There are any number of Japanese restaurants around town that serve what can be called an izakaya menu — i.e., a vast list of small plates made for passing, sharing and washing down with an alcoholic beverage of choice. An izakaya is a kind of pub, and so the menu should reflect the demimonde of drink, or what Japanese call “mizu shobai” — the “water trade.”
But Shoya Izakaya broke out of the pack when it opened in spring 2009 because it was more than just a menu — it was the real deal. A loud, fun, modern-style izakaya zinging with boisterous energy. Plates clatter and pile up on rustic wooden tables. Beer foams up in ceramic cups, sake splashes, and the hapi-coated staff shouts “Irrashaimase!” whenever anyone walks in.
Now that izakayas are starting to have more crossover appeal, more and more Japanese restaurants are taking the plunge and introducing their customers to a style of dining that is, frankly, more popular in Japan than sushi bars. The latest is Sushi Mito, a Norcross spot that unveiled a full-tilt-boogie izakaya menu three months ago. Look for a hundred or more items on the menu (and a full page of seasonal specials), a fantastic selection of sake, cocktails made with shochu and — the biggest surprise of all — an incredibly thoughtful wine list. Dry rieslings, floral Spanish whites, dry roses from around the world, prosecco and white Bordeaux: am I seeing straight? And what about those 99 cent draft Japanese beers? Even if it looks like just another semi-fancy Japanese restaurant in a strip mall, this place clearly understands the water trade.
Here’s another surprise: the kitchen is headed by Seiko Kusaoka and Koji Kakuda — the duo that long-timers will remember from South Buckhead’s Imari, and long-long-timers will place back to Shiki in Duluth. These two guys know their way around traditional Japanese cuisine. Kusaoka-san can even fashion formal kaiseki meals on spectacular serving dishes.
But we came for the izakaya menu, and we loved what we found:
Nasu pimento ($4.25): Eggplant and peppers stir fried in a sweet, zippy miso-pepper sauce. Absolutely delicious.
Meatballs ($5.45): Beef and pork, in a sweet soy glaze. Japanese meatballs are typically made with a fair amount of breadcrumbs and can be quite light and soft as a result. These were more firm — not bad but not my favorite.
Yaki-onigri ($3.75): A well-seasoned, grill crisped rice ball with eggplant pickles on the side. It was memorable, but I think for the price they might throw in a second rice ball.
Butabara ($3.99): Skewered pork belly, seasoned with only a little salt and pepper. In typical Japanese fashion, it is simply cut thick and grilled. You may find the meat tough and the fat blubbery, or you may appreciate the textural striations.
Saba shio ($7.50): The best salt-grilled mackerel I’ve eaten in Atlanta. The oily meat pops with juices and the skin crackles. You can pour a little soy on that mound of grated daikon on the right for seasoning. I can’t wait to eat this again.
Ebi furai ($5.95): Panko-breaded shrimp served with hot mustard and tonkatsu dipping sauce. Super, super crunchy, with shrimp so pressed and manipulated inside that it seems more like dumpling filling.
“Fatless” chicken skin ($3.99): Scraped of its fat, cut into strips, threaded on skewers, brushed with sauce and cooked to crisp/chewy nothing-like-it-hood. Hellz, yes.
Gyu tataki ($7.95): Seared beef that comes with a ponzu dipping sauce. That red ball on the right is momiji oroshi — a mixture of pepper paste and daikon that you use to season the ponzu. The meat was both well marbled and well sliced, so each piece was something to savor like good sashimi.
Ika shoga ($6.50): This ginger squid is one of the three preparations of the large cephalopod. (The others are served with melting butter or plain salt). This was the best I’ve eaten in Atlanta — gorgeously tender with a smoky taste from the grill. That daub of fresh ginger really set off the subtle soy marinade.
Grilled snow crab ($9.75): I remember enjoying this dish at Imari years ago. Hot to the touch, a bit sticky, slit down the shell for your convenience and served with beautiful metal picks. Really lovely. The price is high, but the portion generous.
Kyoto cake ($5.00): Green tea sponge with red bean frosting. We devoured this with cups of wonderful (and free) green tea.
This meal was just a small sampling from a huge menu. The good news is that the menu comes with pictures of all the dishes, so you can see what the food will look like. The bad news is that in a couple of places the English translations read “menu description here.” Still, the staff makes newcomers feel welcome and are quick with recommendations.
With sake, shochu, beer and another couple of desserts, the entire bill came to $100. I’d call that a great value for a solid and satisfying meal for 4 people. This restaurant isn’t as much fun as Shoya, but the food is so good I imagine it will go into our regular rotation. I’m already planning my next visit.