First Look: NEXTO
Mihoko Obunai's long-awaited return to brick-and-mortar brings more than just a simple ramen jointMonday November 21, 2016 06:00 pm EST
NEXTO is a partnership between chef Mihoko Obunai, Atlanta’s most celebrated ramen chef, and Concentrics Restaurants, known for boisterous crowd-pleasing eateries like One Midtown Kitchen and NEXTO’s neighbor, Two Urban Licks. Obunai is something of a Pied Piper of noodles, hopping from pop-up to pop-up over the past several years, always attracting a crowd. She first drew acclaim for elegant dishes inspired by her home country of Japan at the restaurant Repast, which closed in 2010. Since then, she has gained nationwide attention, including training with the esteemed Sun Noodle company and their Ramen Lab in New York (it’s a thing). Obunai’s dedication to the art of ramen deserves a spotlight of its own.
NEXTO, though, sets a broader stage — less ramen-ya than stylish, fun, Japanese-ish restaurant with a good bar menu. Sure, there are six ramen variations, but there are equal numbers of dishes in sections hitting cold, hot, and robata-grilled items — many rooted in traditional Japanese izakaya themes but often adding playful tweaks. Fish and chips steamed buns, for example, pair a thick slab of unagi with a bird’s nest jumble of thin potato straws and slivers of crisp black nori, all topped with an indelicate squirt of sweet, sticky sauce.
The open kitchen at NEXTO is a chaotic cauldron of activity lining one wall of the restaurant’s single-room, industrial-chic space. The dining room ceilings are high, one wall almost completely windows, all framed in corrugated metal. The table setting achieves some serenity, but the counter lined with seats overlooking the kitchen is more fun. Obunai typically mans the pass dressed in black, a cool, calm presence in a sea of frantic cooks. Over her shoulder is local artist Todd Murphy’s stunning painting of a punk rock girl, tattooed with tributes to David Bowie, Japanese cherry blossoms, and the whaling ship from Moby Dick. Surely there is some symbolism there.
No value assignedBased on my early visits, the kitchen is still swaying through typical new restaurant choppy seas. The ramen bowls tend to be a bit sloppy; many items arrive over or undercooked. My favorite dish was the simplest — sugar snap peas ($6) sautéed but still crisp, sprinkled with a salty furikake spice mix dominated by black and white sesame seeds. Georgia white shrimp grilled on the binchotan ($14) are similarly simple, though the shrimp’s sweet tenderness was sacrificed to the flaming charcoal. Thankfully, the row of crisp-fried shrimp heads served alongside the grilled shrimp was still heady with the saline funk of the sea, their wiggly antennae fending off attempts to be eaten in a mannerly manner.
The menu covers a wide swath of flavor-bomb bites that pair well with drinking, like JFC wings ($8) with yuzu ranch dressing, wagyu tartare with bourbon togarashi ($14), or duck meatballs with a soy-cured egg yolk and wasabi ($10). Come 10 p.m., you can even get a (trend alert!) late-night ramen burger — a juicy patty topped with fried egg, kimchi, and spicy mayo on a bun made of ramen noodles ($10).
The six bowls of ramen ($10-$14) will change with the seasons. For now, there’s a fairly traditional tonkotsu with thick slices of kurobuta pork belly, plus several funkier affairs — a vegan curry vegetable ramen with kabocha squash and Brussels sprouts, a shoyu broth with shrimp and scallop, an intense spicy bacon miso, even a version with sous vide duck and slices of lemon. The spicy bacon eats like a mashup of dan dan noodles, mabo eggplant, and intensely meaty gravy, all flecked generously with Sichuan spice. It’s messy, greasy, tingly excess and plenty for two to share.
No value assignedOn the opposite end of the spectrum, the shoyu broth graced with shrimp and grilled scallop is delicate and restrained. Crisp ikura (salmon roe) adds a salty pop. The flagship tonkotsu achieves the requisite creaminess, made from long-simmered Berkshire pork bones, though the bowl I received was lacking depth compared to similar ones I’ve had in the past from Obunai.
You will drink well at NEXTO. Eclectic offerings are well-suited to the food. The beer section goes from PBR to Sapporo to local craft to intriguing Japanese options — Yo-ho Zenryaku Yuzu session ale anyone? Choose from a concise but well-curated list of sake and shochu (including cult favorite Kikusui sake by the can, unfortunately jacked up to $18-$22 each), or a wine list that jumps from melon de Bourgogne to Loire chenin blanc to Austrian blaufrankisch ($8-$14 by the glass).
Cocktails span from trendy slushies to complex spins on classics that make a good go of integrating Japanese accents ($10-$12), like the lightly sweet plum whiskey sour, pleasantly frothed with egg white. It’s all good for a celebratory night out (and NEXTO is only open at night for now).
With Obunai at the helm, I’m hopeful that NEXTO's kitchen will settle in and focus on serving world-class ramen. In the meantime, you can expect plenty of messy, chaotic fun.