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Umezono Japanese Restaurant review, Smyrna

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At least once a week I leave my office in Dunwoody and drive to pick up my kid from a lesson that ends at 8:30 p.m. in West Midtown. It is a schlep, to be sure. Sometimes I’ll coordinate with my wife or a friend to try a noteworthy restaurant beforehand. But usually I end up somewhere by myself, eating at a bar, with “noteworthy” the farthest thing from my mind.

Review by John Kessler

Review by John Kessler

I don’t mind at all. In fact, I’ve started to treat these evenings as a kind of quest. What am I looking for? Really just … food.

OK, not just food. But something that won’t fill me with salt, and fat, and 1,400 calories I don’t need. I don’t want a huge portion that will end up mindlessly shoveled down my piehole, or cast to the rotting mountain of waste and overindulgence, or retired to a clamshell box to ripen in the back of my car overnight.

I want food that won’t annoy me with a corn-syrup based sauce, or a rubbery cube of frozen carrot, a rancid squiggle of Southwestern corn chip garnish, or some other brassy ingredient meant for color or crunch or flagging tastebuds.

I want food that can deliver all this, and maybe a beer or iced tea, with a check that doesn’t climb much above $20.

sukiyaki (all photos by Becky Stein)

sukiyaki (all photos by Becky Stein)

Oh, and I want service. Not “Hi, I’m Brad and isn’t this the best thing you’ve ever eaten?” service. But I don’t want to stand in line and then walk to a table with a wire stand with a picture of a chile pepper in it to wait for my food. I want to sit down and have someone take my order. I want someone who, regardless of their smiley quotient, goes through the motions efficiently and leaves me to my book or my game of “Angry Birds.”

This is a long-winded way of saying that I’m reviewing a 20-year-old restaurant that no one talks about and that isn’t particularly great. But it somehow remains true to its mission of feeding people without a lot of rigmarole, and I think restaurants like this merit celebration as much as any.

Umezono Japanese Restaurant was one of the first area restaurants opened to cater to the Japanese ex-pat community in Atlanta. It occupies a corner space in a Smyrna mini-mall that has seen better times, next to the Japanese food store Tomato.

It doesn’t seem a friendly spot from the outside, with its papered-over front windows. Is it open?

Yes, apparently so, as the door cracks open to a dimly lit corridor and an unattended counter. You work your way to a “wait here” sign where kimono-clad waitresses will scurry by and ignore you for a minute or two. There’s a dining room, a few semiprivate booths, some tatami mat rooms and a sushi bar where the other singletons have gathered.

When you sit, the two sushi chefs — one young, one old — will nod curtly and continue staring straight ahead or to the television tuned loudly to NHK, the Japanese national broadcast station.

The menu comes as a thick booklet of white pages in plastic slipcovers — Japanese for the first half, English for the second. When you get to the English pages, you’ll find a mailing sticker attached to top of each warning that you may not change your order once it’s made. Management reinforces this imperative with signs posted throughout the dining room.

On one of my first visits I order two pieces of decent yellowtail sushi ($3.45) and uniyama don ($11.85) — a bowl of rice topped with sea urchin roe and grated mountain yam, which is so sticky and slippery that it’s not often appealing to non-Japanese. The waitress’ eyes widen and she sounds almost cross when she asks, “Do you know what this is?”

“Yes,” I assure her.

“You can’t return it,” she persists.

“I’m aware of that.” And so it comes, in its gooey glory. I drink one beer, three cups of free green tea and get a scoop of bad vanilla ice cream for dessert. Everyone gets a scoop of bad vanilla ice cream.

Another night I am there among my fellow solo diners, all of us with our noses poked into PDAs, no one giving off that “How are you tonight?” vibe that you might find at a drinkier bar.

I turn my attention to the lengthier appetizers section of the menu. “Appetizer” is really a misnomer because these small plates don’t precede a meal but make up the meal. Some are broiled, some fried, some simmered in flavorful sauces, some raw. Order three of them, a bowl of miso soup and a salad will appear, and you’ll have a typical old-school Japanese meal called “ichi-juu san-sai.” The name translates to “one soup, three plates,” and it’s the kind of busy-making, decentralized meal that keeps your chopsticks moving and fills you up without any fuss or excess.

Maguro nuta

Maguro nuta

I kind of want the shrimp tempura and Japanese fried chicken but decide to keep it healthy. Maguro nuta ($4.35) combines diced tuna with green onions and a sweet miso sauce ($4.35), while saba shioyaki ($5.25) offers a chunk of crackly skinned mackerel right off the grill. There’s a little hillock of grated daikon alongside that you moisten with soy and use as a kind of thick sauce. If you like oily fish like bluefish, you’ll love this.

For my third plate I try gyutan ($4.25) — thin, chewy slices of beef tongue ringed with their papillae. I’ve had better versions of this dish, which is a specialty of Sendai (the largest city impacted by Japan’s recent earthquake and tsunami).

Check. Ice cream. $20. Not bad.

As much as I have liked Umezono on my solo jaunts, I’ve enjoyed it less as a group meal destination. The crabby tone of the service, fine when you’re alone, turns grating when you’re in a social situation.

One time we swing by for sukiyaki ($16.85 per person with a minimum of two orders). There’s a certain decorousness to sukiyaki that the dish requires. The server should heat a high-sided cast-iron dish over a burner, and grease it with a chunk of beef fat before sauteing the meat. Then the sliced onions, Chinese cabbage, clear noodles, tofu, chrysanthemum leaf and other garnishes go into the pot, and then finally a cup or two of sweet soy simmering sauce.

Here we get one platter of still-frozen meat, one of vegetables, and instructions to dump it all in ourselves. We do, and it’s not bad if a little too sweet. If you want the traditional raw egg to dip the hot morsels into (try it), that’s an extra charge. When our bill comes, we’re charged $1.50 for a bowl of miso soup that never arrived. No biggie, but I let them know.

“You’re wrong,” the waitress says. Soon a manager is at the table, arguing with us until we agree to pay for the nonexistent soup.

I know what you’re thinking: One experience like that would turn you off a restaurant forever, right?

Not me. Umezono is a good little haunt. The food is satisfying, cheap and healthy. And as long as you don’t complain about the bill, no one bothers you.

UMEZONO JAPANESE RESTAURANT
2086 Cobb Parkway, Smyrna, 770-933-8808
1stars5
Food: Good Japanese standards
Service: Not always smiley but efficient, if sometimes too argumentative
Best dishes: Tuna nuta, saba shioyaki, hiyayakko (cold tofu), goma ae (spinach with sesame sauce), simple sushi
Vegetarian selections: Plenty
Credit cards: All major cards
Hours: Lunch 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m., Monday-Friday; dinner 5:30-10:30 p.m., Monday-Saturday, and 5:30-10 p.m., Sunday
Children: Fine
Parking: In lot
Reservations: Yes
Wheelchair access: Full
Smoking: No
Noise level: Moderate
Patio: No
Takeout: Yes
ratings_key_febUSE

30 comments Add your comment

rebelliousrose

April 21st, 2011
8:52 am

I occasionally hit Umezono for the reasons you describe; although I far prefer Ege, a bit farther down. I live right in this area and there is an odd gap in the casual affordable restaurants- we go to Muss and Turners a LOT, also heirloom BBQ.

Jere

April 21st, 2011
9:32 am

this sounds a little like sushi for masochists

Typical Redneck

April 21st, 2011
9:54 am

kmb

April 21st, 2011
9:56 am

“I know what you’re thinking: One experience like that would turn you off a restaurant forever, right?

Not me. Umezono is a good little haunt. The food is satisfying, cheap and healthy. And as long as you don’t complain about the bill, no one bothers you.”

Interesting issue. How many of your readers would ever go to a restaurant again if their felt that they were being ripped off?

Johnny

April 21st, 2011
10:01 am

After being around for such a long time they just don’t have the passion or plainly care anymore, just like Yakitori Jinbei. Service is terrible and so is the ramen, sushi, yakisoba, etc. Shoya is the only place that has dedication to good food. Ege is borderline passable for Japanese cuisine.

Grasshopper

April 21st, 2011
10:29 am

If I were charged for nonexistent anything, I would not be returning.

But then again, I don’t have an AJC expense account — so it would not be a ‘no biggie’ for me.

JRC

April 21st, 2011
10:32 am

John, I applaud your efforts to highlight this part of our dining lives, which in truth is a much larger part for most than the destination restaurant. I imagine the effort to capture this in a review is challenging, as the expectations are different, and don’t really align with a starred system.

I live in West Midtown, and while I enjoy Miller Union, I find myself in Saigon Basil, Hankook, Hasaguchi Jr., or Willy’s far more often because they are easy, cheap and the food doesn’t suck. Well, Willy’s isn’t great, but the guac is chunky and I can get a salad.

Do you have other spots around town that don’t warrant a review, but you find yourself in more than you would expect? I am also on the quest for this sort of restaurant, and would love to know your other haunts.

Pablo Escobar

April 21st, 2011
10:38 am

Thank you Johnny for your wise commentary. As always, your refined northern palate is enviable & something I hope to emulate 1 day.

A

April 21st, 2011
10:52 am

Thanks, but no thanks. I don’t care how the food is, the unwelcoming atmosphere and nickel and diming you for a bowl of miso is enough to keep me away. In this economy, many of us are careful where we spend our hard-earned dollars, and I’d rather it be with restaurants that actually want me there and will treat me decently.

Jimmyz

April 21st, 2011
11:11 am

Funny how service can impact how we view a restaurant. I once had a favorite Chinese place that I’d gone to for months, usually more than once a week. Went one day as I was coming down with a cold and ordered to go, and asked if I could get some hot tea to go. They already had it made, all they had to do is dump some in a soup container. I made it very, very clear that I had no problem paying for it, the place was not busy (two customers and myself) and, as I say, I’d been there many many times. He flat out refused to sell me a lousy soup bucket with tea in it.

You’re right, it’s his business and it’s up to him to decide if he wants to “bother” with that. It was also up to me to decide whether I went back or not.

John Kessler

April 21st, 2011
11:12 am

KMB and others: You know, it was pretty easy to take $1.50 off my usual 20% tip, so I didn’t feel ripped off at all. And I have to say I have a kind of perverse fondness for grumpy waiters and waitresses, and I really don’t consider an egregious service move a dealbreaker. There is one particularly unsmiling waitress at the branch of Saigon Cafe near my house, and I always love being sat in her section. I’ve never seen the famous “Seinfeld” soup episode, but I’m sure I’m treading on the same path here.

JRC -Thanks. The more I get back into the swing of this job, the more I’m trying to look for restaurants that help tell stories of different kinds of dining. I almost wrote the review based solely on my solo jaunts but at the last minute felt that I hadn’t given a fair shake to the shareable items on the menu, such as sukiyaki and shabu shabu, and I needed to get that in. My regular haunts tend to be on the east side of town and mostly inexpensive Asian restaurants. I’m guessing I’ve probably spent more at So Kong Dong and Saigon Cafe than Bacchanalia over the years.

Clifford

April 21st, 2011
12:19 pm

John, the restaurant has no high-chairs or booster chairs and did not seem pleased that my wife and I brought our 3-year old. They gave us such a bad vibe about our kid that we got up and left. I used to dine at this restaurant on a regular basis, never again.

Note – Our child was behaved and quiet, the servers just did not want her in there.

Rodney

April 21st, 2011
12:24 pm

I’m a very forgiving diner. Mistakes happen, and as long as they are corrected quickly, with even just the smallest sense of apology from the resto, then I’m cool and my tipping hasn’t been impacted and my repeat appearances are assured.

However …

Were I to be told I was “wrong” about an item I was charged for and never received, and then especially if the owner/manager decided to come out to my table to back up the server’s insistence that I am “wrong”, I’m out. Period, end of story. I’m out without a tip at all, and I’m out with the intent to never return.

BUT – I do want to add this. I never, EVER, let another person’s negative views on a resto impact me. I like to make those decisions for myself. I’ve found far too often that people (I hesitate to say most, but … ) who don’t get exactly what they expected, whatever that expectation is, will immediately crown a place with a bad label, and complain about it. bad expectations or not.

Rodney

April 21st, 2011
12:27 pm

And one more thing … JK … how in the world have you never seen the soup eppy of Seinfeld? I mean, it’s not like it was the musical episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (which IS fantastic IMO) that lives only in cult fandom … the Soup Nazi is on TV at least once a month!

John Kessler

April 21st, 2011
12:42 pm

Rodney: I think it’s a good topic for a behind the review tomorrow. As far as “Seinfeld,” I’ve only seen the show a couple of times…never really got into it, though I’ve heard about that soup episode so much I should track it down online…

Roy Stephens

April 21st, 2011
12:58 pm

So, basically, what I read here was “I am an uppity white food critic who thinks he knows more about Japanese food than the Japanese chefs who prepare it for a living”. Also, do you think MAYBE the reason the service was a bit brusque is because you admitted to having your nose shoved in your PDA, when there are signs in the restaurant asking patrons to not use such devices in the restaurant? Seeing as how you, Mr. Kessler, are such an expert on all things Japanese, I would have thought that you would have been aware of how important being polite, courteous, and respectful is within that culture. You come barrelling in, telling them how they are supposed to prepare sukiyaki while playing “Angry Birds”. You are the epitome of the phrase “Ugly American”. I have been eating at Umezono for nearly 20 years myself, and only once have I had anything less than a fantastic experience and that was on a night when they were exceedingly busy and apparently short staffed. If anyone reads this comment, please know that this “critic’s” review is the worst kind of left-handed compliment I have seen and does not speak true of this restaurant. Perhaps if the author would be happier someplace like Benihana, where he can roll in all smug and self satisfied in his all-knowing-ness, and be able to tell the staff how to prepare their food.

Johnny

April 21st, 2011
1:32 pm

It’s not about emulating my palate. Who gives a sh*t? The point is no one can have an opinion in Atlanta unless it’s a glowing review on how great every restaurant is because the city is so desperate for anything that opens up whether it is edible or not. What’s the restaurant du jour these days here? Burger? Hot dogs? Chicken sausages? Farm to table movement is anything but a whisper now. How many times can you cover Miller Union, ESS, Bocado and the like? The review ends up talking about the burger anyways. And Bacchanalia, how many of you have actually been there more than 5 times since they opened years ago? Better yet, how many have even gone once? No wonder why they are going to shut it down. AJC tries to cover the decent ethnic restaurants up and down Buford Hwy, but those reviews fall on deaf ears and palates.

If you want to pretend what you’re eating here is authentic Japanese then knock yourself out, but at the end of the day Umezono still received 1 star out of 5 and you will still order rolls.

RK

April 21st, 2011
1:34 pm

These are the types of restaurants I want to know more about…small, authentic, and as JK said, not swimming in fat or sugar.

JRC

April 21st, 2011
1:49 pm

John – Thanks for the response. I work on Buford Highway, hit So Dong Kong for some cold noodles, my favorite on hot days. 7.99 with all the trimmings, excellent.

Keep em coming sir. I don’t always agree with you, but I see the thought you put into your topic and appreciate your efforts to view dining from a number of different viewpoints.

Oh, and screw you, uppity white reviewer with your Asian fetish and “thoughtful” glasses. Sorry, just wanted to get in on the fun.

Grasshopper

April 21st, 2011
2:31 pm

‘You know, it was pretty easy to take $1.50 off my usual 20% tip, so I didn’t feel ripped off at all.’

You may not have felt ripped off, but you were. It is weird to me that a food critic rationalizes a restaurant’s unethical behavior in this way.

Rodney

April 21st, 2011
3:20 pm

@ Johnny – you seem a little too animated and high-strung for a food blog commenter. :) Take it easy, dude.

For the record, I’ve been to Bacchanalia at least about once per year, sometimes twice, once three times during just ONE holiday season, since it opened AND, I’ve done Quinones twice (but admittedly, not in a year or more – quite too spendy for multiple year trips for me). So don’t judge all of us the same – some of us have been around these pothole-covered-with-metal blocks a few times and picked up a few things along the way. :)

BTW – and I’m not being a smart*ss here – where would you go for Japanese, if you don’t mind me asking? Your posts seem to indicate you choose to not have Japanese at all in MetroAtl and I find that hard to believe coming from someone as passionate about it as you are.

Scribe

April 21st, 2011
3:33 pm

@ Clifford, you’re right about not being friendly to the little ones. I hadn’t been in years for that very reason. We went back when the kids were 5 and 7 and had a great time. The waitress brought out the sodas with the marbles in the tops for them and talked my son out of ordering the whole, head-on fish (which he probalby would have liked).

I’ve always enjoyed going there for the small plates, noodles, curry rice….it may not be the “best ever,” but it remnds me of the inexpensive food I used to eat in Japan. Service is definitely not super-friendly, but I’ve never had a problem either.

meowmanor

April 22nd, 2011
11:24 am

Just go to Ru Sans across the street where the FedEx building is!!! I love their grilled SALMON…

Milt

April 22nd, 2011
11:37 am

I, too, have been dining at Umezono occasionally since the first month they were open – twenty years ago. I have dined alone numerous times, with my family several times, and with a group of friends on occasion. Your description of what happens upon entering is spot on. The rest does not reflect my experiences at all. Service has always been attentive – never hovering. On one of our earliest visits, my then ten year old son ordered oyako don – which he had been ordering at Minato. The waitress pleasantly inquired as to whether he really knew what he was ordering. My son responded that he had eaten it before and loved it. She returned later and offered a “to go box”, which my son said he wouldn’t need. She later remarked (about three times), “He is so small and he ate it all”. It is still his favorite dish at Umezono. A friend of mine has frequently complained about how the so called Japanese restaurants in metro Atlanta are not at all like he ate in on his several trips to Japan. I took him to Umezono for lunch and he now talks about how he has only found one Japanese restaurant which reminds him of his Japanese business trips. To me, this is Japanese “Roadfood”.

Troglodyke

April 23rd, 2011
8:33 am

I agree with the others that a surly and argumaentative staff will guarantee I never return to a restaurant. I don’t care if the food is phenomenal and cheap. Rudeness is not acceptable.

This is especially true in a culture defined by politeness, as one poster said. The Japanese value courtesy, but they will argue with their diners? Really?

There are too many places to get good food in this city to put up with that. Yes, I know that there are restaurant patrons who are complete jerks, and servers all across America deal with crap from them. As a former server, I’ve dealt with that. But that’s no excuse.

Service matters.

But I’m not a food snob, so what do I know?

Eric

April 23rd, 2011
1:26 pm

We once tried to go to Umezono’s with our then-one-year-old, and, as the comments above attested, they wanted no part of having a child on the premises. The moment we got the vibe we left and never came back. Never experienced this at any other Atlanta restaurant. I’d recommend the good, albeit cold, Hashiguchi and the new up-and-comer Bishoku in Sandy Springs. Bishoku is warm, friendly, and bubbling with excellent, authentic Japanese dishes, with a Kansai bent.

Tavolini

April 24th, 2011
10:52 pm

Honestly, I thought the review was a little harsh. I really like Umezono, and honestly think the waitstaff is exceedingly polite. Perhaps this is because I usually go at lunch time?

At any rate–their lunch is an incredible deal and it is certainly authentic. I think they merit more than one star.

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sara

April 26th, 2011
11:43 am

If you are a vegetarian going to Umezono, MAKE SURE TO ASK IF THERE IS MEAT. It may not say so on the menu, but there probably will be floating meat chunks in your dish and when you point it out to the servers you will get no sympathy. And when you ask them to bring you ANYTHING without meat because you are starving, they will tell you that the only thing they have is vegetable tempura. That said, if you eat meat, get the gyudon – it’s amazing!

JWC

April 26th, 2011
2:22 pm

I’ve eaten at Umezono many times over at least 15 years and have found them to be consistently satisfying (consistently enough that I’d think they deserve a second star on that basis alone). Only once have I found the service unacceptable, from a waitperson who clearly was new to both the restaurant and to the profession itself. My favorite dishes there include nikujaga, a broth with meat and potato found on the appetizer menu; and katsu-don, a deep fried pork cutlet served on a bed of rice with sauteed onions with a soft-poached egg..