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A tale of two sushi bars: Sushi House Hayakawa and Tomo Japanese Restaurant

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Assorted sushi from Sushi House Hayakawa (all photos by Becky Stein)

What’s that? You want some advice on where to go for good sushi in Atlanta? That’s fine. I’d love to help. But first I need to ask a simple question: Who are you?

AJC Chief Dining Critic John Kessler writes about all cuisines.

AJC Chief Dining Critic John Kessler writes about all cuisines.

When you say you’re looking for “good sushi,” does that mean you’re pining for buttery yellowtail topping a bite-size lozenge of warm, vinegared rice? Or maybe a shrimp tempura super crunch roll sitting on a Sriracha mayonnaise squiggle?

Or maybe you don’t want actual sushi as much as stuff that comes with sushi — ginger salad, miso soup and a plate of chopped tuna poke dressed with sweet soy sauce and flecks of cilantro.

Is that you? I’m not judging.

It’s just that sushi these days can mean different things to different people. It can be comfort food to fill your belly (I am no stranger to those crunch rolls), but also a gourmet splurge to savor (I’ve paid stupid money for a lone bite of fatty tuna).

Not knowing you, it might be best to tell you where I like to get sushi and hope that our tastes are similar enough for the recommendation to be a good one.

First, I have to complicate things. My choice of sushi bar depends wholly on mood. If I want a place that feels like Japan — and by that I mean the lively, liquor-fueled, snack-happy, fish-loving restaurant culture I recall from living in that country years ago — then I end up at Sushi House Hayakawa on Buford Highway.

But if I want glamour sushi then I hit up Tomo Japanese Restaurant in Buckhead.

Chawan mushi (egg custard soup) with uni and black truffle from Tomo

Chawan mushi (egg custard soup) with uni and black truffle from Tomo

Glamour sushi? I suppose you could call it L.A. style, but I think we’re also talking about the kind of sushi-porium you’d find now in Moscow and Abu Dhabi if not Phoenix. Any big city filled with money and well-traveled souls will support a restaurant like this — with its 20-foot ceilings, its gleaming tiles, its miniskirted hostesses and its chef who scours the world for piscine delicacies and assembles his plates with an eye for haute design.

To underline the contrast between these two restaurants, I recently visited both and gave the chef a budget and free rein to prepare what he wanted. If you’re a sushi maven, you’ll recognize this as tactic as “omakase” — the tradition of putting yourself in the chef’s hands.

Okra and mountain yam with plum paste at Sushi House Hayakawa

Okra and mountain yam with plum paste at Sushi House Hayakawa

Sushi House Hayakawa always feels like such a portal to me. I crack open the shaded door to a shock of fluorescent light and a chorus of “Irrashaimase!” (“Welcome!”) from the staff, and I’m back in Japan.

Atsushi “Art” Hayakawa takes center stage behind the sushi bar in his trademark coiled hachimaki (headband), and he’s as nice a restaurant owner as you’ll find in this city. He is always yammering on with customers sitting at the bar and maybe, later in the evening, a little tipsy from the pours of sake he shares with them. He has a fantastic collection of sake as well as shochu and Japanese whiskey displayed on shelving behind the bar.

My $100 omakase was remarkable for how little flourish and fuss went into it: This is food as craft, not art. He started us with a few plates of cooked fish, which was smart. It was late, we were starving, and we needed something hot. A crunchy-creamy fried fish croquette, some grilled pompano and chunks of batter-fried flounder really took the edge off. Of special interest was the deep-fried skeleton against which the flounder leaned: not just a prop, it was a delicious treat, like fish potato chips.

Art Hayakawa

Art Hayakawa

Then came the good stuff: tiles of fat tuna belly called o-toro sprinkled with (a bit too much) truffle salt. I actually preferred the sliced red tuna loin (akami) dressed with a light sauce of sweetened soy and pickled wasabi stem. It’s been a long time since I’ve tasted such firm, sweet tuna.

Giant clam at Hayakawa

Giant clam at Hayakawa

Slivers of shima aji (striped jack) came naked, all the better to appreciate its remarkable texture. When this fish is very fresh, as it was at Hayakawa, it is slick, almost sticky, with a firmness and bare snap that comes as a surprise.

Hayakawa will show you how to experience texture in raw fish. A giant clam, cut up and scattered over a bed of ice, offers a tour. Try the tender slivers of belly, then the poppy crunch of the ruffle, then the appealing stringiness of the adductor muscle. It was all so sweet and sea fresh we didn’t need any soy sauce.

There were several more courses, including sushi and a dessert of homemade yokan (like a thick, sweet bean pate), that made this $100 sushi meal everything it should be, from moments of gourmet rhapsody to the belly-stretching pleasure of serious comfort food.

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Spanish mackerel with ginger-scallion condiment and garlic ponzu sauce

Spanish mackerel with ginger-scallion condiment and garlic ponzu sauce at Tomo

A disclosure must come with the story of my omakase at Tomo. I requested a $75 meal, but when the food started arriving I could tell that chef Tomohiro Naito had prepared a meal that could easily fetch $100 or more. He confirmed this to be the case, and I left enough money in the tip to make up the difference. Guess I should have worn my Mrs. Doubtfire outfit.

But it was the best meal I’ve ever eaten at Tomo and one of the best I’ve had in Atlanta this year. While Art Hayakawa plops tasty raw fish over mounds of shredded daikon or ice, Tomo Naito composes small plates with an aesthetic sensibility that seems more confident and developed each time I visit.

Highlights from the meal included barely seared Spanish mackerel in a garlicky citrus-soy sauce with a tuft of ginger and scallion cut with such fine knifework it was like cotton candy. A kusshi oyster topped with caviar (farm raised at the University of Georgia) and a squeeze of yuzu brought one of those bites that lives on in your memory forever.

Japanese snapper sashimi came on a sheet of kelp on which it had been lightly cured, picking up all its glutamic acid and flavor and filling your mouth with the sensation of pure umami. Chawan mushi — a traditional egg custard baked in a teacup — became luxurious with the addition of sea urchin and Périgord black truffle shavings. Cod milt arrived in a hot tempura coat, crunch giving way to the cream inside. (What is milt? Please look it up: I would tell you but that synonym doesn’t belong in a review.)

The sushi that finished the meal was a lineup of one-bite wonders.

Tomohiro Naito

Tomohiro Naito

Tomo does like to include one meat course in his omakase, this time a perfectly fine but forgettable lamb chop with sansho pepper. I might tell him not to leave the water for my next meal.

I don’t love the big dining room at Tomo, with all its hard surfaces and glammed-up folk shouting over the din. I do love the handiwork of chef Tomo and his crew, which has hit its stride.

So, anyhow, that’s where I go for sushi. I hope one of these fine restaurants appeals to you. I really don’t think you’d go wrong at either.

(A note on the star ratings: Sushi House Hayakawa retains its three-star rating; Tomo Japanese Restaurant earns its fourth.)

Sushi House Hayakawa, 5979 Buford Highway, Atlanta, 770-986-0010, atlantasushibar.com., $$$

Tomo Japanese Restaurant, 3630 Peachtree Road, Atlanta, 404-835-2708, tomorestaurant.com. $$$$

19 comments Add your comment

bc

April 4th, 2013
9:31 am

Thank you, great article. Can’t wait to try Sushi House Hayakawa.

Doyoucare?

April 4th, 2013
10:45 am

Do sushi (actually sashimi as sushi pertains only to the rice) fanatics
have any idea how much devastation they are causing to the oceans?

Tuna is being ‘fished’ out of existence due to the self absorbed gluttons
who could care less.

RK

April 4th, 2013
11:18 am

Or couldn’t care less…doyouknowEnglish?

Kar

April 4th, 2013
12:01 pm

For me the standard dish for sushi is the chirashi. Sushi House Hayakawa supposedly has some of the best in the city.

Darren

April 4th, 2013
12:02 pm

I didn’t have such a great experience at Tomo. For starters, they were out of uni when I went. Too many cooked or seared options in my opinion. And too heavy on the sauces. To be fair it was mostly good, but the last dish I tried sort of ruined it for me. We tried this lobster sashimi dish. It was smothered in a salsa that was way too garlicy (I love lots of garlic, but maybe not with sashimi so much) and drowned in white truffle oil. I like black truffle shavings a lot, but this white truffle oil was so overpowering and not the kind of thing you want to be the primary flavor in a dish. To put it simply, that dish was disgusting.

jimmy

April 4th, 2013
12:09 pm

I don’t understand serving the sashimi on ice at Hawakaya. The icy temperature it transfers to the fish is unpleasant and masks flavor. I’ve never had a good nigiri experience there either.

Tech Guy

April 4th, 2013
1:37 pm

I like Captain D’s.

Smith

April 4th, 2013
3:03 pm

John- how could you rate Sushi in Atlanta w/o including Taka Sushi and Passion?!? Chef Taka is doing amazing things with his menu. The hot dishes are beautiful and the Nigiri is of the highest quality. I encourage you to give them a try and watch them compare favorably to both restaurants you reviewed today!

Lorenzo

April 4th, 2013
3:54 pm

John, do you think the chef would serve the same items if someone he didn’t know ordered a $100 omakase? I’ve heard concerns (not about Hayakawa or Tomo but more generally) that sushi chefs will reserve what they consider the really good or hard-to-find stuff for their regulars. I can certainly understand the philosophy behind that, and if I could afford to be a regular at a good sushi bar, I would.

Jeff

April 4th, 2013
6:47 pm

Jimmy – “I’ve never had a good nigiri experience there….” .Are you serious? I’ve been dozens of times to Hayakawa and have NEVER had a “nigiri problem.” I have witnessed customers who had long waits after being seated at tables on especially crowded nights when the restaurant was understaffed…
Apart from that, you will not find a more Japan-like sushi experience in the Southeast, and very few in the US.

Paige

April 4th, 2013
9:59 pm

Sushi mania, hands down is the best sushi I have ever had. Just recently moved from Brookhaven shopping center to johns creek. I live in Brookhaven and now travel up 400, that’s how good it is

Gene

April 5th, 2013
10:21 am

I live in Denver and eat at high-end restaurants all over the world (I just dropped five figures on two meals in NYC last week). I can say with confidence that my favorite restaurant overall -anywhere – is Tomo. I come to Atlanta quarterly and never miss a meal at Tomo (Tuesdays they get the big shipment from the Tokyo fish market). I just wish for my sake that it remained a secret spot near Vinings. I enjoy all aspects of the meal: flavor, presentation and staff (even the Buckhead Bettys and Bobs are entertaining to watch). Tomo and his wife are artists. I took a friend and his wife who were not “fans” of sushi to Tomo’s (they are foodies too) and they were so happy his wife declare it one of the best meals she ever had. If you haven’t been there, then I encourage you to go.

Gene

April 5th, 2013
10:22 am

Sorry – four figures (I really should read my comments).

Gene's Wife

April 5th, 2013
2:18 pm

He actually takes me to Red Lobster:(

bill

April 7th, 2013
8:29 am

i love both places but would have to add Taka into any list of where to go for sushi…kind of a blend between both places

blackland

April 7th, 2013
10:20 pm

I am a Tomo regular (once a week) and I like the style. Since Chef came from Nobu, and I think Nobu is the very best in the World, I am somewhat partial. We tried Hayakawa to see if what you wrote is true.

I do not agree on decor, Hayakawa is a modest place in an Asian strip mall, OPT, in a bad part of town; Tomo is a beautiful space in a nice area.

The service at Tomo is hands down better. The waitress at Hayskawa did provided slow service, dirty plates littered our table throughout the meal and we had to ask for basic things like an ice bucket for our sake. Staff at Tomo are well trained and the service is flawless.

I like the new style better, but the fish at Hayakawa is excellent. Some fish; aji, flounder and snapper are superior at Hayakawa. Tomo has better toro, otoro and yellowtail. Tomo is always out of uni as someone else said, the uni at Hatakaya was available and very good.

For the traditional style I really like Sushi Huku, the atmosphere is better than Hayakawa and it is also full of Japanese people if this is what you are looking for. Overall Tomo is vastly superior to Hayakawa in atmosphere, fish quality is similar, Tomo has much better service and a more creative menu. The final bill is about the same, except Tomo has a better selection of high-end sake and beer and great deserts. Hayakawa doesn’t seem to have desert?

I just wish someone in Atlanta could get some whale meat, I had it in Japan and it puts toro to shame.

ESA

April 8th, 2013
4:04 pm

I’m sure Hayakawa is nice but Cliff is a treasure.

Japanese Restaurant

April 9th, 2013
3:39 am

i love both places but would have to add Taka into any list of where to go for sushi…kind of a blend between both places
Japanese Restaurant

Sep1576

April 10th, 2013
4:14 pm

I love Bluefin for lunch – price is great, food is good, and I leave full. I don’t care for sushi rolls (unless made by Okinawan mom) but I do enjoy sashimi with daikon. I will have to try both Tomo and Hayakawa’s soon since I’ve never heard of either! As much as I love the presentation and taste of sushi – I would prefer other Japanese dishes (Katsu Curry – yummy!)