He barely glances at the menu. His whole attention is turned toward the chef standing front-and-center behind the counter. He watches, as does every other person around the bar, as the figure in white bends over a plate of shimmering, precisely overlapping slices of sashimi. Using a pair of metal chopsticks, the chef places tiny gems of yuzu (Japanese citrus) rind at the tip of each piece of fish. His concentration is palpable, as focused as a jeweler crafting a wedding ring for his own beloved.
When the last careful touch on the dish has been completed, there is an almost audible sigh from the audience of customers. The chef shouts a table number to a server, looks up and finally greets the young businessman, whom he recognizes.
"Hello, Soto," replies the suit with a sigh. "I'm so glad you've reopened."
I observe this interaction from across the bar without a speck of surprise. Sotohiro Kosugi has inspired this degree of rapt adoration from Atlanta diners for nearly a decade. His decision to close Soto last summer to rest and regroup stretched into almost a year's sabbatical. Devotees were beginning to quietly panic: Would their eccentric daimyo of sushi ever reopen his doors?
At last, yes. And when you walk through that venerated door, passing from the rippling asphalt heat of the Disco Kroger shopping center into the still, sealed dining room, it seems as if little has changed. A scrimshaw in one corner is gone; there are new, simple wall adornments and light fixtures.
But the center-stage sight remains familiar: solemn Soto at the helm of the sushi bar, flanked on either side by tense assistants who form sushi rolls and ask sedately for guidance. Absorbed, delighted customers surround on three sides, silently relishing the food in front of them, but still gazing and hoping the exquisite dish Soto is currently assembling will be theirs.
The mood of those who sit at a table is more convivial, relaxed. Their conversation, fueled by tall bottles of Japanese beer or shapely vessels filled with sake, charges the restaurant with a subdued air of anticipation. Regulars know that patience with the perpetually slow service is not a virtue here. It's a prerequisite.
Dual elements comprise the splendor of a meal at Soto. There is, of course, the impeccably sourced fish served as sushi and sashimi. But, for me, the deepest pleasures come from Kosugi's specials and appetizers. Part-traditional Japanese dishes, part-culinary theater of the imagination, they pleasure the mind as much as they do the palate.
If you're a Soto newbie, peruse the menu and pick whatever looks appealing. Maybe you'll ease into this strange new world with hamachi kama, a succulent piece of broiled, bone-in yellowtail collar. The fun of eating hamachi kama comes from digging out the hidden pockets of meat and then dipping them in spiky ponzu sauce.
Next, perhaps, a tuna tartare roll. You might be intrigued by the roll's greenish white wrapping. It's white kelp, infinitely more supple than the typical, toothy nori seaweed. Now take a bite. The sweet tuna, the warmth of sesame, the creaminess of avocado ... but what's that crunch? Pine nuts? In sushi? Who is this guy?
In time, the newcomers stop asking questions and morph into regulars who simply give themselves over to the master.
I'd been to Soto many times before its prolonged closing, though I admit I'd always stuck to my pet dishes. When I returned recently, though, I knew I was ready to go omakase -- the chef's multi-coursed selections of the best choices that evening. This isn't always available when the restaurant is slammed. Your odds are better if you come in early on a weeknight. And omakase isn't for the timid or frugal diner (though how much you eat -- and spend -- will ultimately depend on you). But if you're looking to be transported, Soto can take you there.
We start with the aji carpaccio adorned with the sterling pieces of yuzu, dressed in Soto's remarkable, signature ginger-soy-truffle sauce. The earthy yet opulent fusion of those three flavors haunts you. It's a taste I've never had anywhere else and that stays acute in my memory.
A server brings what looks like a lantern holder to the table. In it are deep-fried, slightly crunchy soft-shell crawfish, powdered with the unmistakable punch of curry. They are poised over a fleshy mound of plump shiitake mushrooms. Sublime.
Uni (sea urchin) is, for many, a final frontier in the world of food, but it is terrain you should tread at Soto. If I must name a favorite dish here, it is the steamed lobster with uni mousse. A porous cage of lotus root encases layers of gently cooked lobster meat, swaddled in the velvety, mildly funky uni mousse. Gossamer slices of cucumber dabbed with minty shiso oil refresh the senses. On top of the lobster lies a scant hillock of caviar and two miniature lobes of smoked uni. I get lost in these electric tastes, happily adrift in a place much like the picture of the idyllic beach that hangs behind where Soto stands.
Another dish that rolls effortlessly off the worshipful, practiced tongues of Soto aficionados is uni ika sugomori zukuri. Watching Kosugi prepare it stops you in mid-bite. He slices off translucent slices of squid, reaches under the counter to produce a large wooden box of uni, scoops out an enormous glob, rolls it around the squid with feathery shards of nori and then breaks a quail egg on top.
This is the dish the guy in the suit had apparently broken out in night sweats over. We watch him nearly collapse with happiness as he eats his uni while we polish off our final course -- a platter of pristine sashimi that included two pieces of chu toro so silken it felt almost clandestine to eat them.
That the youthful businessman came so late in the evening was an immediate telltale sign that he was intimately familiar with the restaurant. At prime time almost any night of the week, meals here can take hours. The infamously uneven service, alas, has not changed in the wake of the restaurant's reprieve. I've come to accept it as an intrinsic part of the experience. The food is laborious and worth the wait. But I would love to not have to wait 20 minutes for my first round of sake.
Occasionally, the intense pressure to deliver dishes in a timely manner takes its toll on Soto's disposition. One recent Saturday night, the buzzing restaurant went still when Soto snapped loudly at a server, who yelped back defensively. The two disappeared into the back kitchen. Soto reappeared frowning, but went back to work immediately. And the room resumed its buzz. For food this close to perfection, we're willing to put up with an artistic temperament.
Can food be considered art? It's a common debate in the culinary world. Most of the time, I side with the thought that food served in restaurants has more to do with craft. But when I finally rise from a meal here -- my senses tingling, my hunger profoundly sated, my jaded palate renewed -- and Soto looks up and bestows me with a grin of gratitude, I know with certainty I've been eating from the hands of an artist.
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