My wife and I have had dinner at Nakato about a dozen times over the last six months. Inevitably, we sit at the sushi bar and have head chef Yoshiharu “Kaki” Kakinuma serve us omakase-style, choosing our dishes for us. Having tried just about all of the top-tier sushi places in Atlanta, I can confidently say that Kaki prepares the best sushi in the city, hands down. Moreover, Kaki is changing the expectation of what fine Japanese dining in Atlanta is all about, proving that simple, elegant preparation can be every bit as sublime as the fussy creations of his competitors.
Nakato, which is celebrating 40 years as a family owned Atlanta restaurant, has two distinct personalities. Walking in, you’ll see that on one side, there is a lively hibachi service. This area often hosts large groups (e.g. high school proms, birthdays, etc) and looks like lots of fun, though I’ve never eaten there. Most of the community reviews of Nakato are talking about this side of the restaurant.
Then there’s the sushi side, which has quiet tableside service overlooking a beautiful garden, as well as a sushi bar and several private back rooms that can be booked for an even more traditional experience. The hibachi and sushi sides really are two different restaurants (in fact, they have separate bookings on OpenTable) and if you’ve only tried the hibachi, I’d absolutely recommend another trip to try the other end of things. One testament to the quality of the sushi service is that during the week, about a third of the guests in that half of the restaurant are Japanese.
Kaki was trained in Tokyo by Masahiro Yoshitake, of Sushi Yoshitake, which was awarded three Michelin stars in 2012. Kaki learned his craft from a true master, and it shows. He also has great relationships with suppliers at fish markets in Tokyo and around the world. Each week, he has unique offerings flown in, and this is the main reason why I’d strongly recommend letting Kaki handle the ordering (omakase) if you’re sitting at the sushi bar. That being said, Kaki is not a “sushi Nazi”. He wants to know what you like, and if you want a California roll with extra mayo, he’ll happily make one for you.
But if you’re smart, you’ll keep an open mind and just let Kaki do his thing. And Kaki’s specialty is fish, served simply and beautifully. I’ll describe the courses served during our most recent visit, but a few elements are common to every meal that are worth discussing.
First, the rice. Good rice, served at the right temperature, formed into just the right portion and density, is every bit as important as the quality of the fish when it comes to good sushi. Kaki seems to agree, and the rice served with his nigiri courses really melts in your mouth; it’s just firm enough so that it doesn’t fall apart. I once asked Kaki about his philosophy on rice, and he explained that proper rice preparation can allow a diner to eat twice as much sushi without feeling any more full. He’s right. One thing worth mentioning is that because the rice is presented at just the right temperature, you need to eat each course right away. If you prefer, using your hands instead of chopsticks is totally acceptable.
Second, the seasoning. During an omakase meal at Nakato, you’ll add soy sauce to one or two of the dozen or so courses, at most. This is because Kaki carefully seasons almost every dish he serves, often using ingredients he makes himself. Examples include house-pickled ginger, eel sauce that’s reduced continuously for three weeks, rice-wine marinated ikura (salmon eggs) and of course, fresh-ground wasabi.
The real artistry is in the way Kaki combines these simple enhancers with the fish he serves. Kohada (gizzard shad, a type of herring) is marinated in a bit of salt and rice wine vinegar about 20 minutes before serving. Tai (sea bream) is served with freshly-ground sea salt and shiso leaf (a Japanese herb similar to mint, but with more depth). Chutoro (medium fatty tuna) is served with rice alone. In each case, the sushi is full of flavor, but the subtleties of the fish are permitted to come through. And if you’re ever in doubt about how to eat something or whether or not to add soy sauce, don’t hesitate to ask Kaki – he’s happy to help. Of course, you can also just do your own thing, because Kaki isn’t the type to judge you if you don’t eat things “correctly”.
During our most recent meal, we started with a serving of seared chutoro (medium fatty tuna) with scallion, served over a broth of soy sauce, vinegar, and garlic oil. The hint of garlic really enhanced the seared flavor, and the fish quality was outstanding.
Our second course was a sashimi platter with maguro (tuna), suzuki (striped bass), and more chutoro (medium fatty tuna) all complemented by a serving of chopped aji (Spanish mackerel) served with the whole mackerel decoratively wrapped around the chopped fish. The mackerel would make a second appearance later in the meal, when we were served the fried bones as a chip-like snack. Kaki provided a bit of freshly-made wasabi with the sashimi, and this was the only course of our meal where we used a splash of soy sauce.
Next up was our first hot course, a tempura of shishito pepper and ika (squid) seasoned with freshly ground sea salt and a bit of lemon.
After the tempura, we were served broiled kampachi (amberjack) cheek, which was moist, tender, and delicious. A bit of a challenge to eat with chopsticks, but worth the effort.
After that, it was on to nigiri, which has absolutely been the highlight of every experience I’ve had at Nakato. The courses were:
Tai (sea bream) with sea salt and shizo leaf
Each of these courses was absolutely excellent, with the gizzard shad, medium fatty tuna, golden eye snapper, and salmon egg roll standing out as particularly delicious. We ended the meal with some complimentary green tea, very full, and very happy.
It’s worth saying that Kaki knows us pretty well by this point. Since we love shiso, he tries to work that in for us a little more often than he might for other diners. Also, the medium fatty tuna was particularly good that night, and a favorite of ours anyway, so Kaki served it several times, in different configurations. The great thing about eating omakase at Nakato is that Kaki can take into account the best fish he has available, combined with your personal tastes, to create an unforgettable dining experience.
Such an experience isn’t cheap, at $50-80 per person before tax, tip, or drinks for the full-blown, no-holds-barred omakase service. However, compared to good sushi places in San Francisco, Los Angeles, or New York, Nakato is a downright bargain. And in Atlanta, there simply isn’t any other Japanese restaurant in the same league, at any price.
Is Nakato the best sushi I’ve ever had? No. That honor belongs to the kaiseki service at Urasawa in Los Angeles, where my wife and I lived until last year. But on his best nights, Kaki can go toe-to-toe with very good sushi places along the West Coast or in New York. Considering that sushi in those markets is an ultra-competitive arena with dozens of great local suppliers, the fact that Kaki has created such an amazing oasis of quality sushi here in Atlanta is all the more astounding.
In fact, when Nakato is just “really good” and not quite “incredible” it’s almost always because of supply issues. For example, Kaki makes an award-winning dish with sake and ankimo (monkfish liver). Good ankimo is extremely tough to find, and the two times I’ve had Kaki’s version, it was just okay. The only place I’ve consistently had good ankimo is at Ino Sushi in San Francisco, so it’s not Kaki’s fault – just part of the reality of serving fine sushi in Atlanta. Uni (sea urchin) is also hit or miss. Every time Kaki has served it, it’s been excellent, but during my 12 dinners at Nakato (which were mostly over the course of a winter, when uni is in season) Kaki felt the uni was worth serving during his omakase service just three times.
Some final words of advice. Fish is typically flown in on Thursday, so that’s the best night to go. Also, if you go on a Friday or Saturday night, it will be busy. If you opt for omakase on one of those nights and insist on being served at the sushi bar (as you should) expect to spend a lot of your time waiting. Kaki and his assistant are churning out sushi not just for guests at the bar, but also for two dining rooms. If things are really hectic, you might find that a few courses of sushi will be served simultaneously, which isn’t ideal.
These inconveniences are pretty minor, when you consider that if it weren’t for the high-volume business created by Nakato’s customers in the hibachi area, Kaki wouldn’t be able to serve the amazing sushi that he does; one restaurant effectively subsidizes the other. This turns out to be a happy arrangement for people who love great sushi, because even though it’s a bit expensive, I would guess that overall, Kaki’s omakase service is a money-loser for Nakato.
As I said before, Kaki is not just serving the best sushi in Atlanta – he’s revising this city’s definition of great sushi. For Kaki, innovation isn’t about building gargantuan rolls stuffed with “fusion” ingredients, or sprinkling truffle oil over toro and charging $40 for it (as the now-defunct MF Buckhead was fond of doing). Instead, Kaki is attempting to get back to the roots of traditional Japanese dining, and I get the sense that it’s a journey which is just beginning. I encourage anyone who loves Japanese food to help support this movement (and have an amazing meal, to boot) by visiting the sushi bar at Nakato as often as possible.
PS If you’re interested in learning more about the art of simple sushi, I’d highly recommend the recently-released independent film “Jiro Dreams of Sushi”. I was lucky enough to see this movie a week before its American release at the Midtown Arts Cinema in Atlanta, where Kaki gave a talk and answered questions after the screening. It was a neat opportunity to learn more about how Kaki thinks about his food, and a great experience.