Waiting For Soto

Art of the Meal

For years, Georgians who love Japanese food gravitated to Atlanta's Soto, one of the most revered sushi restaurants along the entire East Coast. Chef Sotohiro Kosugi earned a reputation for the freshest and best cuts of raw fish, as well as his inspired, unique dishes -- firmly within Japanese culinary tradition, but also utterly original.





Then last year, the legendarily persnickety Soto suddenly closed his doors for a renovation, and the target date for reopening stretched further and further into the future. Nearly a year later, the restaurant opened with little fanfare, and small design changes -- contemporary decorative glassware now adorns the walls of this astringently austere environment, marked by generic acoustic ceiling tiles, white walls and a curved sushi bar jutting into the small dining room. No jangly Japanese folk songs here -- classical music deepens the impression of a surgeon's standards. That's Chef Soto at the apex of the curve, painstakingly assembling his sushi with the precision of a jeweler setting stones, occasionally barking orders to his Job-like staff.





Also unchanged since the reopening: The probability of a long wait for dinner. Begging, pleading, the implication of personal insult -- it's all to no avail. Chef Soto seems more interested in the food's perfection than, quite frankly, your happiness or wish to ever return. Go to Soto, but be prepared to enjoy some sake, edamame, your dining companions. If you've been longing for leisurely, heartfelt conversation with your sweetheart this Valentine's Day, make a reservation -- you'll definitely have the chance here. Pay attention to your waiter's suggestions for hot dishes from the kitchen that will arrive faster (because Soto isn't making them). Your patience will be amply rewarded -- even the sous chefs' standards are remarkable.





Along with some perfunctory Western wines, Soto offers a page of cold country premium sakes for $8.75 (small) and $16.50 (large). You'll have time to try more than one, such as Ichinokura, from Miyagi, so clean-tasting and slightly mineral it's a bit like Evian water, or Bishonen, a crisper sake from Kumamoto. Unlike Western wines, which were developed to accompany European dishes, the Japanese celebrated sake at their banquets, and invented traditional dishes to enhance the enjoyment of this high-test rice wine.





That bit of history will begin to make more sense as you explore the succession of small, perfect flavors that is Soto. Begin with edamame, the boiled salted soybean that's the staple of every sushi bar, by shelling them and popping the brilliant green beans into your mouth. Try a couple of cooked dishes, such as the excellent broiled yellowtail collar (hamachi kama), the tenderest portion of the fish, just above the gills. In cool weather, delve into the comforting chawan mushi, a warm, soft egg custard enveloping shiitake mushroom, one large shrimp, broad bean, ginko nut, chicken, mitsuba (a parsley-like herb, its slender stalks tied in a knot), and yuzu (a lime-like citrus).





By all means, order nigiri sushi, the traditional "finger" of fish atop rice, with two pieces per order, each perfectly sized, bracingly fresh, the hot green wasabi a suggestion rather than a sermon. But the reason you're here is to sample Soto's specials, small tapas-sized plates that change often, but always display the chef's genius for combining tastes and textures with eye-popping visual appeal.





Take, for example, the hamachi tartare, a gorgeous business of chopped yellowtail with scallion and yuzu pepper, layered with orange flying-fish roe, and flecked, improbably, with pine nuts. The steamed lobster with uni mousse is an ingenious construction of Maine lobster lumps with a delicate sea urchin mousse, molded in crisp, smoky lotus root. It's surrounded by overlapping, concentric cucumber slices, so thin and delicate they look like stained glass.





One friend describes Soto as Sushi Nazi meets Iron Chef. I think of it more as a worthwhile dining challenge -- not quite the foodie Everest, but a formidable ascent with plenty of handholds and a rewarding peak.







Krista Reese is Georgia Trend's restaurant critic. Contact hergtcritic@mindspring.com.





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