A visit to Kula Revolving Sushi Bar in Doraville is a little bit like stepping inside a sushi-themed pinball machine.
Domed dishes of edamame, nigiri and sushi rolls whir by on a conveyor belt, beckoning you to grab what you want. As you deposit empty plates in a tableside disposal chute, your “score” appears on a personalized video monitor. At five-plate intervals, the screen lights up with an animated Japanese video. Surprise!
Should your party have the appetite to rack up 15 dishes (which may sound preposterous but is easier than you think), you are rewarded with a little prize in a plastic capsule.
A novel experience that reduces the ancient art of sushi into something akin to a cafeteria or vending machine, Kula is perfect for children, sushi virgins and Japanese food lovers looking to eat their fill on a budget. You don’t go to Kula for freshness and flavor. You go for the bells and whistles.
Take a ride on this carousel of sushi (130 items are offered, though not all at once), and you’ll be rewarded with an experience that swims the middle stream between grocery-store fare and the masterful creations of Umi in Buckhead or Sushi Hayakawa on Buford Highway, which my colleague Wyatt Williams gives three stars.
Say what you will about this carnival of sushi, but you can’t call it inauthentic. Kula, which opened in July in a shopping center anchored by a Super H Mart just inside the Perimeter, is the offspring of a Japanese company that runs more than 400 locations worldwide. Now Kula (which often goes by the alternate transliteration, Kura) is in the process of growing its U.S. presence. Soon Kulas will be as ubiquitous as Toyotas.
Go ahead, call me a dilettante. But I rather enjoyed the no-frills, help-yourself format. Your server will fill you in on protocol, take your drink order, ask if you’d like a jar of wasabi or a glass of water. (Yes and yes.) Though no one bothered to tell me on either of my two stops, you can also find pickled ginger lurking in a lidded lacquer box — along with a full sushi setup: soy sauce, condiment bowls, disposable chopsticks, paper napkins and so on.
As for the beverages, there aren’t a ton of adult options. Kula offers a single beer, but it’s a solid one: a jumbo, 22-ounce bottle of Sapporo. At $6.50, it’s a good deal, too, as is the cold Hakutsuru sake at the same price.
Pick and choose wisely from among the offerings, and you can build a meal of alternating hot and cold dishes that is satisfying though rarely if ever exceptional.
Catch the restaurant when it’s busy, and you’ll find an astonishing variety of offerings on the Kula-hoop. Between peaks, the kitchen sends out less. That’s why on a slow day you’ll find more selections on the electronic a la carte menu (not just hot dishes like ramen and tempura but simple items like nigiri). And that, I think, is when you can savor the most impeccable eel, pristine crab and crunchy cucumber.
For the most part, the basic salmon, tuna and yellowtail nigiri, slivers of fish on organic rice, was adequate but never a revelation. Generally speaking, anything you get splashed with “umami oil” or ponzu sauce is delicious. If you have a taste for beef, the thin slivers of seared steak with umami oil or yakiniku sauce are delicious. The premium American beef, cooked to medium and sprinkled with fried garlic chips, was far less exciting: Skip it.
I was pretty happy with the spicy salmon crunchy roll and the real California roll (lovely pink-hued crab salad and avocado). Other items — like the spicy popcorn shrimp roll and crispy rice triangle with spicy tuna — missed the mark.
I tend to stay away from sushi that has a slick, oleaginous texture unless it’s exceptionally fresh, so after a bite of the sweet red (uncooked) shrimp here, I passed on the raw scallops and the squid tubes.
To switch things up a bit, you can order additional dishes from the video prompter, then watch them whiz to your table on the upper-tier conveyor belt. Kula’s techno gadgetry even announces your order as it arrives. Now approaching! Shrimp tempura! (Sorry to say that very tempura was overbreaded, overcooked, devoid of flavor.)
In the mood for a hot, steaming bowl of ramen? Don’t do it. I’ve had better store-bought ramen than the tonkotsu disaster I tried to slurp here. I did however enjoy the terikayi-glazed, sesame-seed-sprinkled salmon cheek I ordered a la minute.
If you have a hankering for a sweet treat, you’ll probably perk up when see the slender triangles of cheesecake, diminutive Hokkaido egg-custard tarts, chunks of watermelons, etc., glide by. Most of the pastries are pretty forgettable, but I love the sesame balls. Filled with red-bean paste, coated with nutty seeds and wonderfully chewy, they are better than any prize that might pop out of the Bikkura Pon machine that gives this restaurant its wacky appeal.
KULA REVOLVING SUSHI BAR
11:30 a.m.-10:30 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays; 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m. Fridays; 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Saturdays; 11 a.m.-10:30 p.m. Sundays. 6035 Peachtree Road, Doraville. 470-255-2071, kurausa.com.
Recommended: Garlic ponzu salmon, eel nigiri, umami oil-seared beef, real crab California roll, sesame balls.