Review: Sushi Hayakawa shines after renovation

When you eat at Sushi Hayakawa, you may notice how few people are there. It is not a lack of customers, but a lack of seats.

Even on a fully booked Saturday night with every seat occupied or reserved, your eyes may scan the well-lit room and see only a handful of tables, the thick-hewn, wooden slab of sushi bar, and scarcely more than a couple of dozen diners. Behind the bar’s simple glass coolers, filled with prized, clean cuts of Aji and Madai flown in from the Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo and trays of creamy umi harvested in Hokkaido, the numbers are even smaller. You may see just one man with a very sharp knife and a bright red towel wrapped around his head, accompanied by a single, very attentive assistant.

The man with the red towel around his head is Art Hayakawa, a Japanese-born and -trained sushi chef with more than two decades of reputation in Atlanta. Last year, when he closed his namesake restaurant on Buford Highway for renovations, he did the opposite of what almost any restaurateur with his age and skill does. Many tend to make the tables smaller, the seats more plentiful, and the meals more swift. It is simple business math: More seats plus more customers equal more checks at the end of the night. Hayakawa is not like other chefs. When he renovated last year, he made the tables bigger, the seats fewer, the meals longer, and, inevitably, the customers fewer. The move was, in a word, brilliant.

After all, sushi is a culinary tradition that is all about doing more with less. It is rice and raw fish. As the masters of this craft know, the individual who pursues the perfection of both has a limitless task ahead. Not that we always think of it that way. The plastic trays stuffed with California rolls at the grocery store are not exactly high-minded fare. At Kula, a restaurant that my colleague Wendell Brock reviewed, sashimi is delivered to diners from an anonymous conveyor belt, like cogs in a machine. Trendier restaurants, like Umi in Buckhead, turn the lights down low, the music up, and pack in big, glitzy crowds.

By renovating his restaurant in this way, Hayakawa has chosen the exact opposite approach. It is a restaurant defined by his presence. He is there every night. Every cut of tender, fatty toro and every baroque arrangement of sashimi passes through his hands, no matter where you’re sitting.

If you want a seat, you’ll need to do some work. Pull up the restaurant’s website on your phone and you’ll be greeted with the warning: “NOTICE Reservation Only.” Don’t even think about looking on Open Table. You’ll have to call the number, which is only answered for the two hours before the restaurant opens and only on the days the restaurant is open. If you do get someone on the line, expect to plan ahead. The last time I called, I was able to score a reservation 10 days later, along with the reminder not to expect anything with cream cheese in my meal. The process can feel a little like a test. The only people who pass it are people who really want to eat here.

When you eventually sit down at the sushi bar, you may order a bowl of steaming, dark, rich miso soup loaded with salty clams. You may ask for a little bowl of bright, crunchy, pickled vegetables, perfect for nibbling as the server pours you a glass from a bottle of Suijin Junmai super dry sake.

You may even venture to ask for one of the dishes on the menu’s page of changing specials. Say, the steamed head of a snapper, served with a bowl of bright ponzu sauce. When you pick the rich cheek meat from the snapper’s head with your chopsticks and dip it into the bowl, your mouth will sing with the flavors of salt and citrus and the delicate, clean finish of snapper. Even this, though, is merely an opening pleasantry. These plates, which tend to range from fried, grilled or marinated preparations, are not the reason to wait 10 days for a reservation at Sushi Hayakawa. The reason is the raw fish.

If you want to experience the best of what comes from Hayakawa’s hands, think simply. Ask for the sashimi jyo, a composition of thick-cut slabs of sashimi that is both artful and understated, the way the best floral arrangements tend to be. On one side, you’ll find hotate, a scallop so buttery and rich that you wonder if the mollusk fed on cream as a child. There are slabs of sake, bright orange cuts of salmon that land so perfectly in the balance between firm and tender that you may imagine that Hayakawa’s knife has found the one perfect sliver from the entire side of a long fish.

There are pieces of bluefin tuna that taste so redolent of the sea that you may momentarily forget your reservations about eating from the population of a dwindling, magical species. When your dining companion reaches over and steals the only bite of ebi, a raw shrimp cleaned of the shell, you won’t even be able to be mad once you see the look of pleasure on her face. She’ll hardly even have to explain how the sweet flavor seemed to melt on her tongue.

You’ll probably also have to wait. Because of Hayakawa’s dedication to small staff and control, nothing here comes quickly. That’s fine. It’ll give you plenty of time to wonder why fish tastes so much better in this room. Is it because of the dedication to excellent sourcing? Or the precise attention to the age of the fish? Or the knowledge and skill that are communicated by the stroke of Hayakawa’s blade? The answer is all of the above and more. The attention to detail that comes only with ordering omakase at many other sushi restaurants is given to every single bite served here.

You may even ask your server for Art’s current selection of the best fish from Tsukiji market. What arrived on a recent night was a selection of nigiri, including the house-smoked mackerel, a thick cut of toro split with a single touch of a knife, uni folded into a single nori-wrapped bite. The rice that accompanies each bite will deliver just the right touch of vinegar, the right heft of short, stubby rice. It is the luxurious melting of tuna, the funky richness of uni, the subtle touch of smoke on the mackerel that may roll your eyes back into your skull, overwhelmed with pleasure. At least that’s how I felt. You may feel the same, if you’re lucky enough to get a seat.

Sushi Hayakawa

Overall rating: 3 of 4 stars (excellent)

Food: traditional Japanese sushi

Service: simple

Best dishes: sashimi jyo, toro, uni, hotate, ebi, aji

Vegetarian selections: very few

Price range: $$$

Credit cards: all major credit cards

Hours: 5-10:30 p.m. Wednesdays-Thursdays; 5-11 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays; 4-9:30 p.m. Sundays

Children: not advised

Parking: paid street parking

MARTA station: Doraville

Reservations: required, by phone only

Wheelchair access: yes

Noise level: low

Patio: no

Takeout: no

Address, phone: 5979 Buford Highway, Atlanta. 770-986-0010


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