Two of four stars (very good)
Behind the former factory that once made telephones, look for an outbuilding where a welder once lit torches and cut metal. You will know you are in the right place when you see a pixelated space invader glowing mysteriously on an exterior white wall.
Step inside. Look up. The industrial ceiling will rise so high that it seems to disappear over the room’s centerpiece: a bonsai-like arrangement of driftwood branches draped in glowing white lights. Long communal tables, red as the sun on the Japanese flag, dominate the center of the room. Behind a long blonde-wood bar, giant vats of broth slowly simmer, curly noodles boil in baskets, pork belly fries on the flattop, and a bartender pours another round of sake.
This is Nexto.
For well over a decade now, Concentrics Restaurants has been playing this dramatic trick in Atlanta. Long before the Beltline made industrial reuse the defining element of intown real estate, Concentrics’ patriarch and visionary, Bob Amick, mastered the magic of selling cocktails in warehouse-size spaces.
After Two Urban Licks opened in 2004, immediately adjacent to the building that Nexto now occupies, the place came to define Atlanta’s taste for post-industrial, new-money glitz. The valet line, designed to shamelessly lure luxury cars right up to the front door, even made loading docks look cool.
Over the years, the restaurant group has harnessed or fostered some of Atlanta’s best talent, including Todd Ginsberg, Joe Schaefer, Zeb Stevenson and Richard Blais. For Nexto, Concentrics has tapped Mihoko Obunai, a chef with a long, varied history in Atlanta who lately has focused her energy on feeding Atlanta’s ramen obsession.
But, as with any of the restaurants in this group, you notice the room first. The food comes second.
Ramen purists may be dismayed. This is not a ramen “shop.” There is nothing small or funky or traditional about Nexto. It is a polished Beltline-adjacent restaurant with a hip, loud soundtrack (White Stripes, LCD Soundsystem, When in Rome) and a smart drink program. If your primary concerns about ramen include the broth’s alkalinity reading on a refractometer and the staff’s proper pronunciation of irasshaimase, you probably already know this isn’t the place for you.
On the other hand, if you’re someone who has longed to pair a flawless, stirred scotch cocktail with a pretty good bowl of noodles and broth while in one of the city’s most fashionable neighborhoods, Nexto promises to be fun.
In fact, the drinks at Nexto come close to stealing the spotlight. In part, that’s because, while Atlanta is now crowded with restaurants simmering pots of tonkotsu broth, Nexto is the only ramen joint whose atmosphere makes me want to hang around for another drink after my bowl of noodles. It’s also because Mike Branton, who designed the beverage program, is the room’s most reliable presence, always floating around and recommending something for the next round.
Watch Mihoko Obunai make tonkotsu ramen:
There is a short but eloquent list of French and German wines by the glass. A few excellent sakes are offered by the can. But the real fun comes in Branton’s unconventional choices. If a guest asks for a glass of moscato, he’ll ask them to try the sparkling Shirakawago Awanigori. It’s a highly unusual beverage, a milky white but crisp sake that develops sparkling sweetness during a second, in-bottle fermentation. Sweet-wine drinkers will be more than pleased, but so will spicy pork broth lovers interested in a strong, unique pairing.
Beer drinkers may have their curiosity piqued by Yo-Ho’s Yuzu Ale, a dry but distinctly fruity Japanese brew. A short list of cocktails includes the sophisticated Hatori Hanzo, a mix of rum, scotch, amaro, bitters and honey, as well a slushie machine loaded with gin and rosé. This is a list that’s fun to drink around, with plenty of pleasant surprises tucked into a short space.
The food menu packs less surprise, but still offers pleasures. There are the requisite pork belly buns, but also variations, including eel or mushrooms. These were tasty, though I wished the buns were fluffier. The okonomiyaki (Japanese pancake) was fairly traditional, stuffed with squid and bacon and topped with plenty of kewpie mayo, though noticeably miniature, closer to the size of a CD than an LP. That’s fine, because you’ll need the stomach space for ramen.
The ramen options here are mostly nontraditional. Spicy bacon miso ramen delivered a gut bomb of pork so cooked down and falling apart that it almost resembled a Bolognese sauce. Tori paitan ramen boasted a lighter, cloudy broth, a few hunks of chicken, and the very Southern touch of collard greens and sweet potato chips. Ebi shoyu ramen, studded with white Georgia shrimp, had a dark soy broth that finished clean and light on the tongue. A spicy vegetable miso ramen was impressively bolstered by a complex vegetable stock (including dried shiitake mushrooms, kombu kelp and kabocha squash, among other ingredients) and Obunai’s miso blend.
Despite all of this variation in style, none of these bowls managed to stun or overwhelm the way the finest, focused bowls of ramen can. In general, they tended to land somewhere around the “pretty good” mark.
The surprise standout on the menu is a section of dishes marked “binchotan.” Instead of focusing on average Japanese kushiyaki (skewered, grilled meat), the kitchen uses its powerful binchotan charcoal grill to make some of Nexto’s most composed, satisfying plates.
Thin ribbons of seared wagyu sirloin from Snake River Farms paired excellently with a potent yuzu kosho sauce. A fillet of salmon was seasoned with furikake and cooked to caramelized crisp on the outside, flawless medium rare on the inside. Plated with diced persimmon and toothsome edamame, the dish was a real pleasure.
When I finished it, all I wanted was another drink.
Overall rating: 2 of 4 stars
Service: attentive but casual
Best dishes: okonomiyaki, mushroom buns, wagyu sirloin, grilled salmon
Vegetarian selections: excellent vegetarian ramen
Price range: $-$$
Credit cards: all major credit cards
Hours: lunch, 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 11:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Saturdays; dinner, 6-11 p.m. Mondays-Wednesdays, 6 p.m.-2 a.m. Thursdays- Saturdays
Children: not recommended
Parking: parking lot and valet
Reservations: not accepted
Wheelchair access: yes
Noise level: loud music, but not overwhelming
Address, phone: 828 Ralph McGill Blvd., Atlanta. 404-809-3763