“Mr. Friedman!” Jackie Fukuya-Merkel click-clacks on her heels across the dining room at Bishoku to greet a white-haired gentleman at the sushi bar. He clambers to his feet for a hug.
The room is buzzy with a genteelly lubricated, late-evening energy — laughter and jazz — yet the clear timbre of Fukuya-Merkel’s voice carries above the hubbub. “What? Your son is getting married? He’s far too young for that! Oh, he’s 46?”
Mr. Friedman, I presume, is the type 1 Bishoku regular: i.e., a longtime customer of the pioneering Atlanta Japanese restaurant Sushi Huku, which Kimio and Kiyomi Fukuya (Jackie’s parents) ran for 20 years before selling in 2008.
The type 2 regulars are Japanese businessmen. They come in pairs or small groups, sit at the sushi bar and pour each other’s beers. Fukuya-Merkel greets them with bows, not hugs.
Who are the type 3 regulars? People like me, I think, who have discovered Bishoku is no typical strip mall sushi bar.
After hearing good things about this Sandy Springs restaurant, which opened last November, I stopped in one day for lunch. I was happy to find the menu consisted largely of the Japanese comfort foods I used to love during the two years I lived in Japan. There was oyako domburi (a bowl of rice topped with chicken and eggs), zaru soba (cold buckwheat pasta with dipping sauce) and all kinds of ramen soup noodles.
I liked what I tried, with a few reservations. The ramen was nicely rich but salty. The katsuo tataki (seared skipjack tuna) was dark in color and had that dirty penny flavor that made me think it was past its prime. But the oyako domburi was crave-worthy, and a bite of crunchy braised lotus root brought me back to Japan. Plus, I loved the doll-size desserts that came gratis at the end of each meal — maybe a fluffy square of spongecake on a bitty pedestal, or a scoop of sweet, crunchy granita.
As Bishoku is close to my office, I returned a few times with co-workers for lunch. Noriko-san, the ever-present waitress, began to recognize me and direct me toward dishes I would like. I had inexorably become a regular. “Nice to see you again,” Fukuya-Merkel would say, shaking my hand at the door.
Now the cynical among you would say they pegged me as both a food writer and a Japanophile, so of course I got special treatment. I can tell you from my heart that if I was just some dude who came every week and asked for a California roll and a bottle of ketchup, I’d get the same warm welcome. It’s that kind of place.
One night when my family and I were looking for a better-than-usual meal out, I suggested Bishoku. I noted the dinner menu featured only sushi and small plates for sharing, but no personal entrees, consistent with a truer Japanese approach to nighttime dining. We had a delightful time passing around plates of crunchy tempura, slips of raw fish and other goodies I wanted them to try. Bishoku had gone from a convenient lunch spot to a destination in my book.
Two recent meals confirm it should be destination-worthy for anyone in Atlanta seeking the true flavors of Japan.
The menu is a jumble of information, with both a handwritten page and a printed page of small plates, as well as a full sushi bar list. At lunch, I recommend asking about the specials. The sushi bar may offer a gorgeous zukedon ($12.95) — a bowl of rice topped with glassy tiles of marinated tuna, saline bubbles of salmon roe and wisps of radish sprouts. It comes with a side dish of house-made egg tofu, rice, salad and dessert.
One day the kitchen special brings rolls of crunchy fried chicken breast ($12.95), filled with a gushing mixture of cream cheese and the preserved cod roe called mentaiko. It isn’t fishy at all, but rather rich with umami and instant comfort food for all who try it.
If you or the less-adventurous person you drag here wants to put together a bento box ($12.95) filled with chicken teriyaki, serviceable sushi rolls and the like, you can certainly do that, too. On the other hand, if you want to try the kind of quick summer lunch you might find in Japan, try the hiyashi chukka ($9.95) — crinkly Chinese noodles served with batons of ham, cucumber and egg omelet in a cold sweet-salty sauce.
But dinner is the time to explore the menu at length and appreciate this restaurant in its best mood. The spacious dining room — decorated in soft shades of celadon and avocado green — warms at night, turning for somber to serene. The John Coltrane soundtrack is as soft as the golden light from the wall sconces and embroidered fabrics on the tables.
I can’t leave without an order of nasu karashi ($5.50) — a fist-size round of eggplant cooked until the center turns to custard, then topped with a sweet mustard sauce. You eat it with a tiny wooden spoon.
Small kisu fish (sillago in English, a variety of whiting) come butterflied, three to the order, and as crispy as Tater Tots in their tempura jackets ($6.50). Hirame karaage ($7.50) brings thick slices of fried halibut, a bit dry, but easily moistened with a dive into its tangy ponzu dip. You do a lot of dipping at this restaurant.
The sushi bar usually stocks some fish you won’t find elsewhere, so pay attention to the specials. The kitchen has a real affinity for the pungent fish the Japanese call “hikari mono” (shiny things because of their silvery skins). Kohada ($5.50 for three pieces of sashimi) benefits from a light brine, its unctuous fish oils tamed by a slap of vinegar. Fresh herring sushi ($5.75 for two pieces) is gorgeous on one visit, and a bit past its prime on the next. Oily fish have a short shelf life.
Yukke ($9.95) — a pretty dish of tuna tartare — is more of the crowd pleaser, but I found the toasted sesame oil too heavy, and the texture was like paste.
Better to keep an ear out for the seasonal items . On my last visit, Fukuya-Merkel greeted me at the door with a handshake and a beaming look of excitement.
“We just put dobin mushi on the menu tonight!” she said. “The first matsutake mushrooms of the season.”
Is it fall? I ordered this traditional autumn dish — a teapot filled with broth ($12.95) that we poured into tiny cups and drank, inhaling the piney smell of these special mushrooms. Then we opened the teapot and fished out all the slips of white mushroom, shrimp, pieces of chicken and fish cake.
Ms. Fukuya-Merkel knew just how much I would appreciate this dish.BISHOKU 5920 Roswell Road, Sandy Springs, 404-252-7998