A few local Japanese restaurants function as de facto izakayas — i.e., pubs that serve a nice variety of small plates. Go to Sushi Yoko in Norcross, Hashiguchi, Jr., in Buckhead or Sushi House Hayakawa in Doraville, and you will find a supplemental menu of “appetizers.” Sushi remains the star attraction in all three restaurants, but some savvy diners skip right to the list of steamed, grilled, boiled, fried and variously skewered dishes and make a meal of them.
Shoya Izakaya, which opened last week in Doraville, has inverted the equation. A sushi bar fronts this restaurant, but it doesn’t make the marquee. The real action takes place in the bilevel space beyond the sushi bar, where guests contemplate a menu of more than 120 small dishes, and a drinks list that reads like a breath of beery air from a Japanese entertainment district.
I grabbed a couple of dining companions and checked it out last Friday, unaware that the restaurant had only been open three days. We chose to eat in the darkly paneled back room in a deep booth with a view of the open kitchen and grill. These booths would be perfect for a party of six.
The owners smartly waited for their liquor license to open, since izakayas are by nature places to drink. Since the aforementioned dining companions were not yet of drinking age, I passed reluctantly on the draft beer served in a beautiful, rough-hewn ceramic pitcher. The menu lists a half-dozen country sakes and good dozen varieties of shochu — the strong, clear distilled liquor usually flavored with sweet potato, wheat or buckwheat.
I got a lime chu-hai (translated as “hi-sour” on the menu) — a shochu cocktail made with soda and lime-flavored syrup. This was a favorite from my days as a 22-year-old English teacher in Japan. Next time, I’ll get a nama version made with freshly squeezed citrus juice. I recall grapefruit being especially good.
Then we started ordering plates. The trick is to order a variety of both ingredients (fish, meat, vegetable) and cooking method (steamed, grilled, fried, raw). If you go, please don’t order like an American and fill your table with food off the bat. It’s so much better to stagger things — three or four dishes for the table to start, then another dish or two here and there as appetite and curiosity dictates. Try to sustain some small sensation of gnawing hunger until the end of the meal because that is the best way to appreciate izakaya food.
The menu here is a smart mix of original and classic izakaya dishes. Some of the food has enough crossover appeal to entice your grandmother in Wichita; other dishes are more challenging.
You will surely not be able to try everything you want to on the first visit. Among our favorites:
As I said, the trick to appreciating this meal is to hold on to a modicum of hunger throughout the meal. But, of course, you don’t want to walk out hungry. Satiety is your goal. That’s why izakayas often list noodles and rice dishes toward the end of the menu. We opted for this seafood zosui ishi-yaki — seafood mixed with eggs, rice and broth in a superheated stone pot that sets the eggs. The plain, clean flavors and frank bulk of this dish appealed immensely to our 11th-hour appetites. The broth had the smoky depth of good dashi broth, good enough that I’m eager to try the udon and soba noodle soups here. I also appreciated the chef’s light hand with salt — all the better to let umami drive the flavors.
Shoya is for now the sole tenant in a new mall that will supposedly be anchored by new branch of Super H Mart. Look for it behind the Brands Mart USA.
Shoya Japanese Restaurant: 6035 Peachtree Road, Doraville. 770-457-5555.