The next time you visit a Japanese restaurant, notice how many of the sushi rolls contain cream cheese. Or have names like “Beauty & the Beast,” “La Bamba” or “The Godfather.” Note the presence of California rolls, spicy tuna, and the super-crunch factor — ingredients fried with panko crumbs.
Sometimes delicious and frequently over the top, this is what happens when America reshapes the splendor of Japanese cuisine to suit modern-day tastes. It’s a style of sushi so popular that it’s become a grocery-store fixture, like rotisserie chicken and a cheese case, so worldly that it’s been adopted by the mother culture: You can find American-style sushi rolls all over Japan.
Though Atlanta can boast world-class fish masters like Sushi Hayakawa’s Art Hayakawa, who eschews cream cheese, places like Alpharetta’s Natsu Sushi Bar & Ocean Grill are the norm. At this year-old restaurant owned by chef Yooseung Lim and his wife, Ying, you’ll find a crazy quilt of about 50 specialty rolls along with traditional sashimi, nigiri, noodles and — wait a minute — bulgogi and galbi.
“We are Korean,” Ying Lim volunteered when I called to gather background for this review. The Lims moved to Atlanta in 2016 after nearly 20 years in the Melbourne, Fla., region. They think this city offers more opportunities for restaurateurs, not to mention a large and growing population of Asian ex-pats hungry for a taste of home.
North Fulton might consider itself lucky that the Lims jumped ship, as it were.
I’m not gonna lie and tell you that Natsu is a sushi destination par excellence. It’s a solid neighborhood restaurant, with capacious, minimally appointed wood-paneled interiors, a friendly staff and some damn good rolls with silly names.
I’m no purist: I’ll eat a roll with a schmear of cream cheese, and sometimes those super-crunchy bits make for a superlative textural counterpoint to fish, rice and nori. Plus, you gotta love a place that calls its $100 sushi boat for three the Titanic and the $130 boat for four the Enterprise. (Hear that, Mr. Spock?)
Arriving here for a Saturday dinner with no reservation, we were seated immediately, and after navigating the ambitious, something-for-everybody menu, we had a lovely experience. Starting with a cold appetizer (called Tuna & Avocado) and a warm one (a small plate of fried oysters), both good.
For the fish, the chefs go to great lengths to arrange mandoline-thin slices of cucumber into a little bowl, then fill it with what you might think of as minimalist poke (pristine cubes of tuna and avocado massaged with sesame oil and a touch of spicy sauce). The oysters were wonderfully juicy and just right with a dip of tangy mayo.
Overwhelmed by a menu of Dirty Old Man, Spice Girls, Pink Lady, Casanova, Red Devil, Philadelphia and TGIF rolls (among innumerable others), I let my friend choose while I ordered the nigiri.
The No Name Roll was a rice-on-the-outside roll with a spike of tempura shrimp down the middle, a draping of tuna and avocado, and lots of spicy squiggles. (The chefs here love them some squirt bottles.)
Even better was the Volcano Roll, a standard-order California roll jazzed up with something called conch dynamite (a mixture of chopped shellfish, mayo, masago and spicy sauce). The dish is placed under the broiler for a few seconds, so that the sauces and fishy tidbits turn into delicious ooze with crispy edges. Sushi mavens may scoff. We inhaled it.
I played it safe with the nigiri — tuna, hamachi, salmon, shrimp, eel and conch — and the results were equally safe: fresh fish, beautifully presented, hardly mind-blowing.
Same with the bento box I had on my second visit, at midday. It was a very pretty lunch set with a salad, slices of California roll, some rather ho-hum little tuna and cucumber rolls, and standard-issue nigiri. Best thing on the tray were the hot items: a little corn fritter and a spring roll.
Neither the food nor the lunch service was as polished as my dinner visit.
The server placed the check on the table soon after bringing my food, mumbling about how busy they were. Alas, I was contemplating dessert, and the room was hardly overflowing. To go, I ordered a katsu donburi (fried pork cutlet on a bowl of rice) with a plain boiled egg but went home with the spicy version with veggies instead. Oh, well. No biggie.
I’d be remiss if I did not sample the Korean cooking. A $21 sizzling plate of bulgogi, thinly sliced hanger steak with mushrooms and onions in a hearty brown sauce, was quite tasty and a generous portion, too. That said, when I want Korean barbecue, I’ll head to Duluth.
In Florida, the Lims had a restaurant called Haru (the Japanese word for spring). It only makes sense they’d call their new restaurant Natsu (summer). Here’s to change and new beginnings. And, every now and then, a little sushi with cream cheese.
NATSU SUSHI BAR & OCEAN GRILL
Lunch: 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Mondays-Fridays; dinner: 5-10 p.m. Mondays-Saturdays. 3070 Windward Plaza, Alpharetta. 470-448-1919, natsusushi.com.
Recommended: Tuna and avocado appetizer, fried oysters, Volcano Roll, bulgogi.