There’s a sushi bar in Hong Kong that’s booked out eight weeks in advance and draws huge crowds downtown for dinner seven days a week. Every night, hundreds of parties wait up for five hours for a chance to eat plates of tuna and mackerel nigiri with hot sake.
No, it’s not Sushi Masa in Central (a closely-guarded secret amongst Japanese businessmen, probably, with excellent lunch sets and and a 90-minute all-you-can-eat option for dinner). And no, it’s not Ten Zushi in Causeway Bay (where a young chef puts on a nightly omakse performance and proudly hangs his Hokkaido uni boxes on the walls).
Once upon a time, I watched a documentary called Jiro Dreams of Sushi. Towards the end of the film, Yoshikazu Ono, who seems to deftly hide the shadow of his father’s immense presence in Ginza from his balding, middle-aged face, laments that sushi has become a commodity.
“When we were kids, we didn’t always get to go to high-end places like sushi-ya,” he says to a melancholy soundtrack. “Now, there’s sushi everywhere in kaitenzushi restaurants and in bentos.” Indeed, after watching slow-motion montages of Jiro Ono fanning nori pieces over an open flame, and kneading slabs of maguro over vinegared rice to perfection, watching open plates of nigiri make the rounds on a conveyor belt was a moist, nasty slap to Mr. (Elder) Ono’s heart and soul.
But I digress. Sushiro, a major 100-yen conveyor belt sushi chain in Japan, is a hit in my hometown. According to a Japan Times interview with the CEO, Koichi Mizutame, Sushiro earns twice as much revenue at a Hong Kong location than at a branch in Japan. It aims to have 20 to 50 locations in the next 5 years.
A few Wednesday nights ago, I went with a friend to a branch in Jordan, a district known for a restaurant that purports to import milk from Australia, but, in fact, serves up fluffy egg sandwiches with a side of bitter reprimand from one of its aging male employees.
We arrived at 7:00 p.m., and then realized that there were over two hundred tables ahead of us. And we were shocked. What happened to staying home to avoid catching the coronavirus?
To cut our losses, we took the train to Whampoa Garden, a massive housing complex by the sea east of Jordan, a magnet for families from Japan in Hong Kong, and the location for Sushiro’s second branch in the city. We ended up waiting 90 minutes for a seat—but at least we got a seat. I would later check that had we stayed in Jordan, the restaurant would have closed before it could even call our number. On a Wednesday night.
Curiously, while we waited inside the shopping complex, every other restaurant there was empty. Everyone—the crowd looked like it was mostly students—wanted to endure the wait for Sushiro. I wondered why. Was it a collective “fuck you” to the other kaitenzushi chain in Hong Kong, owned by a company that, according to publicly available corporate records, (indirectly) pays millions of dollars in dividends to a puckered-up gray grape who has “given up hope” on Hong Kong’s youth? I can only speculate.
The star of the night is the nigiri. Though it’s a misnomer to call the stuff on the plates nigiri, because no-one actually needs anything. As Kazuhiro Maeno, Sushiro Singapore’s senior restaurant manager, proudly tells us around four minutes into this charming video below, the “sushi robots” do everything:
Indeed, after 90 minutes of waiting for almost anything in this world, everything is delicious. The crunchy, warm prawn tempura on a bed of rice. The lingering, silvery finish of a salt-brined mackerel, a sushi order a friend introduced me to in Nara four years ago, and from which I couldn’t stop eating since. A gunkan package of crunchy cucumber and kani crab miso. A mountain of minced tuna on an open bed of rice and seaweed. A single serving of sake—hot or cold—for just HK$16 makes Sushiro the cheapest place to get smashed in the city. And my personal favorite any time I visit a sushi restaurant of whatever caliber: a comforting bowl of chawanmushi egg custard, a silky smooth savory steamed concoction that I need to learn how to replicate at home.
What supply chain processes enable us to order servings of raw tuna belly and slices of raw wagyu‘ on rice produced from Japan for less than HK$27 each—just a few dollars short of the hourly minimum wage? What parts of the sushi craft honed over a man’s (and, unfortunately, it’s usually a man’s) lifetime is Sushiro ignoring, or, indeed, banishing from our cultural consciousness by exporting its consumer-industrial, mass-market, factory-line food production processes to Taiwan, Singapore, and now Hong Kong?
Perhaps I would have pondered these questions on any other night. But as the sake got into my brain, and a musical chime announced the arrival of a molten chocolate cake on the conveyor belt, my conclusion was, as a judge would so write to beef up his word count in a long-winded judgment: these enquiries are academic.