The idea behind Brush Sushi Izakaya—contained right there in the name—is that the Decatur restaurant would be an izakaya, the Japanese version of a gastropub. Designed to serve something for every taste, izakayas’ menus are by necessity ambitious, and Jason Liang, Brush’s founding chef, understands that. His own menu contains separate sections for salads, hot and cold appetizers, fried items, breaded fried items, grilled meat skewers, rice and noodle dishes, and sushi. With so much on offer, it’s rare to find an izakaya that executes everything well, and Brush is no exception.
Liang is Southern by birth but spent his childhood in Taiwan, where Japanese cuisine is part of the culture. Japanese cooking shows dominated his family’s television. As a teenager, Liang was offered the opportunity to intern with a Japanese chef at the Regent Taipei. When he moved to Atlanta in 2006, he became the sushi chef at One Sushi Plus in Brookhaven and then Craft Izakaya in Krog Street Market. Last April he opened Brush Sushi Izakaya in a former bike shop.
The first thing Brush gets right is the bar, where ice is king. Order one of the 17 finely chosen sakes, and a carafe (or a glass or a full bottle) comes nestled in a cedar box full of shaved ice as fluffy as fresh snow. Bar manager Brad Tolleson, formerly of Craft Izakaya, leads the cocktail program and spends a good part of each day cutting ice into squares, diamonds, and spheres to suit each concoction. Try the Mr. Miyagi, made with ginger, wasabi, lime, and fragrant sesame-infused vodka.
Then there’s the omakase, or the chef’s tasting menu, where Liang looks completely at home. Diners can choose from three menus: strictly sushi, a combination of sushi and sashimi, or a broader tasting menu that includes a sampling of robata-grilled items and other small bites. I opted for the third.
It took a week of trying to get a reservation for one of Brush’s small nightly seatings. Liang’s omakase started with four otsumami, or snacks, ranging from crowd-pleasing duck wrapped in scallions to more acquired tastes, like lightly grilled cod sperm dressed with ponzu sauce. Then came the sashimi course, where the winner was house-smoked Spanish mackerel. Nigiri was next, and unfortunately the rice, which is half the battle when it comes to sushi, was too salty. Still, I marveled at how with a few turns of his knife, Liang manipulated a piece of horse mackerel skin into an abstract of silver stripes. Miso soup with baby clams capped the savory portion of the meal.
As for dessert, Liang’s wife, ChingYao Wang, is Brush’s pastry chef, and she is excellent. Her sizzling matcha brownie was edible entertainment: a bright green cake topped with roasted green tea ice cream arrived in a blazing-hot cast iron dish, and my server poured matcha milk over it tableside.
If this were it, Brush would be a four-star restaurant, once the rice was remedied. But it’s an izakaya, remember? The à la carte menu is deep. So there are, unsurprisingly, items on it that you should avoid.
The “DuoBroth” ramen is one of them. As soon as my waiter placed the blue and white bowl in front of me, I saw . . . too much stuff. There was broth made from both chicken and fish bones, a soft-boiled egg marinated in sake and soy sauce, sliced chicken breast, pulled chashu pork, braised bamboo shoots, chopped scallions, minced shallots, lotus root chips, nori, and chili oil. And, underneath it all, noodles. I took a pair of chopsticks to it and got what I suspected: too many competing flavors to work together effectively. The broth, the most important component in ramen, felt obscured by it all.
I pushed the bowl away as the salmon onigiri arrived. The traditionally simple nori-wrapped rice snack was so full of extra components—spicy pickled radishes, furikake (a seasoning made from dried, ground shrimp, sesame seeds, and chopped seaweed), and house yakitori sauce—that the rice fell apart as I tried to pick it up.
I’m willing to forgive this chef his youthful exuberance. With time at the helm of his own restaurant—a first for Liang—editing skills will come. But I can’t help but wish that “Izakaya” were removed from Brush’s name, so Liang could stick to his omakase, serving just a few small seatings a night. Third generation Japanese sushi chef Sotohiro Kosugi may have packed his knives 11 years ago, moving Soto restaurant from Atlanta to New York City, but purist Atsushi “Art” Hayakawa has just five tables of four and a sushi bar that seats six at Sushi House Hayakawa. In this kind of environment, Liang could thrive.
★ ★ ★ ★
Good to know
Skip the tables; you want to reserve a seat at the sushi bar for chef Jason Liang’s omakase.
316 Church Street, Decatur
This article originally appeared in our March 2017 issue.