Restaurant Review - Time For A Fixe

Soto mixes up his metier with both prix fixe and a la carte menus

Around the middle of March, three words flittered through Atlanta's foodie grapevine: Soto. Prix fixe.

Come again?

It was true. Chef Sotohiro Kosugi, our tempestuous maestro of sushi and Japanese fusion, had made the executive decision to vanquish his sprawling la carte menu. Having reopened Soto Japanese Restaurant last June after a 10-month hiatus, he now intended to solely serve omakase: a multi, multi-course menu of small, exquisitely precise dishes that changed nightly. The chairs around the sushi bar disappeared. Stories circulated about customers who were turned away when they showed up without reservations. It was now, more than ever, Soto's way or the highway.

I, for one, panicked. No more tuna tartare roll on a whim? Where would I ever again taste a creation like Soto's steamed lobster with smoked sea urchin in a lotus root cage? Why would he deprive his devoted fans of his brilliant riffs on sashimi and the pure, true pleasure of his correctly prepared sushi?

My fears proved to be foundationless. Soto's tasting menu is one of the most sensually harmonized meals I've ever eaten in this city. Shivering "wow" moments detonate with nearly every bite. And for the old timers, plenty of familiar flavor combinations happily materialize.

Long waits for a table at the peak dinner hour and slow service during pretty much the whole evening were infamous conditions for dining at Soto. Imagine my incredulity, then, when my party walks in on a Friday night, announces our reservation and finds itself seated immediately. The neutral, minimally decorated room feels unusually soothing. An unflustered server presents hand towels and asks for our drink order. The procession of 13 courses - many labeled simply "Bowl" or "Spoon" on the menu, with an intriguing mix of known and unknown ingredients listed underneath - starts soon after.

"Please pour some broth into the cup to drink, and then you can lift the lid to eat what's inside and inhale the aroma," says our server as she sets down our first course, "Pot." It's a dish from Soto's la carte days that I remember eyeing but never trying.

Called "dobin mushi soup," the clear broth is mildly piscine but also earthy from the mix of seafood and mushrooms (a signature Soto merger). Inside the tiny brown pot, a plump shrimp bobs alongside a soft, bright green ginko nut and zaftig hunk of shiitake.

A lemony hit from yuzu and a memory of celery from mitsuba leaf add subtle grace notes. The soup makes me feel simultaneously refreshed and invigorated. And ready for more.

The next two courses consist of trays with one- or two-bite tastes of edible sculpture: asparagus molded in black sesame paste and sprinkled with white sesame seeds; steamed sea eel draped between lithe slices of smoked abolone; tuna and uni paired with Japanese yam; an approachable tangle of sea weeds in a clarifying vinegar. I start off brooding over every morsel, but soon I get it: Let Soto do the thinking. I can actually just let go and savor this meal.

Soto-san even ventures briefly into the upper echelons of the food chain. Two slivers of braised duck appear on the "Hasson (which means small) Tray," and the "Cup" course includes eggplant and beef with foie gras miso sauce. "Cup" may well have been my favorite piece of the progression. One vessel contains a smooth yellow pepper coulis with lobster, grape tomato and the juicy shock of fried ginger. The second is the beef and eggplant, and the third holds a loose custard in which shiitake and shimeji mushrooms are suspended. The textures of each are so willowy. This must be Soto's idea of comfort food.

After your brain and palate have been inundated by these intricate nibbles, some of Soto's famous creations appear in front of you. "Shima aji carpaccio," Japanese jack fish with his dead-on amalgam of ginger, soy and truffle oil. Lobster, mango and portabella mushrooms under a creamy sauce with a crunchy fleece of Panko. Ah, and here's a non-roll variation on the tuna tartare, embellished with pine nuts, cucumber and Asian pear.

The meal ends with a choice of Soto's popular items - yay, a miniature version of the lobster/uni mousse/lotus root cage affair is among them - and sushi, as fresh and respectfully constructed as ever. At the beginning of the meal, I greedily attempt to order more than one of these items, but the server kindly gives me a look that says, "You're in for a ton of food - chill out, homeboy." For once, I renege.

I'm mighty glad I do. For $78 per person and after three-and-a-half hours of beautifully timed food, I am one powerfully satiated soul.

Soto himself comes out to greet diners at the end of their meal, something I'd never seen him do in the old days. He looks so relaxed. I ask him how the prix fixe switchover had affected business.

"Slow," he says. I nod. There have maybe been 20 people in the restaurant the whole night.

"So I'm switching back to la carte Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday," he continues. "We'll keep the prix fixe Thursday, Friday and Saturday."

"Really?!" I gasp. Hot damn. I have a lead on the la carte's return.

And so I make reservations for the following Tuesday, the day after Memorial Day. No one will know yet. I'm giddy.

A friend and I gloatingly mosey in on Tuesday at 8 p.m. to find … utter pandemonium. Word is so out. Impatient diners fill every table. The servers look ready to cry. Soto stands hunched over his traditional spot at the center of the sushi bar, his mouth pinched together in concentration and frustration. We sit down next to a Japanese woman who has family visiting from Tokyo. She's had two dishes in 40 minutes and she's leaving. "I'm taking my guests to a Hooter's," she mutters in a huff.

I sigh with sympathy. But I've known this scene many times before. I have a special reserve of patience for Soto, and I can see how unprepared the entire staff is for a mad rush, so I drink dry, cool sake and wait my turn to order and be slowly served.

We hang around for three hours. The food, as usual, is amazing. I get my tuna tartare roll and, for the first time, try hamache tartare paired with a surprising, caramel-rich soy sauce foam. I also watch diners scowl with hunger, and witness Soto lose it with several servers and cooks. In this moment, it's wincingly obvious why Soto risked losing his customer base by switching to the prix fixe format. He was trying to salvage his sanity.

So, with three days a week dedicated to la carte and another three days to prix fixe, Soto's would-be diners face a conundrum: Would you rather have a tense meal with torpid service where you pick your own delicacies, or would you rather enjoy a serene experience (albeit slightly more expensive) where you put yourself in Soto's trustworthy hands? I know which way I'm going from here on out.


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