My dad is a sushi chef.
He used to tell me how to differentiate the good sushi restaurants from the bad ones: The modern new places might look fresh and inviting, he would say, but the ones with the truly best sushi were stripped-down and bare, randomly decorated if at all. Kurama—located in a squat redbrick strip just off Franklin Street in Chapel Hill—would fit his old-school standards perfectly. And yes, Dad, the sushi is pretty good.
Inside, little trinkets adorn both the walls and the sushi bar. A Japanese style curtain, or noren, displaying a geisha in an elaborate orange kimono, is all that separates the tallow-colored seating area from the rear kitchen. Maybe a hundred yards from the campus of UNC, Kurama's ceiling is painted in the obligatory Carolina blue hue, a color that lights up the interior when the sun shines through the large glass windows.
But there is one distinct and rare physical draw that lures customers: a large, round conveyor belt on which rolls of colorful sushi and appetizers pass between waiting customers gathered in wooden chairs and the chefs, working rapidly to keep the gray paddles that slide between stainless steel rails loaded with food. This is kaitenzushi, a decades-old system for satisfying customers not by taking and filling their orders with menus and servers but by tempting them with the actual food as it floats by. Grab what you want, and pay later.
Some conveyor belt-style sushi restaurants in New York and on the West Coast have more lavish interiors. In Japan, many even boast electronic menus beside booths. At Mizu in North Raleigh, the kaitenzushi takes the form of a train.
But Kurama was the first Triangle restaurant to incorporate kaitenzushi, and it remains the basic, economical standard. Well into its second decade, the homey, unassuming Kurama is steadfast in simplicity, much like the belt that spins at its center. It's the kind of place you could pass the day just by drinking green tea and savoring the sight of an array of sushi as it makes laps.