Paradise re-found 

Soto returns, plus a visit to MF Sushibar and some bad news about Blais

Geniuses are no more common among chefs than in other occupations, but Atlanta is lucky to have a few. Guenter Seeger is one, certainly, and so is Sotohiro Kosugi.

Chef Soto has reopened his restaurant, Soto (3330 Piedmont Road, 404-233-2005), after a hiatus of several months that seems like years. The reopening has sushi lovers kissing the ground. While one may find excellent sushi at other restaurants in town -- MF Sushibar, for example -- none feature the edgy experimentation that made Soto the first Japanese chef to be cited as a rising star by Food & Wine magazine a few years back.

I returned to paradise last week, only a week or so after Soto's reopening. I have to issue a peculiar caution at the outset. Although he's open for dinner again, chef Soto is not very excited about your showing up with a big bunch of friends yet. He is short-staffed and service is slow (although the wait staff is certainly charming and funny). Indeed, when we arrived on a Monday night, we were told that unless we could spend some time waiting, we'd probably want to leave.

We were not fazed; we'd come prepared with a stack of magazines. How can I put this? When Soto says his service is slow, that means it is really, really slow. Even at full staff, dining there has always been a waiting game -- one you will not mind playing once you taste the chef's artistry. So, grab a book and plan to roost. We were at the bar two-and-a-half hours.

Do call ahead and get a reservation to sit at the bar. Watching Soto work is like watching theater. In a white jacket, his face overwhelmed by glasses, he is intensity incarnate. While he slices the fish with geometrical precision, creating wondrous combinations, he also barks orders now and then. The only assistant, before whom we sat, broke into a quiet laugh several times as he had to re-do the wrapping of some fish he presented Soto for the refrigerator. A woman emerged from the kitchen and Soto charged toward her -- I hoped the knife was not in his hands -- to issue his approval of something. And then, quiet as a mouse, he presented us two nigiri of giant clam and two of round clam, apologizing for the delay.

The quality of the nigiri is always exceptional and, besides the clams, we order an assortment of 12 pieces with a tuna roll. Keep your use of soy sauce and wasabi light here; you want to move each bite about your palate to explore the texture and flavors, the oceanic essence.

That experience becomes breathtaking when you order specials. Look around the bar and watch and listen to people as they experience these. You get a mixture of smiles and astonishment. I ordered steamed lobster with uni mousse. Chunks of sweet lobster, a generous portion, were contained by a circle of thinly sliced lotus roots, garnished with wasabi-tinged flying fish roe and served over fluffy uni, surely one of God's own favorite foods. The dish was lightly dressed with truffle-soy sauce, which figures in many of Soto's specials.

Wayne ordered steamed sea eel, papering a bamboo leaf, and broiled lightly under a puree of sea urchin and shiitake sauce. Its flavors were earthier than the lobster dish but just as remarkable. We also shared a salad of purple octopus sliced over Japanese cucumber and wakame seaweed in a light vinegar sauce.

Soto's return to business is the best news I've had in months. If you have never sampled his work -- there are also hot kitchen dishes -- be warned: You will never eat dollar sushi again.

When Soto closed, the city was lucky that MF Sushibar (265 Ponce de Leon Ave., 404-815-8844) opened. I went there last week -- by way of comparison -- with my editor, Bill Addison, who confessed that he lunches there frequently. I was impressed, since our lunch was nearly $70, as much as Wayne and I spent at Soto.

That's a warning. The special rolls at MF cost as much as the inventive specials at Soto. They are delicious in their own way and offer more fish for the bite, but they don't compete in the creativity category. We shared a "dancing eel roll," a fabulous blend of shrimp tempura rolled up with eel and avocado. Talk about your play of textures.

We also shared the "typhoon roll" of two varieties of yellowtail with salmon and avocado. It was milder than the eel roll, a good contrast. Bill insisted we spend the $4 extra to have the server grate fresh wasabi at the table. Don't miss this. Apply the stuff directly to the top of the sushi and then lightly dunk the piece in the soy sauce. The wasabi spreads across the roof of your mouth and then finds your tongue. The soy and wasabi blend in your own pie hole.

Two pieces of otoro nigiri were the astonishing moment of our meal. Otoro is the fatty portion of the tuna belly and you have to have a huge tuna to get much of it, so the stuff is expensive -- $13.50 for two pieces last week. We both lit up biting into it. It's like eating something from paradise, seriously. It melts and resists, dissolves and coagulates. Alchemy.

Don't miss the edamame here, either -- a big heap of soybeans steamed and smoky-tasting with lots of sea salt.

And there are lunch specials, by the way. You do not have to eat like two dining critics!

Horrible news

If the reopening of Soto is the best culinary news I've had in a while, the worst is the sudden closing of kinky Blais after only six months. Partners George McKerrow, David Davoudpour and Ron San Martin say they lost a million bucks in the venture, much inspired by Spain's El Bulli. Look for a new project by Gerry Klaskala of Aria there.

Leave Cliff Bostock a voicemail at 404-688-5623, ext. 1010, or e-mail him at cliff.bostock@creativeloafing.com.

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