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