All-you-can-eat sushi in Greater New Haven a popular local eatery option

A sushi chef prepares for the lunch crowd at Koi Sushi, 185 Main St. in East Haven.

A sushi chef prepares for the lunch crowd at Koi Sushi, 185 Main St. in East Haven.

NEW HAVEN >> When Ethan Sachs ate at an all-you-can-eat sushi restaurant for the first time with friends, he was a student at Amity High School.

Sachs, now 26, said he’s “been in love ever since.”

“Everywhere you go, the offerings are pretty standard: some small finger foods from the kitchen and a wide variety of sushi: hand rolls, maki and sashimi,” he said. “The variations between restaurants come more so in the specialty rolls, and even then, there’s some consistency.”

All-you-can-eat sushi restaurants are located all around the Greater New Haven area, such as Sushi Palace in Hamden, Orange and North Haven, Sushi X in West Haven, Yummy Asian Fusion in Wallingford, Koi in East Haven and Formosa in North Haven.

Andrew Carroll, a senior at the University of Connecticut from Cheshire, said the fixed price cost of these restaurants is a considerable advantage.

“It’s a good idea, because the cost of getting two or three rolls at a standard sushi restaurant is the equivalent cost of unlimited sushi at an all-you-can-eat sushi place,” he said.

Most of the restaurants in Greater New Haven charge slightly upwards of $20 for unlimited amounts of sushi and kitchen appetizers spanning several east Asian cuisines, with a small increase in price on weekends.

Nancy Chen, of Koi Sushi, 185 Main St., East Haven, says the restaurant does a very brisk AYCE business.

First, the price point is right.

At popular Koi Sushi, customers can eat their fill for $13.99 for lunch on weekdays and dinners for $20.99 Monday through Thursday. AYCE is $22.99 on Friday through Sunday.

“People like it because the price is low and they have a lot of choices,” Chen said.

The reviews on the Website Yelp bear that out — with 4 1/2 stars out of five.

According to a study conducted by researchers with the Cornell Food and Brand Lab, the slight markup in cost on weekends might also improve diners’ overall experience. In the Cornell study, researchers offered two identical all-you-can-eat Italian lunch buffets, changing only the cost. Overall, diners who paid the higher cost for the lunch buffet rated their food as being 11 percent tastier than the group that paid less.

Regardless, Sooriya Sundaram, also a UConn student originally from Cheshire, said the low price is the biggest draw to her.

“I can try different kinds of sushi for the same price, and I feel like a lot of people don’t really get a chance to experience how versatile sushi can actually be because they’re afraid of paying for it and not liking it,” she said. “It’s a cool concept because you can get whatever you want without the same repercussions.”

Sundaram said she believes it’s possible for someone well-acquainted with sushi and a beginner or novice to have an equally desirable experience at one of the restaurants.

“It helps people who don’t have as much of an adventurous palate,” Carroll said. “I think when you’re eating at an all-you-can-eat sushi restaurant the conversation is much more fluid. There’s less structure because the food comes in waves.”

Sachs said the all-you-can-eat sushi experience is uniquely American, which is something that became apparent during a recent vacation to Japan.

“All-you-can-eat doesn’t exist over there,” he said. “In Japan it’s very modest, with small portions of a high quality and few ingredients. In the American sushi restaurants, you’re paying for an artistic collection of ingredients where you have specialty rolls with five to seven different parts to them, whereas in Japan its usually three different ingredients in any of these rolls.”

The American unlimited sushi experience, he said, is “more of an event than a meal.”

Although most reviews of the aforementioned all-you-can-eat sushi restaurants on the website Yelp give the restaurants an aggregated average of three to four stars out of five, the occasional criticism will claim the restaurants have inconsistent service, incomplete orders or load their sushi rolls with rice as a means of filling patrons’ stomachs faster. In fact, a customer sued a California AYCE sushi restaurant because he didn’t want to eat the rice but the owner insisted because sushi, by definition, always incudes rice, the online Consumerist news site reported.

Stephen Fries, a food columnist for the New Haven Register and the coordinator of the Hospitality Management Programs at Gateway Community College, said he sees the biggest upside to the all-you-can-eat model as its made-to-order quality, as chefs make the rolls and sashimi only after they have been ordered.

“My favorite thing is not having to go up and pick an item, whether it be sushi or fried chicken, that has been sitting there,” he said. “I think it also controls how much people are going to eat; people’s eyes are bigger than their stomachs, so they pile it on and leave a lot over, whereas with made-to-order some won’t order way over their limit. It’s a little embarrassing to do that, and food costs are much better controlled in that format as well as with a better presentation.”