I was working my way through a multicourse meal — pristine oysters from Washington state, little bites of panko-breaded-and-fried wagyu steak, boxed sushi topped with saltwater eel — when my attention shifted to the counter of Chirori. A delightful Japanese restaurant on 14th Street in West Midtown, Chirori specializes in robatayaki and sake, and it’s unlike anything else in Atlanta today.
Like a blast of warm air on a cold night, a pair of high-spirited, possibly tipsy lads had tottered in from Wagaya, Chirori’s all-in-one ramen-and-sushi sister establishment next door. One of them was a Japanophile who wanted to show his friend the depth and sophistication of Chirori’s food and sake pairings, which are arranged side by side on a luxurious beige menu that could easily be mistaken for an art book.
The lad wasn’t interested in food — he’d already eaten at Wagaya. He just wanted to loll for a minute, to bask in a place that feels wholly infused with the culture of Nippon. (I suspect he also wanted to practice his Japanese.) It wasn’t long before the enraptured visitor took his goodbyes with one of those long, exaggerated, floor-kissing bows that is a hallmark of Japanese decorum, promising to return when he could enjoy a proper sake-robata experience.
The moral of this long-winded tale: The dude got it.
Chirori, in the space formerly occupied by the late, great Better Half, is the brainchild of chef-owner Takashi Otsuka, a 35-year-old Saitama native who studied at Georgia State after playing too much soccer to get into an elite Japanese university. Otsuka arrived in 2002, fresh-faced and not quite sure how he’d make a living. But after working in his aunt and uncle’s restaurants (including Decatur’s Sushi Avenue, which they then owned), he settled on hospitality. Along the way, he also became a sushi chef, entrepreneur and, just lately, sake sommelier.
In 2015, Otsuka opened the original Wagaya next door, followed by an Emory Village Wagaya in 2017 and, in July of this year, Chirori, his first fine-dining venture. Even as he plans his fourth restaurant and third concept, Nagomiya, slated for Hanover Midtown in late spring 2020, you can find him in a grayish-brown samue and nejiri hachimaki (traditional robe and headband), grilling black tiger shrimp, beef tongue, and shiitakes over the Japanese white charcoal known as binchotan.
A showman he is not. Otsuka is more likely to let his colleagues chat up customers while he keeps a tight focus on the grill. You may even observe one of his employees barking at the boss, “Hurry up, customer is waiting on his chawanmushi!”
The small-plate format at Chirori (which takes its name from a Japanese sake warmer, and yes, there is one at the restaurant, a $200 version with a thermometer for each bottle that Otsuka ordered from back home) allows you to pick and choose from among a list of green, raw, steamed, fried, simmered, and robata’ed bites, as well as soups, risotto, rice and desserts. Part of what makes the experience so invigorating is the procession of textures, temperatures and tastes, and the way you participate to make your meal a personalized, intimate exchange.
It’s also kind of noble that you never see a server thrust an expensive bottle of sake on a novice drinker. (Nothing worse than ordering a $35 bottle of rice wine that you end up hating.) For nearly every course, the 1 1/2-ounce pour was just right. If you find a sake you love or want to share, you may order a 5-ounce pitcher or full bottle.
Robatayaki started on the beaches of Japan, where fishermen grilled their catches in rustic simplicity, over an open fire, using their oar as a utensil. Some traditional places still present the fish on a long wooden paddle. You won’t find any boating gear at Chirori. But seafood — live sea scallops, clams, calamari, crab legs, small, sardine-like mackerel pike — is celebrated in abundance.
Perching counter-side on our first visit, we cracked into whole tiger shrimp, grilled in their hulls, spooned every sliver of crab from a tiny baked-in-the-shell casserole, and smacked our lips on a whole grilled smelt (shishamo).
On subsequent visits, I had six perfect oysters dotted with fish eggs; beautiful boxed sushi blanketed with sweet, tender anago (sea eel) and a 15-piece sashimi platter presented under billowing clouds of smoke (thanks to some dry ice splashed with water in a towering martini glass). The raw fish was sensational, and I loved the crisp, gently sweet rinse of Hakkaisan Tokubetsu Honjozo so much that I asked for a 5-ounce second round. My only complaint: By the time the fog settled, the ice cooling the sashimi had turned into a slushie. I appreciated the wow factor of the presentation, though it seems a bit impractical and out of step with the unaffected aesthetics of Chirori.
Chawanmushi, a lovely egg custard with snow crab, shiitake, truffle and white dashi in an elegant domed teacup, felt like a warm caress after a brisk walk by the sea. Wagyu kushikatsu — chunks of breaded and deep-fried Japanese beef speared on toothpicks — was pure luxury, as it should be at $18 for four bites. (Chirori is not an inexpensive restaurant.)
Under Otsuka’s exacting eye, vegetables hardly get short shrift. In fact, they are among the most visually exciting dishes on the menu. That said, except for a fried shiso leaf, a tempura assortment with asparagus, Japanese sweet potato, lotus, and tiny heirloom tomatoes fell a little flat, as did the so-called Zen Garden from the robata. Think of the latter as grilled crudite: radishes, rainbow carrots, lotus, Japanese asparagus and so on, with an accompaniment of warm miso dip. Good, if maybe a bit too zen.
A cornucopia of kinoki (mushrooms) is a tour de force. Shiitakes, sliced trumpets and wispy shimeji, all grilled, are paired with a glorious spray of enoki tempura. Smear the plain earthy trio with a bit of the pate-like mushroom duxelles that comes on the side; dip the crispy enoki into the truffle vinaigrette; and you’ll forget it’s all brown and monochromatic.
Should you want something sweet, there’s a serviceable chocolate-truffle cake and chocolate-dipped strawberries encased in mochi. Try the former with a glass of Funaguchi Kikusui Jukusei and the latter with Kikusui Junmai Ginjo.
Better yet, get one of the sake flights: three 1 1/2-ounce pours with three sweet and savory nibbles for $15. Take a sip of rice wine, followed by a nibble (salty blue cheese, sweet lychee, zingy pickled ginger, among others), then another swish of sake. It’s an elemental way to partake of the kind of rapturous co-minglings that are the essence of Chirori.
Overall rating: 2 of 4 stars (very good)
Food: Japanese robatayaki (simple grilled food) with sake pairings; a rarefied and thoroughly Japanese experience
Service: superb, with detailed knowledge of extensive sake list
Best dishes: raw oysters, boxed sushi with anago, seasonal sashimi platter; from the robata: tiger shrimp, shishamo (smelt), mushroom platter; wagyu kushikatsu; No. 1 and No. 2 flight pairings
Vegetarian selections: shiso caprese salad, assorted tempura, Zen Garden (grilled vegetables), mushroom platter, numerous a la carte veggies from the robata
Price range: $$$$
Credit cards: all major credit cards
Hours: 5:30-10 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays and Sundays; 5:30-10:30 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays; noon-3 p.m. Saturdays
Children: OK, but be advised that there are no high chairs available
Parking: free in lot behind the building and on the street
MARTA station: Midtown
Reservations: yes, for parties of two or more
Wheelchair access: yes
Noise level: moderate
Address, phone: 349 14th St. NW, No. C-1, Atlanta. 470-427-3171
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