m sure the Atlanta Soto Zen Center can help you out.
So, one day, our teacher told us we were going to have a few snacks before the ceremony began. The snacks were small plates of nigiri sushi, which he prepared. Although a longtime foodie, thanks to my mother, I’d never eaten sushi more than a few times and had found it pretty grim. But the roshi’s fish gleamed with absolute clarity of appearance, flavor, and texture that was heightened by contrasting rice. It incorporated everything I was trying to learn. Is it odd that this culinary experience paradoxically told me to decline that job I’d been offered? It didn’t really matter since the low-ranking editor told me, “That’s good. We were going to withdraw the offer anyway. We found out you don’t drink.” Sobriety is so generous.
My experience is not particularly unique. My friend Rose, who lived on a boat for a few years, is addicted to sushi and has told me her three-minute enlightenment occurred when she encountered the highly prized uni sushi. Although everyone says uni is sea urchin roe, the authentic stuff is actually the creature’s sex organs. If anything on the planet can meld the literal physical sensations of the ocean with Freud’s interpretation of “oceanic feeling” as an unbounded experience of the world, it’s uni. I know that sounds fishy, but trust me.
Since it was Rose’s birthday last month, Wayne Johnson and I decided sushi — uni or uni-less — had to be her birthday meal. We weren’t sure where to go. I asked around, and a friend proposed a place I found irresistible and had wanted to visit for the few years of its existence here: Kura Revolving Sushi Bar. Basically, the deal here is that you sit next to a constantly moving conveyor belt loaded with sushi on green-swirled plates within clear domes. In other iterations, the sushi can be conveyed in little boats or trains. The temptation is to assume this method of service is silly American commercial theatrics — but no. There are over 400 Kura Sushi Bars alone, mainly in Taiwan and Japan where the style first appeared in 1958. Called kaitenzushi restaurants, their purpose is completely practical. It is fast-food sushi — cheap with pared-down service, and, just as Ronald McDonald does not serve the very highest grade of beef, the kaitenzushi’s sushi is not sublime. Good sushi, as you know, is expensive wherever you are in the world, so the kaitenzushi style’s most lucrative periods have been during economic downturns, like the present. Kura is one of many restaurants, including the delectable Snackboxe Bistro and Shoya Itzakaya, in the gargantuan H Mart complex in Doraville and was by far the busiest there on a Sunday night.
We luckily hit a pause in the lineup to the wait-list kiosk just inside the door. If you are one of those people who still cannot easily buy a ticket from a parking meter, you might find the kiosk daunting. No worries — the slightest hesitation will cause an employee to barge in front of you and push the right buttons. That was a strong indicator of what was to come. We were rushed to a table, and the system was explained at the speed of an auctioneer. When the guy was done, the three of us were stupidly staring at one another, heads bobbing. He demanded to know what we wanted to drink and ran off before we could ask further questions. I made my first note about the place on my phone: “Roshi sushi is dead. No enlightenment foreseen.”
During the server’s rather lengthy absence, we looked around. Basically, there are two seating areas. One is a bar where you sit side-by-side. The larger area is all booths that are perpendicular to the conveyor belts, meaning that if there are more than two of you, fetching the sushi plates requires a group effort. The server came back and pointed at a tablet slightly above the table. “You can order there too.” Huh? Bye. It turned out that you can indeed order sushi as well as some cooked dishes via the tablet. They are propelled to your table via a separate conveyor belt above the main one. We figured this out just before we left, so we didn’t eat anything much besides nigiri and rolls. I strongly suggest you take that route.
We watched the globes containing the plates briskly pass our table. I begged a server to explain the process again. She said to press a lever on the globe and pull out the plate. After you eat the sushi, you deposit the plate in a slot which contains some means of keeping track of your bill. Every plate on the conveyor belt costs $2.60. Fine. It was all good because I was by this time in a complete state of disassociation — exactly the opposite of Ram Dass’s demand to Be Here Now. I had no idea what we were doing, and the task of removing the sushi from the belt was left to the most voracious of us, Rose. She — we — repeatedly missed the lever to pop open each globe and would yank the whole thing off the belt, as the server said we could. Nobody told us that each globe was attached to a second globe. You don’t have to also eat what’s in the second globe because you are going to return the linked pair to the belt. Are you following me? At this point, I made another salient note: “Ethel and Lucy attempt to wrap chocolates on a conveyor belt.” That’s a reference to an episode of the I Love Lucy TV series.
Well, what about the sushi itself? This inspired my third note: “Bleach sparkling.” I will not name names, but there used to be a high-volume sushi bar in town whose fish was so on the verge of spoiling that it was allegedly rinsed in a solution containing bleach that guaranteed the fish would have, at best, no taste. Kura’s sushi was certainly better than that, but I can say with no hesitation that both Kroger and Publix sell a better product. I rapidly gave up any effort to identify each plate of sushi that Rose pulled from the conveyor belt. I did notice salmon skin. I love salmon skin sushi. I mean I used to love it. I noticed a plate of conch coming our way and demanded Rose grab it. I love conch. It’s all about weird umami of the sea and a hopefully only slightly chewy texture. Oh well. My next note: “Bullet.” If you were about to have your arm amputated with no anesthesia and there was no bullet around for you to bite on, this conch would work as well. There’s more! How about nigiri featuring a tiny slice of wagyu? My note: “Mysterious and elite Spam.”
Was anything good? Yes. Stick to basics like tuna and salmon in rolls or nigiri, and you’ll be okay. But even then, you’re going to encounter that slightly grainy texture that whispers, “We are all dying.” I think our experience was greatly affected by our seating. The long conveyor belts are perpendicular to the kitchen. We were seated in the booth farthest from it. That meant most of the containers rolling by us were empty. If you’re familiar with sushi, you know you can spot the good stuff much of the time. We were getting the other diners’ rejects. Ask to be seated closer to the kitchen. If that doesn’t work, use the tablet above your table to order. You’ll spend a bit more, but you’ll be happier.
We left in search of sweets, but the shop where I’ve usually grazed on sugar there was closed. It wasn’t Rose’s happiest birthday dinner — there was no uni — but I’ll stop by MF Sushi on my way to see her next time … or Publix. —CL—
Kura Revolving Sushi Bar, Unit A107-A110, 6035 Peachtree Rd, Doraville, GA 30360. kurasushi.com/locations/doraville-ga @kurasushidoraville
Chef/owner Mimmo Alboumeh prepares a paella special every Wednesday at Botica on Peachtree in south Buckhead. As far as I can tell, there is no cheating in the dish’s traditionally long prep time. It brought back a tidal wave of nostalgia for all the time I spent in Spain two decades ago. I happened to score the dish at a late lunch, but it’s officially only available at night. I suggest you call ahead (404-228-6358) to make sure it’s available — the type varies — but you’ll not be disappointed, whatever you order here. This “serving for one” was $20 and feeds at least two normal human beings — and I am sometimes told I am not normal. Eat the flower.
I really hate the way everyone now substitutes the words “I like...” with “I’m obsessed with...” but I’m obsessed with Masti in Toco Hills. I had my first meal there in a couple of years recently and this dosa keeps coming to mind. Rip off pieces of the thin rice-flour pancake and scoop up the perfect butter chicken under it. The menu at Masti, which means “fun,” is playful to say the least. Some dishes marry forms and flavors — try a burger — and hardly anything fails. Our server, btw, was a funny young guy from Nepal who spoke perfect English. Like most dumb Americans, I presumed he had immigrated here to find a better life. “No, no. I will return to Nepal. Of course.”
The Cabbagetown restaurant, which specializes in take-out and delivery meals, also now operates
Justacos, 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Tuesday- Saturday. I tried three tacos recently. The juicy fried oysters was my fave,
followed by the deliciously seasoned, crunchy pork belly. The server talked me into the third, a hard-shell taco
that the menu describes as “Taco Bell-ish.” I told him I hate hard shell tacos but, as it turned out, I would have really liked this one if the filling were left out. It’s that stinky-seasoned ground beef stuff that resembles the Varsity’s chili. That’s not to say you won’t love it, but I’m going for the fried shrimp, the Vietnamese pork, and the Kung Pao next visit. The tacos are $4 (oysters are $4.50) and they’re kind of small. Just pretend you’re delicate. 186 Carroll St., 404-549-9843, justacosatl.com.