Restaurant menus tend to be talked about in terms of size.
On one end of the spectrum are those tiny, odd-shaped pieces of paper featuring all lower case letters and mysterious descriptions like, “chicken, lettuce, oil.” On the other end of the spectrum is Ginya Izakaya, where the road atlas-sized, full-color menu not only features pictures of dozens of dishes per page, but also comes with a pencil-ready sushi checklist and a laminated, double-sided infographic illustrating the contents of the house sushi rolls.
You will be forgiven if that sounds overwhelming.
And you won’t be alone if you already know the deal. That’s because Ginya is a sister operation to Shoya Izakaya, a sprawling restaurant that has occupied a large strip mall location in Doraville for several years.
Ginya has a much smaller footprint, but once you cross through the recognizable vestibule door and enter this room of textured white walls crossed with beams of dark, stained wood, there’s no mistaking Shoya’s signature style. There’s even a tatami-style private dining room in the corner, where diners pull back a curtain, take off their shoes and lounge around a low table during dinner.
At Ginya, I like to start with a few simple, familiar things: a seaweed salad, a bowl of edamame, some fried lotus root chips or, even better, kinpira renkon (sweet, soy-marinated lotus root). I’ll rattle those off along with my drink order, not only because Ginya does those simple dishes well, but also because it buys me and the rest of the table some time to look at this menu.
If you’re there with someone for the first time, they’re going to need a lot of time. Even after looking at Shoya’s very similar menu for years, I always seem to find some dish I don’t remember hiding among the pages. I can’t think of any other restaurants where I get so much pleasure from just throwing back Sapporo or cold sake and looking wide-eyed at the menu.
Eventually, though, you’ve got to just start pointing at things and ordering them. It helps that the prices here are so affordable; they hover around 5 bucks for a small plate and around $10 for something stomach-filling like a bowl of ramen.
You’ll need a small crowd to actually take a full survey of the menu, and a full survey is what Ginya does best. I like the hiyayaykko, a cold ginger-scallion tofu, almost as much I like the tempura-fried, dashi-drenched agedashi tofu.
I like the simplicity of Ginya’s small sashimi plate, which comes with a very clean and predictable trio of tuna, salmon and yellowtail, but I prefer the tako sunomono, a sweet, vinegar-drenched bowl of octopus sashimi, cucumbers and seaweed.
The chicken karaage, essentially Japanese fried chicken nuggets, crunch and sing with flavor. Douse them with a squeeze of lemon and a big scattering of the red pepper seasoning that Ginya leaves on the tables.
But, you can’t forget the chicken skin yakitori, which is, as it sounds, a long strip of chicken skin folded onto a skewer and fried perfectly crisp.
However, if you really want a fried treat, the best is the koebi karaage — tiny, salty, shell-on river shrimp that crunch in your mouth like popcorn but aren’t anything like the breaded “popcorn shrimp” that American chains sell.
After that third glass of cold sake, you might want something heavy and big, like the thick, saucy okonomiyaki, a gigantic pork pancake that revels in decadence. Or, you could go for a bowl of tonkatsu ton ton ramen, a spicy bowl that comes loaded with ground pork. The ramen is pretty good here, though it won’t be winning awards for precision. I tend to avoid it, because it is hard to share with the table.
This is one of the harder to explain things about Ginya’s charm (and Shoya as well). It isn’t the best place for sushi in town, nor the hippest ramen joint, nor the flashiest Japanese interior, but it manages a survey of the variety of Japanese cuisine — and the comfortable fun of izakaya dining — as well as or better than anywhere around Atlanta.
And, every once in a while, you’ll point to something you’d never imagine ordering, like a barbecue eel omelet, and after you taste the lightly sweet, gooey, tender concoction that lands on your plate, you’ll never be able to imagine coming back without ordering it.
So, here’s the most important tip I can give for navigating Ginya Izakaya’s gigantic menu: Live a little. Flip through it until you see a picture of some dish that looks exciting or satisfying or just plain confusing to you and order it. Order some stuff you know, too.
Some of it will be great, some will be fine, some will be whatever. All of it will be cheap and small and best when accompanied by another round of cold beer or sake. The stakes of failure are small, but the pleasures of discovery are as big as the menu is long.
5-11:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays, 5-11 p.m. Sundays. 1700 Northside Drive, Atlanta. 470-355-5621, ginyaatlanta.com.