Japanese menus can be hard to navigate. If you haven’t sufficiently committed to memory the looks and tastes of different nigiri and sushi offerings, you might resort to the cowardly California roll. (I confess to occasional cowardice.)
Craft Izakaya is here to help take some of the mystery out of ordering. In a two-dimensional version of the usual scarily lifelike rubber food models that line Tokyo windows, Craft Izakaya features color pictures of every dish on its pasteboard menu.
What the restaurant aims to be is welcoming, user-friendly, and plain friendly—and it succeeds. Izakaya, the servers will explain, means a brewpub for the working class that serves lots of small, tapas-style plates, presumably to stimulate more drinking. This model requires a well-stocked bar, and that Craft Izakaya has, with an extensive list of classic and craft cocktails; craft beers, including eight from Japan (try Ozeno IPA, to compare it with IPAs you already know); Western wines, including ones you won’t know but should (Umani Ronchi Montepulciano d’Abruzzo); and a long sake and shochu list the servers point to with pride.
Indeed, the bar caught on so fast that even on weekday evenings months after its opening, the line was three deep—right into Krog Street Market. Craft Izakaya’s customers are upscale and knowledgeable, happy to sit at either the 10-stool sushi bar or the long and lively group table on the ground floor. Also fairly loud; if you want quiet, try the mezzanine, where some tables offer an aerial view of the sushi ballet.
Craft Izakaya serves a lot of carefully made food that’s wonderfully satisfying and just new enough to make you take notice—along with a fair number of dishes that are just pallid. Those color pictures are descriptive up to a point. Even if you know what a dish looks like, there will still be plenty of surprises.
Many surprises are happy ones, showing off skills that chef Jey Oh learned at sushi restaurants in San Francisco and while running Sushi Huku in Sandy Springs for nine years. The Krog Street Market developers were regulars at Sushi Huku, Oh says, and asked him to take on one of their anchor spaces.
Two raw fish dishes show the balance Oh strikes between lightly seasoned elegance and spiced spark: wasabi ae and spicy tuna avocado ball. Wasabi ae—named for the wasabi stems used as a garnish (there’s no grated wasabi in the dish) and ae, meaning “tossed in sauce”—is a plate that, for other sushi chefs, might be little more than a clever way to sell fish trimmings. Here it seems the height of luxury. Tiny triangles of hamachi or amberjack or yellowtail or whatever else is being served that night are tossed in a dressing of sake, mirin, and strong soy sauce, then placed in a stripe along a rectangular plate, like a glistening mosaic. The sweet power of the sake and mirin (sweet rice wine) and the judicious salt of the soy make for an exceptionally pure and lovely presentation.
In the spicy tuna dish, a scoop of chopped raw tuna hides under prettily pressed slices of avocado. But that tartare is a modest delight, sharply awakened by Sriracha and sesame oil and served with a spicy mayo. It’s an extension of the wasabi ae—enhancing but not obliterating the fish, in this case adding the oily softness of avocado and the popping crunch of tobiko (flying fish roe).
Another example of this balance are unseasoned little logs of salmon belly under lush, practically marble-sized spheres of salmon roe cured for just a few hours with soy, mirin, sake, and kelp, served with an unexpected dollop of room-temperature tomato sauce made Italian-style with garlic and white wine. It’s one of the most successful fusion dishes I’ve encountered, with a continuum of both color and texture: Shades of salmon and coral blend into each other, the melting tomato and unctuous roe leading you back to the slight chew of the belly meat.
So the dishes that go too far or not far enough come as jarring. A 12-piece chef’s sashimi platter is an odd grab bag, with matte and inert pieces of amberjack and yellowfin, and farmed tiger shrimp so bland it might as well be a rubber replica in a Tokyo window. (The charge was even more surprising: When we were midway through, the server apologized for serving a more deluxe platter than the $29.95 one we’d ordered, with seven nigiri pieces and a toro roll added to the sashimi. For a minute, we thought she was going to take away our half-finished board to be replenished and given to the right table, but we offered to pay in full—and the $47.95 charge duly appeared on our bill.) A separate order of “sweet shrimp” with raw tail and flash-fried head, though, is wonderfully subtle and moist.
I might be too tough on the sushi. When I visited the Midtown location of the national chain RA Sushi for midrange context, I saw just how much details matter. Oh’s California-sourced Tamaki Gold rice—warm and pliable with its subtle seasoning of rice wine vinegar, sake, sugar, and salt, and never, according to Oh, held for more than two hours—came as a rebuke to every pad of RA’s cold, hard, unseasoned rice. I wanted to get right back in line at Craft Izakaya.
Oh’s cooked dishes are also inconsistent, though. Mackerel is lifeless in a sushi roll but irresistible grilled with tobanjan, a garlic-chile paste that reflects the chef’s Korean origins. Grilled yellowtail collar, almost wholly unseasoned save for a housemade citrus-soy ponzu, is a meaty triumph. But the grilled salmon collar, slathered with a too-sweet honey miso, is sloppy and gristly. The many yakitori—grilled bits of meat, usually chicken, or vegetables on bamboo sticks—are almost uniformly tough, skewered nothingness, given interest only by the big dots of three sauces served beside them.
When Oh returns to the homey part of the menu, he makes dishes any kid would love, and I love, too. Like chicken yakisoba: stewy buckwheat noodles in Japanese steak sauce with cabbage, carrot, and chunks of dark meat. Or chawan mushi, a dish that’s labor-intensive but a must on any izakaya menu: egg mixed with dashi (the fish-kelp stock that is the base of many Japanese dishes) and steamed in a cup to make a trembling custard that hides slices of scallop, shrimp, chicken, and ginkgo. It’s small and perfect.
Any kid would love the dessert giveaway, too: cotton candy of varying flavors. It’s part of the fun Craft Izakaya is aiming for—along with some formidably expert food.
Rating ★★ (very good)
99 Krog Street
Good to Know Waiting on a table? Tour the rest of the market. Just don’t try and nick the gorgeous espresso machine at the Little Tart Bakeshop.
This article originally appeared in our January 2015 issue.