The art of Atlanta’s omakase cocktails

At omakase restaurants, chefs—and bartenders—lead your dining journey

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The art of Atlanta's omakase cocktails
Mona McAllen, beverage director at Brush Sushi

Photograph by Ben Rollins

At Brush Sushi in Buckhead, shiitake mushrooms float in a carafe of whiskey, resembling lava lamp blobs at rest. These mushrooms won’t glow, but they will eventually impart their earthy flavor to the whiskey, which will then be used in the Umami cocktail. A blend of mushroom-infused whiskey, mezcal, honey, and house-blended shoyu, garnished with hickory-smoked cherries, the cocktail is an unusual combination that somehow just works. “Adding those hickory-smoked cherries, with the back-and-forth of sipping and eating—the garnish for me just kind of blew it up,” says Mona McAllen, Brush’s beverage director.

A slew of omakase restaurants, or omakase counters within established restaurants, have opened around the metro in recent years. Two, Hayakawa and Mujo, were even awarded Michelin stars. Omakase dining asks guests to relinquish control to the chefs working their craft behind the sushi bar; these days, the bartenders would like the same courtesy extended to them.

The drinks at omakase restaurants aren’t as off-menu as the meals—generally, you can select your cocktail from a list. That list, however, is composed of creatively crafted beverages designed to play nicely with the dishes placed before you. It’s all too common for restaurants’ cocktail lists to clash with their food menus, says James Sung, beverage director of Umi in Buckhead. “We aim to have the cocktails accentuate and accompany the dining experience,” he says. “It almost acts like a secondary sauce for the food, or a nice edible garnish.”

Below, three omakase restaurants in Atlanta with notable cocktail programs.

The art of Atlanta's omakase cocktails
Mujo’s City Pop cocktail, concocted by Michael Satusky

Photograph by Andrew Thomas Lee

Mujo
A sleekly designed respite from its bustling West Midtown environs, Mujo has earned a reputation for its beautifully prepared sushi and elegant Japanese dishes. Everything here is done with intention, from the eclectic playlist to the can lights carefully placed above each diner. The cocktails are, of course, no exception. “We try to reference the classics as much as we can,” says Mujo’s bartender, Michael Satusky. Infusing traditional Western-style drinks with Japanese spirits, like Haku vodka and Kome shochu, just made sense.

The latter is a spirit seen infrequently on American menus. Shochu is a slightly sweet Japanese distilled spirit, made with such grains as rice or other starches like sweet potato; its distillation process results in a much higher alcohol content than its brewed cousin, sake. It’s an excellent companion to other spirits, and Satusky loves using it. “Talking to guests about shochu is definitely exciting, and makes people excited to try it,” he says.

You’ll find shochu in Mujo’s City Pop cocktail, named for a genre of music popular in ’80s Japan, which often crops up on the restaurant’s playlist. It’s made with sweet potato shochu, extra-dry vermouth, grapefruit liqueur, and piment d’Espelette. “That piment d’Espelette underscores some of the vegetal, earthier notes in the shochu,” says Satusky, “and brings a whisper of heat to the glass as well.”

The art of Atlanta's omakase cocktails
For Brush’s McAllen, a new Buckhead location offered room to play with the drink menu.

Photograph by Ben Rollins

Brush
Brush, which relocated to Buckhead from Decatur last August, hosts the O by Brush omakase room, in addition to a full dining room serving Edomae-style sushi, grilled vegetables, and ramen at lunch. The fresh start gave McAllen a welcome opportunity to push her limits when developing cocktails. “I enjoy creating fun things that are approachable,” she says. “So when we opened here, I really wanted to have some things that were a little bit more complex, maybe took a little more time.”

Case in point: the milk punch with more than 10 ingredients, which happens to be personal to McAllen. “I wanted to make a drink that reminded me of my mom’s banana pudding, but combine it with the Asian citrus element,” she says. It’s a labor-intensive process that requires steeping several spices in the milk before letting it curdle, resulting in a completely transparent, not-too-sweet concoction that hits notes of banana and vanilla.

McAllen’s creativity extends beyond the cocktail list; she’s now venturing into nonalcoholic drinks, too. After Brush’s owner and chef, Jason Liang, taught her how to make kombucha, she began playing around with a variety of flavors, like yuzu-honey, rose, and coffee. The coffee kombucha (made with coffee grounds from Brush and sister restaurant Momonoki) gets put to use in the Monkey Business zero-proof cocktail, along with zero-proof rum infused with bananas, coconut, and cocoa bitters. “I love the idea of mocha-coconut-banana, so this is a fun drink,” notes McAllen.

M Room at Umi
Umi’s M Room, the upstairs omakase room named for its chef, Tasuku Murakami, diverges from its downstairs sister in both stature and design. While the main dining room is dimly lit, with black walls, wood accents, and statement light fixtures, the omakase space is a brilliant white box that seats only eight people. While chef Murakami handles the sushi, beverage director Sung serves up a thoughtful cocktail program, with names inspired by the seven virtues of bushido (the code that governed samurai in imperial Japan).

For example, the Meiyo (“honor”) cocktail pays homage to Sung’s Korean roots as well as the Japanese culture that molds the restaurant. “This is a Japanese whisky/barley infusion,” explains Sung. “Barley is a staple in both Japanese and Korean culture.” The result is a fizzy, refreshingly earthy highball that pairs easily with the nigiri. Meanwhile, the Jin (“compassion”) cocktail is a complex beauty of tequila, sake, housemade strawberry cordial, cacao, and lime. The viscous strawberry cordial sinks to the bottom of the rocks glass, creating a layered drink. “As you drink it, the strawberry kind of dissipates, and it becomes a pink cocktail,” says Sung.

Of course, it wouldn’t be Umi without a little wow factor: “The highlight of this cocktail is actually going to be the garnish,” he says. “We get the best strawberries in the world from Japan.” Those would be Tochiotomes from Murata’s Family Farm, grown on a single family farm in Hokota. They cost about $5 per berry—but it’s worth it, claims Sung: “Once you actually bite into one, it’s literally the greatest strawberry you’ve ever had.”

This article appears in our May 2024 issue.

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