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.
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.
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.
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 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