Combine the adages “you eat with your eyes” and “everybody loves a parade” and you pretty much encompass why conveyor belt (or kaiten), sushi joints are so popular. And yet, despite that popularity, the island of Manhattan has had a difficult time holding onto restaurants that feature these moveable feasts. But UK-based YO! is finally bringing the revolving sushi revolution back again.
Officially opening on Thursday, March 16th, YO! will offer Flatiron District workers and tourists alike over 85 dishes ranging from sushi to izakaya and sake bar fare. Much of that menu makes its way from the open kitchen directly to your plate by way of the restaurant’s 50 foot long conveyor system — that’s 100 feet of total sushi space. Group executive chef Mike Lewis oversees YO!’s pan-Japan bar food menu, which includes not only sushi and maki, but salads and hot dishes like yakitori, katsu and ramen, as well as sake, beer and cocktails. “The conveyor belt is at the heart,” Lewis says. “The chefs are on show. We don’t hide anything. The menu is right in front of you.”
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Sporting over 70 restaurants in Britain alone, the Manhattan outpost is the seventh YO! location in the U.S., with others in Florida, New Jersey, Boston and Orange County, NY. The chain also has a dozen other eateries internationally in Ireland, Denmark, Norway, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. “We adapt [the menu] slightly for each country we’re in,” Chef Lewis tells me. “But we’re more about localizing, so whether that’s local fish that we use in the Middle East or Norway, and it’s the same with America. It’s just about making it more special for each location.” The sushi at the Flatiron YO! will include super-frozen non-endangered tuna, but also fresh Atlantic salmon from the Faroe Islands and Scotland and make its way into dishes like tempura nori tacos and ponzu-topped sashimi. For dessert, there's shave ice and a deep fried bao stuffed with ice cream and drizzeled with miso caramel.
Full disclosure, I have a major soft spot for kaiten dining. When the one (good) sushi restaurant in my hometown finally opened a second location, they installed a conveyor belt around the central sushi bar and from then on my family and I were hooked. Much like the ubiquitous fake foods displayed in the windows of many restaurants oversees, being able to actually see the food options to choose from is not only comforting, it also can inspire some adventurous eating. Fuller disclosure, I’m not a huge fan of seafood. But for some reason, I took to sushi and I would say that’s in large part to being able to pick and choose with from that conveyor belt with limited repercussions, just a couple of bucks down the drain.
To that end I was also curious about how restaurants like YO! manage the flow of fresh and… er, expired fish from the line. “The belt management part of it, it’s actually the hardest part of the job,” Chef Lewis explains. “You’ve got to gauge what [customers] are eating, how we’ve got on there, what time it’s coming off. The important bit is to make sure that variety is there for the guest.” So how do they offer everything without wasting a bunch of food? “At the beginning it’s hard because we just don’t know what will be the most popular dishes, but within a couple weeks we’ll know what to produce and when.” At YO! there’s the added safety of timestamped expiration stickers on each container for a little extra insurance.
Considering YO!’s proximity to the office buildings around Madison Square Park, the front of the house will also feature hot and cold takeaway kiosks to grab a quick lunch on the go. But as Chef Lewis points out, the beauty of kaiten dining is that even somebody with limited time can still enjoy a sit down meal by just grabbing a couple dishes from the belt. “We live by a ‘live fast, eat well’ motto as a business. If you wanted you could come in and stay for ten minutes or you can come and have a proper meal and be here for two hours. you’re in control as the guest, one hundred percent.”
YO!’s addition to the New York restaurant scene is also yet another one example of established international brands coming to America. Earlier this year, Japanese chain Ikinari Steak opened a standing-room-only restaurant in East Village and the nearby, low-priced-but-Michelin-starred Tim Ho Wan dumpling shop opened in late 2016. Ichiran Ramen has also recently brought their solo-dining flavor concentrate booths to Bushwick. To be fair, there’s also a kaiten sushi joint nestled between two escalators and just below the JC Penney at the Queens Center mall, so conveyor belts have never really left us, they were just a little out of the way.
YO! is a bit more centrally located at 23 W 23rd Street in NYC.