First Look: Brush Sushi Izakaya
The new Decatur restaurant serves up a dynamic range of Japanese cuisineWednesday June 8, 2016 04:00 am EDT
On a busy night at his new Decatur restaurant, Brush Sushi Izakaya, chef Jason Liang flashes his best blue steel. He waited six months for the remarkable mizu honyaki knife to arrive from Japan. With fastidious precision, he slides the sharp blade through a gleaming piece of fish as if it was butter and continues to assemble a gorgeous procession of nigiri on a platter.
Housed in a former bike shop just steps from the square, Brush is essentially two undertakings in one. As the name suggests, it is both an izakaya (a Japanese public house where a wide variety of small plates is designed to complement drinks) and a Tokyo-style sushi joint. Liang (previously at Craft Izakaya and ONE Sushi+) along with his business partner John Chen and wife Ching-yao Wang opened Brush in early April. It took a lot of wabi-sabi to transform a bike shop. The décor is restrained: brick walls, wood, natural materials. To the left, a huge, traditional-looking bluefin tuna painting hangs behind the L-shaped bar. In the rear is the robata grill next to a giant mural of a chicken labeled with all its parts. To the right there is a curving stretch of reclaimed pine that makes up the low counter sushi bar. There are no display cases, only cedar boxes with glass lids full of fresh fish.
The izakaya menu includes fried, raw, and pickled dishes, grilled meat and fish on sticks, and rice. Liang cares a lot about ingredient sourcing, and not just for the fish. Brush uses free-range chicken from Grassroots Farm. A5 Wagyu beef comes from Miyazaki, Japan. Dishes are delivered to the table as they are ready. Order as you go if you'd like certain dishes to come out before others.
Small plates run $6 to $16 with the exception of a decadent wagyu and uni toast ($24) topped with a quail egg. It's a flavor bomb. Sweet snow crab ($9) balances the velvety egg custard in chawanmushi speckled with earthy mushrooms and a sprinkling of briny salmon roe. Five gyoza (dumplings) ($9) show up under a paper-thin disc of fried batter and are filled with tender and incredibly savory Kobe beef. A petite bowl of house chashu rice ($8) is packed with seared pork belly over rice with runny soy-cured yolk and green onion bits.
The robata grill uses imported binchotan (white charcoal) resulting in skewers of tender, quickly seared grilled meats and innards bedecked with a craggy char. Some servings are on the small side like one shrimp for $4. Others like the chicken meatballs with unctuous yolk sauce ($6.50) are more substantial. The chicken oyster was a favorite among our party. At Brush you get an entire skewer ($4). Want just the crispy skin? That's possible, too. Have a hankering for soft knee bone? That'll be $3.
At the sushi bar, fish from regional waters and Japan's Tsukiji Market are scored and seared using centuries-old techniques. Liang's fingers dart around like a maestro conducting an orchestra as he works. A blend of two types of rice and two kinds of vinegar comprise his sushi rice. Nori (seaweed) comes from the Tsukiji Market. Nigiri offerings differ based on seasonality with prices similar to Umi in Buckhead: six pieces for $28, 10 for $45. The chef's choice omakase is also priced similarly to Umi, ranging from $78 to $128. The experience begins with a wooden tray of four sample bowls. Ours included a plump miyagi oyster on the half shell, two almost too-adorable-to-eat marinated firefly squid, a cork-size sliver of braised monkfish liver (akimo), and super tender cuttlefish pieces. Then, with a most precise almost poetic flow, came the nigiri. With masterful precision Liang scored a shimmering kohada (gizzard shad) and anointed it with a touch of sauce before placing it on a slate tray. A golden eye snapper was the most memorable, its red flesh quickly seared and a brushed with a whisper of soy.
Dessert is not an afterthought at Brush. Wang makes them in house. Try the sizzling matcha cake served in a cast iron pan. Green tea sauce sizzles as it is poured over toast-shaped cake topped with matcha ice cream. Jeff Banks (formerly of the Luminary) helms the bar with an impressive selection of both sake and Japanese whiskies. Cocktails are built to pair with the sushi and fall in the $10-$12 range. There are four flavors of dangerously delicious sake slushies served in cute panda glasses.
The kanji character on Brush's logo means "something will never be forgotten" and that is the sentiment Jason Liang's omakase left me with. It's special occasion-worthy, but probably not a weekly indulgence. The izakaya menu fills that void with more moderate pricing. And that knife of Liang's? If my experience was any indication, it will be gliding effortlessly through everything it comes into contact with for years to come.