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Friday, March 22, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Neighborhood Deals

Bargain sushi makes the rounds at Azuma

Special to The Seattle Times

Azuma Kaiten Sushi


900 S. Jackson St., Suite 218, Seattle, 206-264-0447

Japanese

$$

Recommended

Hours: 11:30 a.m.-9 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays, 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 3:30-9 p.m. Sundays.

No obstacles to access (elevator) / MasterCard, Visa / beer and wine.

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Imagine you're at the baggage claim at Sea-Tac. It was a long flight and you're hungry. Hundreds of suitcases snake by, none of them yours. Your mind wanders. You wouldn't be the first to daydream about replacing all the bags with plates of food to snatch and gobble at will. Plates of something luxurious and bite-sized. Something like sushi.

That's pretty much what a kaiten-style sushi restaurant is. Sushi glides by on a conveyor belt. Take whatever you like. The price is determined by your stack of empty, color-coded plates. Most pairs of nigiri (seafood on rice) are on blue $2 plates or purple $3 plates, and edamame (soybeans) and cucumber rolls are a mere $1 (white plate).

The newest kaiten in town is Azuma, on South Jackson Street near the I-5 overpass.

It's on the second floor of a Chinatown International District shopping center. You could almost miss it from the street if it weren't for its enormous sign.

You're welcome to select any piece you see coasting by, and the chef will also prepare whatever you select from the menu. (Even the items you order will be placed on the belt for you to remove. What keeps someone else from snatching your food? This is unclear.) The more people sitting at the bar, the more fun you will have at Azuma — it's buzzing until late on weekends but, on a Tuesday night, the clack of the belt echoed forlornly.

Enough about the gadgetry. How's the food? Pretty good. The cuts can be a little rough — a maguro (tuna) slice arrived in two pieces — but the fish quality is good for the price. Deep-fried items are variable; a shrimp tempura roll was light and crisp while an order of gyoza (dumplings) arrived greasy and flavorless.

Sit at the bar long enough and you'll start to imagine other uses for the motorized belt. What if I brought some homemade cookies and sent them around? Would anyone claim them? And the similarities to the baggage claim kept presenting themselves, like that last lonely bag or cucumber roll that keeps going around and around.

"Wait," interjected my dining companion. "I've got an idea. They should run the belt so fast that the sushi just flies directly into my mouth. Or maybe I should ride around on the belt and ... " As he began wondering aloud about the feasibility of extending the belt into the pho place downstairs, I turned back to my nigiri.

The conveyor belt is a gimmick, of course, but it's a whole lot of fun.

While Azuma's food doesn't stack up against the top sushi bars in town, neither do its prices, and the fish is good enough to make the experiment a success. Can espresso kaiten be far behind?

I'm not sure if Azuma will be worth the trip once the novelty wears off, but I'm easily entertained and will probably drop back in for lunch. And now I've got to run — a joyriding cookie just went by.

Check please

Spicy scallop roll: Slices of fat cucumber roll are topped with slices of raw scallop, a bit of roe and a squirt of hot sauce. Tough nori made it messy to eat, but the flavors came together nicely.

Chicken-pork gyoza: Even the dipping sauce couldn't wake up these greasy, dense dumplings. Isn't gyoza supposed to be pan-fried, not deep-fried?

Various pieces of nigiri sushi: Salmon was pink and tender, maguro cut a bit carelessly. Striped bass was firm and mild, but I'm not confident that I could tell the bass from the tuna if blindfolded (me, not the fish). It's hard to go wrong with eel, and the worst thing you can say about the unagi here is that it's unsubtle, with a sturdy slice drenched in sweet sauce. The rice is overall a bit low on spring and cohesion.

Itemized bill, meal for two

Sushi and gyoza: $23.00

Tax: $2.14

Total: $25.14

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