- Wyatt Williams For the AJC
It is a truth universally acknowledged that a drinker who imbibes a quantity of beer will be in want of some food. The college student who has supped Coors Light from red Solo cups may soon be speed-dialing the nearest pizza delivery joint. But the drinker of finer brews, the craft beer aficionado who can taste the relative freshness of Citra hops in a pint of India pale ale, might also be interested in a better plate of food.
Here in Atlanta, the craft beer drinker has long had a good number of solid options to satisfy a sophisticated palate. The gastropub wave in Atlanta yielded restaurants like the Porter, where the Belgian fries are the perfect pair with the deep list of saisons, and the Wrecking Bar’s ambitious farm-to-table sourcing. Largely, though, these restaurants tend to focus on European and American traditions of cooking. In this context, Hopstix, a new brewery and Japanese restaurant built into an airy, high-ceilinged old building in Chamblee, is a fairly interesting development.
For brevity’s sake, I’d call the Hopstix menu izakaya fare, more or less. Mostly that’s because there is nothing brief about it: The menu offers about a half-dozen sections, including a dozen different starters, about 20 different skewers grilled robatayaki style, a half-dozen entree size plates, sushi rolls, raw fish priced by the ounce, traditional nigiri, and a few crudo plates. There is, to put it lightly, a feeling that this menu wants to have something for everyone.
The unwieldy number of options can be a little overwhelming. This isn’t particularly helped by the service, which is competent but not exactly schooled in guidance. If you ask for, say, a server’s preference among the robata grill’s 20 options, you may hear, like I did, “They’re all good.” Sure, thanks.
On the other hand, its beer menu offers notably focused options. About a half-dozen beers are brewed on-site in shiny tanks that can be glimpsed behind the brightly lit, spacious open kitchen. In a show of admirable camaraderie, another dozen or so beers on tap are sourced mostly from other local brewpubs like Wrecking Bar and Twain’s. No doubt this is the smart, friendly work of Andy Tan, Hopstix’s brewmaster and founder, who has long been a notable presence in Atlanta’s homebrew scene.
One evening, I brought along a friend that we’ll call a reluctant beer snob. Maybe you know the type: He’ll tell you he’s just a normal guy who likes a good brew before reluctantly admitting that, yes, he does have an opinion about the questionable relationship between the hops profile and malt backbone in this particular pint. As we slowly ordered a few half pints from the house taps, the sun pleasantly receding behind the building’s front windows, he initially feigned indifference at his options.
Perhaps this is because Hopstix beers are not, at first glance, the most exciting or unusual of craft brews. There is a classic Pilsner, a lightly hoppy golden ale, a porter, an English brown, an American Pale with enough hoppy bitterness to knock you over the head. But as we made our way down the list, nibbling along the way, I could see the beer snob’s indifference fade into pleasant approval. For a brewpub open only a few months, he explained, the consistent quality of the beer is impressive. For my money, a half pint of the B.C. Brown is a pleasant steal.
The same can’t quite be said for the kitchen, though it isn’t bad. In fact, that has tended to be my response for almost everything I’ve tasted out of the Hopstix kitchen: “Oh sure, not bad.” The sushi corndog, which takes a tuna roll and dips in it tempura batter with a stick like a corndog, is amusing, though I wished for less rice and more punch from the spicy mayo drizzled atop it. Tempura-fried kabocha squash was tasty and crisp by itself, but overwhelmed by the salt in the dipping sauce that accompanied it.
There is no shortage in the portions. Entrees of king crab fried rice and a piled-high chirashi-style bowl called super bowl on the menu both contained enough rice to feed a small family. Though there was plenty of tender king crab meat piled atop, the fried rice was a touch too greasy and bland. I much preferred the super bowl, which includes a scattering of tender sashimi, sticky sweet eel, some lettuce and ginger, fish roe, vinegar-packed sushi rice, a skewer of robata grilled pork belly, and a raw quail yolk nestled inside a tiny eggshell. Is that maybe too much stuff packed into one bowl? Sure, but it hits the kind of big, messy, overlapping, satisfying notes you want from something called a super bowl.
If you’re able to look past all of these other options, though, I’d say the best bet at Hopstix is the robata grill. Like the short pours of beer, these skewers hover around a few bucks a piece and encourage the kind of casual nibbling and tasting that pairs perfectly with a flight of beers after work. Tender vegetables, like Chamblee-grown shiitake mushrooms and crunchy shishito peppers, are touched with char and smoke but not overwhelmed by it. A skewer of tender, smoky baby octopus is a delight, especially when paired with the piles of kimchi loaded on with the platter. Pork belly arrives chewy, fatty, crunchy. A drinker in possession of a half pint will be surely pleased.