The Christiane Chronicles: Hashtag hatred and why shochu is Japan’s best kept secret

Raves and rants from veteran dining authority Christiane Lauterbach
Illustration by Zohar Lazar
Illustration by Zohar Lazar

Rant: Anti-Social
I own a smartphone, but I refuse to tweet, text, or otherwise share photographs of what I eat. Unlike my peers who communicate every detail of their lives as professional stomachs, I have no desire to share my whereabouts and “instant opinions” with a bunch of strangers. On the contrary, it seems to me that platforms like Facebook and Twitter—and even popular review sites like Yelp—have corrupted the dining scene.

Today foodies and bloggers behave like crazed birds, flocking to flaunt their appearance at barely open restaurants before hastily departing for the next new thing. In an of-the-moment social media culture that fetishizes the fleeting, savvy chefs know just how to drum up interest: by creating artificial scarcity (and bottlenecking customers), like offering ramen and cheeseburgers for “one night only.” Restaurant owners, meanwhile, must endure public—and often worthless—floggings at the hands of cranky know-nothings. Sure, I read it all, but I’ll be damned before you catch me falling for the hype (or using a hashtag).

Photograph by Caroline C. Kilgore
Photograph by Caroline C. Kilgore

Rave: That’s the Spirit
I have a true passion for the delicate taste of one clear, bright alcohol—and it’s not vodka. Shochu is a Japanese spirit that’s distilled (not fermented like sake) from rice, barley, sweet potatoes, or buckwheat. It can also be made from sesame, dates, and pumpkin. Mild and refreshing, shochu was historically viewed as rustic and cheap, but this century the spirit has garnered a new appreciation among bar patrons in Japan, where it outsells sake regularly.

I was introduced to shochu 10 years ago in Tokyo. There bartenders serve it over hand-carved jumbo ice cubes, mixed with water, or in a cocktail called a chu-hai. At home in Atlanta, I drink it neat in a lowball glass. Locals looking for an introduction can turn to mixed drinks from the talented likes of Eric Simpkins of the Lawrence, Gabe Bowen of Umi, Brad Tolleson of Restaurant Eugene, and Nate Shuman of Proof and Provision.

My favorite shochu concoctions, though, are found at Miso Izakaya. The brains behind the shochu offerings, T. Fable Jeon, flexes the full range of the spirit’s potential, serving chu-hais made with fresh fruit, tea, sodas, and nonalcoholic beer. The Madame Butterfly cocktail (barley shochu, Cocchi Americano, lychee, roasted orange, and bubbly) is a study in refinement, and the bartenders are well-versed in the nearly 30 varieties of shochu on the shelves, including a smooth, almost nutty buckwheat Unkai and a rare, highly fragrant sweet potato Heihachiro. When you’re ready to start a collection, head to Tower Beer, Wine & Spirits on Buford Highway.

A word of warning: Don’t confuse shochu for soju, a lower-proof Korean spirit that’s sweeter, cheaper, and typically lower quality. Although soju pairs well with Korean barbecue, shochu is infinitely more refined and a far superior match for Japanese cuisine.

Field notes

  • Giovanni Di Palma’s new Antico Pizza Napoletana and Caffè Gio in Alpharetta’s swank Avalon development may be slightly less picturesque than the originals, but they’re far more posh.
  • If there’s one person who can draw Atlanta’s hipsters to Korean porridge, it’s Allen Suh, who has created a jook pop-up at Mother, a youthful bar and restaurant on Edgewood Avenue.
  • I can’t think of a better match for Watershed on Peachtree than new executive chef Zeb Stevenson, who prepares fresh ingredients with simplicity and respect.

This article originally appeared in our April 2015 issue.