Restaurant Review - Rise Sushi Lounge faces a city that knows its sushi

There's never been more choice in Atlanta when it comes to Japanese food. We now have a wide range of quality establishments, from authentic sushi restaurants along Buford Highway to small Japanese pubs to swank temples of raw fish flown in daily from Tokyo. We may have become spoiled. There are worse problems to have.

I suspect this raising of standards, while good for our palates, may not be so good for the standard sushi spots around town. It may well be the problem at the newly opened Rise Sushi Lounge. Despite being open only two months, the restaurant's been practically empty on recent evenings.

The folks at Rise would argue that their restaurant is far from a standard sushi spot. Waiters stress that Rise has at its helm "Atlanta's only master sushi chef," Tony Wang. Wang's best known for opening Peachtree City's popular Ginza Japanese Steak and Sushi in 1991, which he sold a decade later. Rise is Wang's attempt to re-create his success in a downtown Atlanta venue. He joins the glut of new restaurants surrounding Centennial Olympic Park and the Aquarium in the Luckie-Marietta District.

After tasting the sashimi at Rise, I'm not surprised that Wang was a revelation to Peachtree City in the early '90s. Freshness and texture reign supreme: Yellowtail is fat and buttery on the tongue, snapper cool with that wonderful vegetal aftertaste, tuna meaty and flavorful. But Wang sticks to the standards. There are no hard-to-find fish on the menu, making it difficult to find thrills beyond the old favorites. It's hard to complain, though, when faced with a slice of luxurious salmon – fatty without being fishy, the perfect bite of food.

The sake list is also a high point, with a good range of food-friendly parings, although the servers are not familiar enough to help direct you in your selection. One of them repeatedly asked if I'd like my $31 bottle of dry, nutty "Hawk in the Heavens" served hot.

Things start to become truly worrisome when you move beyond the classic sushi bar fare and start delving into the wacky rolls, entrees and "Asian tapas" Wang offers. There's a distinct early '90s vibe surrounding Wang's more fusion-y creations. While I can imagine diners of yore getting excited over rolls whose ingredients have been fried, wrapped and drizzled in cream sauce, that kind of cooking doesn't translate too well anymore.

At first I thought I might have judged too early. The Yellow Jacket roll cleverly paired yellowtail and eel with roasted yellow bell pepper for an inspired sweet/fresh combination. But many other rolls were just as overwrought as they sounded. The Falcons roll mixed frigid tuna with warm, sticky barbecued eel and shiitake mushrooms for a cold/hot, confusing muddle of flavors.

And there's real trouble on the horizon when you start to see tortillas and grits in the mix. For the lunch menu's tilapia wrap, Wang somehow manages to get a sun-dried tomato tortilla into the same dish as wasabi and tartar sauce. Japanese shrimp and grits fuses Japanese (marinated shrimp and shiitake mushrooms) with Southern (rich grits mixed with sweet corn) and tops it all off with pungent Chinese sausage. These dishes aren't necessarily bad, they're just ... confusing. For such audacious fusions to work, flavors and textures need to fall into an unexpected rhythm, like a perfectly chosen showtunes sample on a hip-hop record. Wang's attempts are like trying to hear opera over the clanging of a cowbell.

The space is large and slickly designed, with the sushi bar taking up the center of the room and a gauzy white curtain covering the back brick wall. It looks kind of forlorn when empty, though. As my small son asked me when we arrived one night, "Mama, why would such a nice restaurant have no people come to eat at it?" He seemed genuinely concerned.

"I don't know, sweetie," I told him, but I had my suspicions. I suspect we now demand more than good, basic nigiri and sashimi from our Japanese restaurants.

On some days, though, basic sashimi hits exactly the right spot (the sashimi dinner, at $29, is an especially good deal). For fresh fish and sake selection, Rise beats standard sushi restaurants hands down. Just stay away from the tortillas.

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