When our kids were little, we used to read them a book called “Six Dinner Sid” about a peripatetic cat that went from house to house on a residential street, sharing his love to score dinner.
I can relate. I’m a bit of a six-dinner John when it comes to sushi. After many years of having a favorite sushi bar in town, I now seem to have three favorites and three runners-up.
It used to be so easy. Long-timers in Atlanta will remember Soto Japanese Restaurant in Buckhead, where the brilliant and exacting chef Sotohiro Kosugi made raw fish creations of such originality that he was chosen as one of America’s best new chefs by Food & Wine magazine.
These customers also might recall the painstaking pace at which Kosugi constructed his beautiful food as well as his occasional screams and flares of temper. Before he decamped for New York (and much greater fame) in 2006, I had already quietly transferred the No. 1 spot in my heart to MF Sushibar in Midtown.
MF was the first local spot to score the varieties of Japanese fish from Tokyo’s Tsukiji Market that were remaking the premium sushi bar experience — items such as kampachi (young yellowtail), shima aji (striped jack) and kinmedai (golden-eye snapper). Chris Kinjo’s sushi rice had a distinctive soft, fluffy texture; it held together on your chopsticks, then dissipated on your tongue. Kinjo and his brother, Alex, opened a second location in a much grander (i.e., less intimate) space in Buckhead just in time for the Great Recession to affect their business.
By the time the Kinjo brothers had relocated to Houston, I had already begun to divide my sushifying between Tomo Japanese Restaurant in Buckhead, where Tomohiro Naito prepares an acclaimed chef’s-choice omakase menu, and Sushi House Hayakawa on Buford Highway, where Art Hayakawa creates a welcome of unsurpassed warmth.
About a year ago I wrote a comparison of these two restaurants, figuring that would cover the top tier of Atlanta sushi for a while. But then Fuyuhiko Ito opened Umi last year in Buckhead and claimed a portion of my fealty. These three restaurants are to me like horcruxes from the world of Harry Potter, each housing a little piece of my soul.
There are three more I’d add to the top tier. I get to visit them less often but heartily enjoy them whenever I do. With summer weather on top of us like a blast from a steam bath, now is a fine time to explore Atlanta’s best sushi. After you’re done, there may be a seventh option, when the Kinjos return to Atlanta with a satellite branch of MF Sushibar in a new Inman Park development. It is scheduled for an opening later this year. If you like fish and rice, these are good times.
Tomo Japanese Restaurant
3630 Peachtree Road, Atlanta. 404-835-2708, tomorestaurant.com.
The host: Tomohiro Naito, an Osaka native who honed his fish knives at the Las Vegas outpost of Nobu. His wife, Kimiko, creates the attractive Japanese-style desserts. (Think fruit mousses and truffles flavored with green tea and Japanese pepper.) The Naitos operated from a smaller Cobb County location for several years before conquering Atlanta.
The setting: All the dark tile, plate windows and shiny surfaces you’d expect on the ground floor of a mixed-use Buckhead tower. A long sushi bar shoots through the room, culminating with a small, curved omakase bar where Naito prepares multi-course tasting menus for those who reserve ahead of time.
The fish: Tomo consistently gets a large variety of quality fish from Tokyo’s Tsukiji Market. If you’re a fan of uni, that creamy sea urchin roe, this is always a great place to indulge. Each month, the restaurant stages a Tuna Tuesday when Naito breaks down a whole tuna on the sushi counter. The next one is June 17.
The rice: The rice here is well polished and comes out slightly firm and a little beady. I love the way it hits the tongue and appreciate the balance of sugar and vinegar in its seasoning.
The package: Small and beautiful, each piece an ideal single bite of bliss.
The rest of it: You really need to try Tomo’s omakase to fully experience this sushi bar. I’ve never given the kitchen much of a chance, but there are some standard Japanese restaurant hot dishes to be had.
Sushi House Hayakawa
5979 Buford Highway, Atlanta. 770-986-0010, atlantasushibar.com.
The host: Atsushi “Art” Hayakawa, a native of the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido. You need to call ahead to snag a spot at his sushi bar, where he holds court in the most entertaining fashion and makes a regular out of every guest. When I was last there he couldn’t have been a better host to two young Korean-American dudes. He could tell they wanted to eat their sashimi Korean style, with lots of cut nori seaweed and bowls of rice, but were hesitant to ask. So he pulled out his few words of Korean and offered it all up to their delight. Customers at this counter often share their bottles of sake with one another — and Art.
The setting: Cluttered and bright inside, in a way that feels very Japanese. This is the sushi bar where you’re likely to hear as much Japanese as English spoken in the dining room.
The fish: A nice assortment. If you like more pungent options, such as uni, clam and ikura (salmon roe), then this is your place. One house specialty consists of a bowl of rice topped with ikura that has been marinated in sweet sake to mellow its saline bite. Sublime.
The rice: I love that the rice here is always warm, so you get that great one-two boom of cold fish and warm rice in your mouth. Tell Art to choose some sushi for you, and he’ll serve it old-school, a succession of individual pieces to eat rather than a platter served all at once. That’s why you want to be at the bar, to order piecemeal and let your dinner evolve on the spot.
The package: Big, generous pieces of sushi that some of you may need to bite in two. Art usually has some fun packaged condiments from Japan that he uses to season the fish. On my last visit it was uni soy sauce, which had a queasy orange color and intense flavor.
The rest of it: The kitchen here makes lots of great small dishes, good enough that I overlook the sushi sometimes to have a more varied meal. There are many good bottles of sake and shochu to consider. This is a drinky place.
3050 Peachtree Road, Atlanta. 404-841-0040, umiatlanta.com.
The host: Fuyuhiko Ito, a Tokyo native and sushi lifer who ran the counter at MF Buckhead. His sushi bar books out well in advance. His wife, Lisa Matsuoka Ito, oversees the restaurant’s trim menu of hot dishes and desserts. Her green tea souffle makes people extremely happy.
The setting: Ito’s partner, Farshid Arshid, has created one of the most glamorous dining rooms in Atlanta, and it didn’t take long at all for Umi to establish itself as a celebrity magnet. (We were there one night next to the Colin Farrell party.) The room is a study in natural wood shades and indirect lighting, with some creepy/cool vintage Japanese portraiture decorating the walls. The well-dressed crowd has a big-money feel, but they also know how to have fun.
The fish: A broad selection that encompasses interesting oddities as well as luxury items, such as fatty tuna belly. You can drop some serious coin here, but you also can learn why one variety may need an extra day to develop flavor. The chef also serves a signature “aburi” style of lightly cooked fish, allowing heat, oil and a delicate soy sauce to imbue it with flavor.
The rice: A bit more compacted than some others, with an appealing vinegar tang.
The package: The last time I checked, Ito let his assistants take care of the rolls and the cold appetizers but made all the nigiri sushi himself. His lozenges of rice have a distinctive torpedo shape, and the fish drapes just so. He also likes to add new-style garnishes, such as a chip of fried garlic or a daub of kanzuri, a paste made from red peppers aged in snow. Ito is all about that flavor pop.
The rest of it: There’s a bar area in front that’s first come, first served. If you’re out to score a light meal, this is the place to go. The bar mixes good, sush-able cocktails and pours excellent wines by the glass. Again, expensive.
5920 Roswell Road, Sandy Springs. 404-252-7998, bishokusushi.com.
Yuki Kurimaru runs the sushi bar at this full-service Japanese restaurant. While he does a good job with nigiri, I always come back for his excellent chirashi — a gorgeous lacquer box in which assorted cuts of fish rest on a bed of sushi rice. There are two levels, and though you may balk at the nearly $30 price tag for the deluxe, you won’t regret it for an instant.
Taka Sushi and Passion
375 Pharr Road, Atlanta. 404-869-2802, takasushiatlanta.com.
Taka Moriuchi, a former women’s footwear designer who trained as a sushi chef under the masterful Sotohiro Kosugi, has run this tucked-away restaurant for many years. He always has an appealing selection of fish from Tsukiji Market offered at a reasonable price. His hot menu items, such as ramen, have many fans.
Sushi Huku Japanese Restaurant
6300 Powers Ferry Road, Atlanta. 770-956-9559, sushihuku.com.
Jay Oh mans the sushi bar at this busy restaurant and, like Fuyuhiko Ito, dabbles in new-style sushi creations that come with salts or garnishes instead of soy sauce. He’ll reach into his Korean heritage for dishes like raw scallop sushi dotted with Korean chile paste.