So I’m sitting in pole position in a Japanese tatami dining room — right by the door through which all new plates of food will appear.
“Excuse me!” the waitress cries cheerily as she sweeps aside the privacy curtain and delivers the latest batch of yummies: grilled mushrooms, ribbons of crispy chicken skin, fried lotus roots, tiles of pork belly braised in sweetened soy sauce. I take the plates and look to the assorted members of my party, who are all ready to pounce. Each one of these little suckers has to be divided into six portions; everyone wants a taste.
Some things — like how to eat — do get a little lost in translation, and that’s OK.
We’re at Shoya Izakaya, metro Atlanta’s finest (and, to my way of thinking, only true) Japanese pub. The term “izakaya” has started to gain traction in Atlanta and elsewhere as its small-plates menu format and focus on spirits mirror the doings in popular gastropubs and tapas bars. You get drinks, you get plates of tasty goodness, then you pass and share, right?
Well, yes and no. I dined in many an izakaya when I lived in Japan for two years after college, and I was struck by the unwritten rules of the game. I played along as Japanese colleagues would order a plate or two for themselves. If a dish lent itself to sharing — a dumpling or croquette — they would offer or even insist. If not — a rice ball or gooey mound of fermented squid (shiokara) — they wouldn’t. They were invariably more comfortable with hunger than I was, and would order at a slow pace. If stomachs were still gnawing with emptiness at 10 p.m., we could get a bowl of noodle soup.
It was a meal of sharply defined moments, not a symphony of small bites but of very specific encounters with small portions of different foods. So if I may be so bold, I’d suggest you not only try the food at Shoya Izakaya but do so in a certain way.
I’ve been to Shoya a good dozen times since it opened in 2009 and have made serious inroads into the multi-page picture menu, which numbers more than 300 (you read that right) items. I can’t say all of it is exemplary, but most of the food is just what it needs to be or better. The kitchen consistently executes this massive menu well.
So, here’s what you do. First, drink. The pictograph for “sake” (alcohol) is imbedded in the word izakaya. You’re in a pub.
I am forever happy with a lime sour ($5.50), a highball made with shochu (a clear distilled spirit), lime juice and soda water. There’s not a speck of sugar beyond the natural citrus sweetness. For a kick and a small surcharge, you can get the lime (or lemon or grapefruit) to squeeze at the table and blend your own cocktail. But if you don’t want to work for your buzz, a cool glass of Otokoyama sake ($9) has a clean, piercing sweetness that works well with food.
Now, eat. You might get some finger food for the table such as edamame, though those warm lotus chips ($4.50) are more interesting. Order a couple of dishes each, making sure to try different cooking methods: something steamed, something fried, something grilled, something raw.
If you order the gyoza ($7) you should share: These velvety pork-and-cabbage dumplings are among the best in Atlanta. But you’ll want to keep the miso cod ($10.50) to yourself. This sweet slice of marinated, then broiled fish is eye-rollingly good, and you’ll savor each tender flake you separate with your chopsticks.
Sashimi (raw sliced fish) of some sort deserves a spot in any Japanese meal, and while an appetizer assortment ($14.50) brings the expected tuna, yellowtail and whitefish, here’s where you try something different.
You may get a little tipsy at an izakaya, so edgier dishes may appeal. Try the ika somen ($10.50): slivers of raw squid cut as fine as somen (a kind of noodle) and served with the kind of soy-scallion-ginger dipping sauce you might dunk cold noodles in. This treatment makes the strange chalky stickiness of raw squid appealing.
A generous portion of sliced monkfish liver ($7) in ponzu (soy/citrus sauce) brings an ideal plate to share, particularly with folks new to this creamy, mild treat. Eel omelet ($4.50) encases meaty morsels of eel inside slices of fluffy egg.
See what I mean? I don’t want to call this “drunk food,” but…
Shoya prepares an assortment of kushikatsu (grilled skewered food), including a full yakitori (chicken pieces on skewers) menu. Soy-basted chicken meat, chicken wings, chicken gizzards, tasty chicken meatballs ($5.50 for two skewers) and those ribbons of chicken skin ($4 for two skewers) threaded on the skewers, then just crisped on the grill. Each skewer offers a little crunch, a little stickiness and a little snap. They’re weird, and I love them.
I would recommend against dividing two skewers among six people. One full skewer is yours. You have loads of choice at an izakaya, but you have to commit.
I think Shoya really excels with the final pages of the menu, which list the heavier, starchier items you finish with. Mixed seafood zosui ($10) is a burbly, bubbly crock of thin rice porridge with scallion, egg and all sorts of shellfish. Okonomi yaki ($9.50), a kind of thick pancake filled with cabbage pork and seafood then doused with sweet brown sauce, seaweed and dried fish flakes, is your new favorite late-night food. I promise.
If you need to finish on a less gloppy note, the grilled rice ball ($5.50) is worth savoring for its crunchy exterior and steamy insides, with a few flakes of cooked salmon in the very center. I wish I could recommend the ramen noodle soup for a final bite, but the tan tan ramen ($10) I tried had a weak and watery broth that the spicy ground pork garnish couldn’t help.
Are you well fed? Good, now it’s time for a mug of hot green tea, which the servers bring with the check. You need this: It really settles your stomach. Now you can skeddadle and spread the izakaya gospel. Eat a few interesting things with purpose, and wash them down with a tasty libation or two. It will make you happy.SHOYA IZAKAYA 6035 Peachtree Road, Doraville. 770-457-5555 Food: Huge selection of Japanese pub fare Service: Very efficient. Don’t hesitate to use the call button on your table. Best dishes: Ika somen, okonomi yaki, seafood zosui Vegetarian selections: Yes, quite a few Credit cards: All major Hours: 5-11:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays, 5-10:30 p.m. Sundays. Children: Great for kids, as long as they like to try new foods Parking: In lot Reservations: For parties of four or more, though the restaurant can’t always guarantee inside seating Wheelchair access: Full Smoking: No Noise level: Lively, fun Patio: Yes Takeout: Yes, but not the entire menu