Conveyor belt sushi is not a new concept to most of America, yet here -- in downtown Houston -- it's somewhat of a novelty. In an odd twist, a couple of Outer Loop restaurants were the first to bring the conveyor belt premise to the Houston area (Sushi Choo Choo opened in May 2009), while Inner Loopers are still playing catch-up.
And, sadly, Convey is not the paradigm of this concept that it could be. But it's still new, and I have faith that it can be with time.
My first experience with sushi that arrives at your table via conveyor belt was in Seattle, in February 2005. While I can no longer recall the name of the restaurant, it was old hat in the city by that point and my Seattleite friends chuckled as they watched how earnestly fascinated I was by the system, choosing plates off the line and watching as the waitress tallied them up (priced by color) at the end of our meal.
And if it was old hat in Seattle in 2005, that's nothing compared to how the Japanese must view our current fascination with a food conveyance system that was invented back in Osaka in the late 1950s. By the 1970s, conveyor belt sushi was all over Japan and improvements were steadily being made to that first system.
One such improvement was placing the seats in booths at right angles to the actual conveyor belt itself, allowing more people to sit at one "spot" along the belt at once. This is the system that I saw in Seattle and expected the same here. Unfortunately, Convey didn't go this route, and you sit side-by-side with your dining companion(s) and face the belt.
This is unpleasant for two reasons.
Number one, it's difficult to eat with a group larger than two people, as one of you will always be stuck in the middle, craning back and forth to converse over your meal. This could be solved by grabbing some spots at Convey where there are multiple seats on either side of the belt, facing each other, but there's still the second problem.
Number two, there's no actual sushi going around the conveyor belt yet. Instead, people have begun using it as a trash receptacle for their used dishes. The result is that you're stuck staring at someone's slowly percolating plates filled with half-eaten nubs of hamachi as they trundle slowly around the restaurant.
This wouldn't be an issue if Convey actually picked up the plates as they made their way past the kitchen, but even during lunch today when the restaurant was half full, that seemed to be too much to ask for the young place.
I realize, though, that the restaurant is still getting its sea legs and don't want to judge it too harshly on that point. On the other hand...seriously, guys. Pick up the dirty plates off the conveyor belt. No one wants to look at that while they're eating.
But for all of that, the sushi itself was good. My friend and I both ordered lunch specials that came with a tremendous amount of food for $12, mine with three different rolls and three different pieces of nigiri, hers with a selection of four different specialty rolls. Both came with miso soup and salad.
The soup and salad were well above average, far exceeding our initial expectations. Miso soup with fat, fresh mushrooms and plenty of green onions? A salad with crispy greens and a stunning creamy ginger-peanut dressing that tasted homemade? Convey was already batting a thousand.
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I was equally impressed by the fish itself, served room temperature and in large, well-cut pieces. The rice tasted underseasoned, however, something that was more glaring in the nigiri. It was more easily masked in the rolls, which didn't skimp on the fillings. Being standard rolls -- spicy tuna, California, etc. -- they weren't dazzling, but they were sturdy and well-constructed.
My hope for Convey is that traffic in the clean, bright, airy space picks up and it's able to use the conveyor belt as intended. It's a beautiful, calm space that does the soul some good during the busy downtown lunch cattle call at lunch.
For now, though, dinners are quiet and I fear that Convey drops entirely off people's radars at this time. Given some time, though, perhaps this will change. After all, Niko Niko's is still pulling them in night after night -- it's only a matter of time before people start branching out to Market Square's other new denizens like ERA and Convey.