Art Of The Meal: Home Sweet Home
Sushi House Hayakawa
5979 Buford Highway, Atlanta
Reservations: Recommended. (Lines form on busy evenings.)
Parking: In shopping center lot.
Dress code: Stylish casual.
Atlanta’s sushi restaurants always seem too … something. Too flashy, too homey, too hip, too young … too expensive! But I kept hearing about a Japanese restaurant on Buford Highway that sounded like Goldilocks’ porridge: Just right.
Atsushi “Art” Hayakawa is not your typical solemn, monklike sushi-chef, bent over his craft in penitent silence. Personable, affable, even a bit of a ham, Hayakawa plopped down next to us first-time customers at the sushi bar, made several menu suggestions, and walked us through the options on the shochu menu.
Japanese shochu (similar to Korea’s soju) is a finely crafted distilled liquor that is slowly gaining popularity among mainstream sushi lovers. Typically served neat, or with a single large distilled-water ice cube, shochu can be made with sweet potato, rice, barley or other grains, and contain sweet or dry notes of each. Hayakawa labeled his restaurant’s shochu selection by car: “That one’s a Hummer,” he said, “and that one’s a Lexus. And that one – that’s an Infiniti.”
Hayakawa had spent a long day demonstrating cooking for festival-goers at JapanFest, but seemed delighted at the number of first-time diners (and what appeared to be some sushi virgins) who’d followed him “home.” All were apparently equally happy with what was on their plates. A largely Japanese crowd outnumbered non-Asians in this small, prettily appointed restaurant – and everyone has a clear view of the “stage” behind the sushi bar, where Hayakawa and two associates work. Mugging, laughing, pretending to catch a diner’s blown kiss and hold it to his heart, the chef clearly loves his work.
You would have been able to figure that out just from tasting his food. This is no touristy, slice-n-dice-style sushi bar, where the show is the point. The fish, flown from Tokyo’s Tsukiji market, is bracingly fresh. Nigiri (finger-sized pieces of raw fish on rice) are the perfect bite-size; the sashimi (raw sliced fish) is as prettily arranged as a peony’s petals.
Hayakawa’s creativity comes to the fore with a long list of daily specials, which on our visit included a delicious miso soup with blue crab claw (a Japanese man next to us recommended the littleneck clam miso, which we’ll try next time) and marinated and lightly seared tuna (tuna tatami) with garlic sauce. Delicious. The best sushi can make for an expensive night out, but Haya-kawa’s omakase (tasting menu) is a reasonable $65, and a veritable onslaught of courses.
If Hayakawa has a moment to spare, he may look at you and say, “What can I make you?” Don’t reply, “We’ve already ordered.” Instead, jump on this offer, and tell him to make you anything he likes. You might get something as good as our beautiful, and delectable, order of sweet shrimp with uni (sea urchin) so fresh it will sweep you off to sea.
The most prosaic orders – salmon or yellowtail sushi – showed an extraordinary amount of freshness, care and artistry. In particular, an unagi (grilled eel) roll with cooked shrimp blew us away – it’s by far the best eel I’ve tasted in town. A glass of clear Kannoko shochu on a very large rock did, in fact, taste like the menu’s description of whisky. And my companion’s neat finger of Heihachiro sweet potato shochu was as smooth as … well, a Lexus’s ride. Or: Our own transportation home – a cloud of contentment.