The small brick building at 710 Ponce has been a dog-obedience school, a scooter shop, and at least a few different restaurants—even if those restaurants have all shared a name (8Arm) and an owner (Nhan Le). Most of 8Arm’s culinary about-faces have been forced by events: In 2017, barely a year after opening, the restaurant suffered the sudden death of its original chef-partner, Angus Brown. Subsequently, Le hired the madly gifted Maricela Vega, whose vegetable-focused Mesoamerican cooking won her wide acclaim. Earlier this year, Vega’s decision to move on compelled yet another turn in 8Arm’s seemingly endless process of reinvention.
When it opened again several weeks after Vega’s departure, 8Arm had become a Japanese izakaya, with casual drinking fare, grilled skewers, ramen, a tiny sushi bar—and serious culinary legs. Le says his philosophy is “cooking the moment,” and throughout his career as an Atlanta restaurant impresario, he’s never settled for a less-than-exciting concept or a chef who wasn’t brimming with creativity: With the aid of chef Duane Kulers, for instance, he’s had successive hits with the East Atlanta Village late-night destination Octopus Bar and the Memorial Drive taco counter Supremo. When I asked about his latest vision, Le reminded me that his involvement in Japanese food goes back as far as Wasabi, which he opened in Castleberry Hill in 2005. He and Brown also launched Lusca, a wonderful but short-lived seafood spot (with a great sushi counter) in South Buckhead.
Long before izakayas became fashionable, pubs such as Shoya in Doraville bridged the gap between Atlanta’s deluxe Japanese establishments (Umi, Sushi Hayakawa) and the countless pan-Asian places where sushi is almost always an afterthought. What’s exciting about the latest iteration of 8Arm is the degree to which it takes its concept seriously and offers it to an intown audience.
Hiro Endo, from Ginya Izakaya in Berkeley Park, is billed as 8Arm’s executive chef, but he’s really more of a consulting chef and partner; Allen Suh, whose title is chef de cuisine, runs the show. Houston-born, Atlanta-raised Suh has cooked in many local kitchens (Gaja, Restaurant Eugene) and launched pop-ups including the ramen-focused Gato Arigato in Candler Park. He finally managed to buy his own place, the Korean restaurant Donquixote, in late 2019, but operated it only briefly before the pandemic shut it down. Together with his gifted sous-chef, Jack McGowan from Five & Ten in Athens, Suh runs a tight kitchen at 8Arm. The team also includes 8Arm co-owner Skip Engelbrecht, who sometimes pitches in on the line.
Accessible only by scanning a QR code with a smartphone, the menu begins with traditional izakaya offerings—edamame, dumplings, and takoyaki (battered and fried octopus balls)—as well as rotating dishes like buttery, nut-brown miso cod and the savory custard chawanmushi, made with local chanterelles. All are beautifully prepared, as is 8Arm’s ramen, served either hot or chilled. Beyond that, the menu can be tough to navigate, with its various headings and subcategories, and I ended up throwing myself on the mercy of the staff. It turns out that the magic, if unofficial, word is “omakase,” or chef’s choice. Saying it at 8Arm is not a guarantee of success but, if the kitchen can be persuaded, it unlocks such extraordinary dishes as raw sea bream with radish watermelon kimchi—garnished with the fish’s own scales, fried and nearly transparent—and a sweet omelet topped with raspy tongues of fresh uni (sea urchin).
If you sit at the sushi bar, you might further have access to quirky offerings such as toasted bread with uni butter, silky flounder or blackthroat seaperch straddling its own liver, and elegant and mild ivory king salmon. The bar’s approach to bluefin tuna (hon-maguro) may reveal that there’s more to the fish than you thought, with cuts ranging from lean (akami) to melt-in-your-mouth fatty (chu-toro and o-toro) to ridiculously tender (kama-toro: the fish’s collar, near the gills). I don’t care much for Suh’s sushi rice, seasoned with molasses and malt vinegar rather than the traditional rice vinegar and sugar, so I focused more on the sashimi than the nigiri or the specialty rolls (which are, nonetheless, beautifully crafted). Judicious amounts of one of my favorite condiments—the funky Chili Crush made and packaged by the Krog Street Market restaurant Ticonderoga Club—heightened the taste of the pristine seafood.
Joshua Fryer, a beacon of stability as 8Arm’s longtime general manager and beverage director, is a master of low-intervention wines, vermouths, and inventive cocktails. Yet his output in the restaurant’s latest iteration is uneven: Drinks that were weak (as in not enough shochu) or weird (the addition of miso robbed a whiskey sour of its refreshing acidity) made me want to stick to straight sake. Fryer’s gorgeous mocktails also caught my eye.
Depending on where you sit, you may experience the restaurant as an airy room, like a midcentury schoolhouse; a dark den tucked away behind a black curtain; or a sunny patio with kitchen tables beneath a colorful mural. From 11 p.m. till 2 a.m., 8Arm switches gears and becomes L8Arm, serving an abbreviated, casual menu from its outdoor kitchen (see below).
Nhan Le has another winner on his hands, with Allen Suh inaugurating a new era of creativity worthy of 8Arm’s good name and high standards. The kitchen’s commitment to local ingredients distinguishes 8Arm from other izakayas and sushi bars. Be prepared to show some initiative navigating the menu and service—then expect great food from a team that eschews traditional luxury in favor of a relentless focus on flavor.
★ ★ ★ ★
710 Ponce de Leon Avenue, Virginia-Highland
Better L8 than never: ordering off the midnight menu
The offerings past 11 p.m.? Fuel for a night on the town, like the Tempura-Filet-O with miso tartar . . .
. . . the Cali-inspired Out ’N’ In Burger, with cheese, relish, and “secret sauce” . . .
. . . and the Karaage Sando: Japanese fried chicken with Kewpie mayo and the works.
This article appears in our October 2021 issue.