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Belting It Out

The British have landed in Washington, D.C., bathed in an orange glow. But this time, they won’t be burning down the White House.

Yo! Sushi, a U.K.-anchored chain of hip, conveyor-belt Japanese restaurants, opened its first U.S. branch in Union Station last week, serving appealing plates of sushi, Japanese hot dishes and tasty salads.

The things those who have never dined a la conveyer belt might want to bring to the table are an open mind and at least a semblance of self-discipline. Yo! Sushi appears to have thought of everything else.

There are taps of on-demand filtered water sprinkled between every other seat, with communal bins of shaved ginger, soy sauce and wasabi paste always within reach. Amid candy-orange plastic ceilings and Tokyo pop art decor, friendly servers explain the ordering protocol and offer advice. Thumbing the vibrant orange-encircled panic button at each place setting changes bubble-filled light bulbs from blue to red and triggers an automated distress call — “Help! Station Four!” — that scrambles staff to your side.

In the middle of all the action are eight dedicated sushi chefs who furiously feed multicolored plates — individual portions steadily climb from $2.50 to $6 per serving, depending on the base material (vegetarian to specialty seafood, respectively) — onto the double-banded conveyor belt circling the main “bar,” while also firing up any hot dishes requested.

Staff checkers ensure the sushi doesn’t stay on the belt longer than an hour so that the food circling in front of customers is always fresh. But soon, a supervising chef from London told Roll Call, that process will be automated. Radio-frequency identification chips embedded in the bottom of the plates will prompt the conveyor belt to automatically dump dishes that have transited one too many rounds.

All the sushi rolls Americans have become familiar with whiz by in front of diners, covered with a clear plastic shell. 

Yo! Sushi’s yellowtail and scallion roll was a better-than-average tasty morsel with a hint of sweetness. The yellowtail belly sashimi was clean and fresh. A tuna roll was packed with an enjoyable zing of wasabi.

One curious inside-out number features a bronzed fritter smothered in minced tuna. We dug the duality of the warm, moist center and chilled but zesty fish.

The eye-catching rainbow roll crowns tuna- and avocado-stuffed maki with slabs of savory salmon, tuna and shrimp. It was definitely a palate pleaser.

The vegetarian sushi numbers were also well-made: Crisp, fresh-tasting asparagus and soft avocado went well together.

There was a particular spark of culinary creativity in some of the hot dishes, which are ordered from the digital-device-carrying waitstaff.

The most artful arrangement to pass our lips had to have been the takoyaki: The trio of bell-shaped bites bind together doughy meal, chewy octopus, tangy katsu sauce, creamy mayonnaise and ravishing red ginger. 

We were also impressed with a generously portioned shrimp dish. The enticing dish featured two panko-crusted shrimp logs, garnished with tangy preserved onions and balanced atop a mountain of white rice that was in turn ringed by fragrant green curry. The sauce was rich but mild, the shrimp sticks crunchy and pleasantly filling.

Meanwhile, a bowl of garlic-sesame ramen was abundant but dull. So neighboring Toki Underground has nothing to fear.

Quick and Easy

Yo! Sushi already has 75 locations, most in the U.K., and serves 3.5 million customers a year. But Union Station won’t be their only foray into the former colonies. 

A Chinatown location is in the works — perhaps opening around Thanksgiving — and further franchising and expansion in the metro area is likely.

Werner Coetzee, franchise operations manager for the company, was sitting at the sushi bar last week, supervising the final touches on the restaurant. Late into the lunch hour, the restaurant was still packed.

“We work very well in transit locations,” he said, gesturing to the bustle of Union Station.

For a quick meal, the process is, indeed, extremely easy. A hostess immediately seats customers at the bar, where they can grab a roll or a bowl of edamame and start chowing down instantly. The waitstaff is there to bring drinks, including booze. Their iced green tea was refreshing and had a light, pleasant flavor but no undue sugar.

To pay the check, a server counts your plates by color (too many of those grey ones will set you back) and uses a holstered digital device to swipe your card and instantly hand you your slip.

A full take-out menu is also in the works, which should allow a five-minute foray to Union Station to end with a bag of fresh sushi.

But if you have a bit longer, sit down and enjoy the scene. From the oh-so-bright orange plastic on the ceilings to the pop art mural on the wall to the two big-screen TVs running montages of Japanese scenes that flash by almost too quickly to absorb, Yo! Sushi is probably unlike any restaurant you’ve frequented.

“It’s quick, it’s easy, but it’s also an experience,” Coetzee said.

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Photos of the week ending July 12, 2024