I owe a huge debt of gratitude to the Asian community. Atlanta’s adventurous Chinese, Vietnamese, Korean, Malaysian, Indonesian, Japanese, and Indian eateries have saved me from a boredom that otherwise would have broken my spirit over three decades of professional eating.
From left to right: DeeDee Niyomkul of Tuk Tuk Thai Food Loft, Gaurav Malhotra of Nectar, Archna Becker of Bhojanic, and Guy Wong of Miso Izakaya
Seeing the sons and daughters of those original restaurant families carve their own path on the local landscape gives me a special thrill. Unlike their parents, who had to address expectations of authenticity in their cooking, the young ones are having fun with their roots while also indulging their creative ideas.
Guy Wong’s parents, for example, started Sam’s Gourmet—one of the first Cantonese seafood restaurants in the Atlanta area—on Roswell Road in the early 1990s. Wong still uses his Chinese name, Gioi Hoang, in e-mails. But when he decided to open his own place, Miso Izakaya, on Edgewood Avenue after boomeranging back home from culinary school in Osaka, he defied expectations. A Chinese man cooking Japanese? He was guaranteed to catch flak from both sides. As an Asian entrepreneur far from the usual stomping grounds on Buford Highway and points north, he initially ran into problems with foodies who mistrusted his outside-the-box thinking and dismissed the shaky early execution of his menu.
I, too, used to question Miso’s validity as an izakaya (Japanese pub). But then, a year after the restaurant’s inauspicious beginnings without a liquor license, I sat down to a plate of rare black edamame imported from Japan, and a fluffy steamed bun filled with tender roast duck, star anise jus, and hoisin sauce that reminded me of a slider. I quaffed a refreshing cocktail made with fresh grapefruit and the clear sweet-potato-distilled spirit called shochu. I became a convert.
Why had I been so hostile to whatever Guy Wong was doing to combine his various interests? Wasn’t I smitten with David Chang of Momofuku in New York, the liberator of Asian cuisine and the poster child for a rising tide of multiculturalism in the kitchen? So what if Miso Izakaya’s small plates departed from the norm and made room for the chef’s remembrances of his childhood, rather than sticking to a Japanese template? What matters is that much of the food is refined and entertaining in an entirely novel way.
I tend to stay away from Miso’s routine sushi, but the trembling soft-boiled soy egg peeled on a charred rice cake; the pure-white and slightly sticky bao bun with a layer of fork-tender pork belly garnished with daikon, carrot, red pepper, and cilantro; and the amusing “japadog” (as in Japanese-style hot dog) with teriyaki mayo and toasted nori convince me that the restaurant is faithful to the spirit, if not to the letter, of an izakaya.
Way before Miso Izakaya, Decatur’s Bhojanic devised a culinary and aesthetic approach that appealed to a multigenerational crowd. “The food is the only traditional part,” co-owner Archna Becker told me recently while we were sitting with her brother, Gaurav Malhotra, at the second location of Nectar, a juice bar and sandwich shop that Gaurav started with his Brazilian wife, Naruna. Both siblings praise their father, Surender Malhotra, as “the best chef.” A courtly gentleman, he owned the now defunct Rasoi, a Punjabi restaurant in DeKalb County. His children have branched out, but their entrepreneurial drive comes from having grown up with resourceful parents. Archna previously worked in the corporate world, and Gaurav, who still has his own band, played drums for a living. The sum of their experience is reflected in the flexible and vibrant feel of their current operations.
Bhojanic became a runaway success, with a broad menu combining traditional thalis on metal trays with spicy snacks and stuffed breads advertised as “Indian tapas.” The dining room—recently remodeled with silvery-gray walls and wood floors, and the site of events featuring live jazz and blues—never conformed to ethnic stereotypes. The second outpost of Nectar, in the same shopping center as Bhojanic, shows hardly any Indian influences at all, but the original Oakhurst location serves a complex dal (lentil soup) that is a family recipe.
When I recently stopped by Tuk Tuk Thai Food Loft, a fashionable year-old restaurant in South Buckhead operated by DeeDee Niyomkul and her fiance, Thaddeus Keefe, I wasn’t surprised to see the television in the bar area tuned to a golf event. After all, Niyomkul’s mom and dad, Nan and Charlie Niyomkul, are big fans of the PGA, whose players they frequently host at their restaurants Nan Thai Fine Dining and Tamarind Seed Thai Bistro. Tuk Tuk plays with tradition and modernism more than those older establishments. Its context—in the sweeping third-floor space atop the Brookwood Place shopping center—may be spectacularly modern and glamorous, but everything about the menu’s Bangkok-style street snacks and the shaved ice desserts served from a cart feels like an homage to Thailand. Grilled pork skewers marinate classically in mushroom soy, but they dangle from an avant-garde metal contraption. I love being able to sip yaa dong—a house-made version of an ancient Thai tonic consisting of alcohol, roots, and mysterious medicinal herbs—while eating green curry with huge tiger prawns in posh surroundings.
Authenticity has its place in my world, but so does evolution, and I love the inspiring perspectives provided by a new generation defining its own ethnicity. In the words of Guy Wong: “It’s all about being young.”
619 Edgewood Avenue
1363 Clairmont Road, Decatur
707 East Lake Drive, Decatur
1365 Clairmont Road, Decatur
Tuk Tuk Thai Food Loft
1745 Peachtree Street
Photograph by Josh Meister