Friday, July 18, 2008

Review: Haru Sushi, Tempe AZ

love the concept of kaitenzushi, conveyor belt sushi restuarants. At first it looks like a regular sushi bar, but there's a little belt that goes all the way around the bar area, with little plates of all different colors moving up and down the line. To start eating, you take a seat, and if something looks good, you snag it off the belt. It ends up feeling a lot more casual and social this way, and something about pulling the food off the belt before it moves too far away is mildly interesting to the normally latent hunter-gatherer part of my brain. Admittedly, this is about as close as I'm going to get to catching food while it's moving, but it amuses me nonetheless. The first place to do conveyor belt sushi in town is Sushi Eye In Motion, over in the historic district of downtown Chandler. I've been going there whenever I can practically since they've opened, which isn't nearly as often as I'd like since I live 45 minutes away. Now, there's a newcomer to the field: Haru Sushi, on the northeast corner of Priest and Ray in Tempe, not too far east of I-10. Naturally, comparisons between the two abound.

The room has two separate areas. The sushi bar has three sides, with two sides dedicated to standard counter style sushi bar seating, and the third with booths so that groups can still sit at the sushi bar. These booths do have access to the conveyor belt. I think this touch is a very nice one, and I would love to see more places in town have seating like this available. There are about six more booths available, but service at these is only from the waitress. The decoration of Haru is noticeably less trendy and hip than that of In Motion, but colors and light are bright and cheery, they made a good effort to make the place look nice with various Japanese things stuck to the wall, and you can play one of my favorite restaurant games, "Spot The Stuff That Came From IKEA". This is one of the few places I've seen that pulled off having a warehouse-style ceiling. They did it by dividing the vertical space twice over; the top third of the room vanished with a matte black paint job, and the rest of the cavernous space was bisected by enormous wicker-shaded pendant lamps. I would imagine that volume levels would be acceptable even during very busy times, as the booth seating area does have a dropped ceiling (did someone just snag both spaces in the strip mall and knock down the wall?), and I do have two quibbles over the decor; one is the flat screen TVs on opposing walls (one was tuned to Telemundo, the other to ESPN), and the other is that the radio was tuned to hip-hop station 104.7 FM. I found that hip-hop and sushi really don't go together all that well; I would have much preferred peace and quiet like one can find over at Sushi Ken.

Places are set with a fast-food issue paper napkin, and good quality wood chopsticks. We naturally took a seat at the sushi bar, and ordered hot tea ($1) and ice water. Moments later, the tea came, along with the requisite soy sauce boats (with the dollops of wasabi in them) and a big plate of pickled ginger. With equipment in hand, we dove in. I like the style they do for their conveyor belt. There is a small place marker with the name of a type of sushi, and that type of sushi follows it. This is good for someone who isn't familiar with various things; you don't really need it to tell you that shrimp is shrimp, but on the complex rolls so popular stateside (such as Las Vegas rolls, which are about six different things rolled and then fried in tempura batter), it's nice to know what they are so you can get them again if you want. It's a different system than at In Motion, where everything is scattered all over the place so you don't have to wait for one specific thing to come back around if you decide too late to grab it, but if you're curious about something you have to ask the staff what it is. At Haru, they also have a selection of other things going up and down the little catwalk, including gyoza (I promise I'll try them next time), Ramune sodas (a popular brand of soda in Japan that comes in a glass bottle sealed by a marble; if you haven't tried one, it's worth doing at least once), little pre-packaged fruit cups for the kiddies, and a couple of sweets. If there's something that you would like to try that isn't on the belt, you can always ask the itamae (sushi chef) to make something from their (very short) menu for you.

The sushi itself was merely OK. The selection was all pretty standard, not much of anything truly exotic, but it covered the bases of nigiri, hand rolls, and maki rolls. It was leagues better than what I've had at Ra and Stingray, but that's not really saying much. The rice had a proper amount of rice vinegar added to it. The fish was a step below what I'm used to at In Motion (Such deep red tuna! Such vivid orange salmon!) but was certainly acceptable; nothing showed any signs of being old. The servers were friendly and willing to help, but that was only when you could find one. For the most part, you don't really need anybody around, but beverage glasses did sit for quite a while unfilled. It looked like we came in at the tail end of a rush when there were only two servers on the floor (most of the seats at the sushi bar were empty with plates stacked up in front of them when we came in), so I should likely hold back on saying anything firm about the service until I've been back.

Thankfully, they don't charge nearly as much as In Motion. Plates range from $1.25 for simple things (such as tamago or avocado roll), up to $3.25 for the fancy rolls (Rainbow, Las Vegas, Caterpillar, et cetera). It's easy to tell the price on something by the color of the plate; white plates are the least expensive, black plates are the most expensive, with other colors coming somewhere in between. It seemed like most of the plates that were going around were either the mid-range green (this was most of the nigiri, I believe it was $1.75 for two pieces) or black plates. My friend and I both ate quite well; we had about a dozen plates stacked up, and the bill came to about $37 including the tea. For a similar amount at In Motion, the bill would likely have been close to twice that.

As for which one is better overall... Sushi Eye In Motion wins that hands-down. It's better across the board: The sushi is higher quality, the sushi chefs are more creative and know what they're doing with a knife better, the atmosphere is more fun, and the service is much more accommodating, making you feel like you've known them for ages from your first visit. However, Haru Sushi is still competent sushi, and their bargain price point makes them very hard to resist. As far as value goes... I feel that both Haru and In Motion are a very good value. Which one I end up going to in the future is going to be flat-out determined by how much money I have in my wallet when I get a craving for sushi. Since it's the slow summer season for this bartender... I'm going to miss my friends at Sushi Eye In Motion for a little while.