A friend and I were sitting at the bar at Sushi Huku—an unassuming Japanese restaurant off Powers Ferry Road near the northern intersection of I-75 and I-285—savoring the omakase, a word that roughly translates as “leave it to the chef.” Owner Jerome Oh, who introduces himself to customers as “Jey,” began our meal with an appetizer plate of three exquisite bites: a sliver of gently chewy abalone topped with a julienne of white mountain yam and sitting in a pool of earthy sesame sauce; octopus sunomono, a vinegary salad tangled with cucumber and other vegetables; and, the supreme treat, uni (sea urchin) on a lotus root chip, crowned with a small square of fat from bigeye tuna. Oh scorched the fat swiftly with a blowtorch so it melted into the uni, in the same way that many modern Southern chefs love to heat shavings of cured lard over a steak. Rhapsody.
Next to Oh, another chef was concocting a variation on oshizushi—a type of pressed sushi roll that originated in Osaka, Japan—with a distinctly Americanized deluge of ingredients. He layered tuna, yellowtail, salmon, and shrimp in a rectangular box, then covered the seafood with rice, masago (fluorescent orange roe), streaks of spicy aioli, crunchy shards of tempura batter, avocado, and another layer of rice before compressing the mélange and adorning it with more fish, dots of Sriracha, and hillocks of green roe. Squiggles of sauces were artfully arranged on the plate, finishing the edible carnival. A family of four at a nearby table wolfed it down and soon moved on to another roll filled with crab salad and shrimp tempura.
It’s the conundrum for ambitious Japanese restaurants: Do you specialize in true-minded, mysterious ingredients served with a side of ritual, or do you indulge popular tastes with psychedelic sushi rolls? To succeed, most places must please mainstream palates, often the bulk of their business, but they also hope to satisfy their traditionalist regulars with seasonal specials and options like omakase.
The culinary F-word—fusion—may be passé when it comes to pan-Asian aberrations like lemongrass quail over wasabi mashed potatoes, but the East-West sensibility still thrives in establishments with sushi bars. We expect it at Buckhead’s Twist, which flaunts a roll like the B52, stuffed with seafood, asparagus, and cream cheese before a dunk in the deep fryer. (Care for an appletini to wash that down?) But gimmicky adaptations are now mainstays in more serious Japanese restaurants too. Among the blend of classics and innovations on the menu at Buckhead’s glam Tomo, for example, is a cylinder-shaped fever dream featuring yellowtail, red pepper, micro greens, and roasted garlic, dressed with a sake-Gorgonzola sauce. Nearby Taka offers the Diet Coke roll, striped with red and white tuna, as homage to our hometown Fortune 100 marketing genius. Even Buford Highway’s Sushi House Hayakawa, a favorite of Japanese expats, serves your basic California roll, an invention of 1970s-era Los Angeles when sushi first started becoming a phenomenon there.
Sushi Huku straddles the divide between purity and faddish invention admirably. Oh, a Korean American who grew up in L.A., worked in several middle-of-the-road sushi joints in the San Francisco Bay Area. A colleague asked him to help set up a restaurant in Berkeley; his parents, who had moved to Atlanta, came to visit and were impressed with how efficiently he’d engineered the operation. They offered to help him find a place of his own. In late 2007, the family bought Huku—a squat brick building set in a small plaza anchored by a Publix—from original owners Kimio and Kiyomi Fukuya. (Their daughter, Jackie Fukuya-Merkel, opened Bishoku in Sandy Springs in 2009.) Huku fell off the foodie radar for a couple of years, but Oh slowly earned a new set of loyalists. Then bloggers began discovering on- and off-the-menu dishes made from time-honored Japanese ingredients that Oh had been mastering.
My first experience at Huku was a few months back. I stuck to the printed list my first dinner, ordering typical, correctly executed Japanese dishes like gomae (blanched spinach in a subtle sesame sauce), hamachi kama (yellowtail collarbone filled with sweet, supple meat), and miso soup studded with clams, a beautiful contrast of salinities. I fell into the groove with the Lambada roll, filled with spicy tuna and salmon and then draped with avocado and dotted with eel sauce, orange roe, and scallions. The colors reminded me of a tropical tree frog, but hey, it is hard to resist such mouthfuls of gloppy goodness. The classicist in me preferred the Battera, a simple, pressed oshizushi made with marinated mackerel, minty shiso leaf, white kelp (less chewy than other seaweed wrappers like nori), and pickled ginger. Kindly servers kept me supplied with chilled sake and brought my tablemate glasses of Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay. At a subsequent lunch, I staved off the winter chill with nabeyaki udon, thick noodles that retain their texture in broth bobbing with mushrooms and egg and fish cake. Shrimp tempura, part of the dish, was thoughtfully served on the side so its batter wouldn’t go soggy.
It’s the omakase meal with Oh, though, that makes me long to return. I went with a buddy who’s a Huku regular, but from Oh’s enthusiasm I can tell he’s happy to usher any willing eater through a series of exquisite morsels. Just call ahead first and expect to come in when the crowd is slightly thinner—say, on the early or late side of a weekday. After the warm-up appetizer plate, Oh arranged platters of sashimi in front of us that included seared tuna belly, surprisingly mild horse mackerel with shimmery silver skin at the height of its season, and a condiment of fresh wasabi stem that’s like the Japanese answer to salsa verde. He chatted unobtrusively while he worked, giving us the lowdown on whether a certain fish came from Japan or domestic shores. Servers brought out hot dishes from the kitchen: tender beef tataki, barely seared and seasoned with black and white sesame seeds as well as salmon roe, with half a lime on the side to squeeze over. Chawanmushi, a steamed egg custard, soothed, though I would have loved to have seen more traditional additions like gingko nuts among the nuggets of shrimp and pork.
Oh next set down a simple uramaki roll, the rice on the outside, packed with salmon belly and tamago (silky Japanese omelet). Then, the most intimate part of eating at a sushi bar: Oh started cranking out nigiri, arraying tapered slices of fish, scallop, and shrimp over fingers of just-warm vinegared rice, one after another. We ate them as fast as he could make them. He looked at us and raised his eyebrows. Still hungry? He knocked out a more elaborate roll with sweet eel sauce (a deft stand-in for dessert) and then a couple rounds of nigiri before we finally groaned. “Man, you can eat,” he said, shaking his head at me. Yes, but only when I’m this impressed with the food. —Bill Addison
RATING ** (very good)
6300 Powers Ferry Road
HOURS Lunch Monday–Friday, 11:30 a.m.–2 p.m.; dinner Monday–Saturday, 5:30–10 p.m.
Photograph by Greg DuPree. This review originally appeared in the February 2013 issue.