In today’s world, sushi — like caviar, truffles and foie gras — has become a food of glamour and glitz. High-profile chefs are expected to bring something more to the bar than knife skills. They must be entertainers, too. Charisma and personality are as essential as rice and fish.
In the past 20-plus years, Atlanta diners have had the sublime good fortune to nibble world-class nigiri from the hands of the sweetly neurotic Sotohiro Kosugi (Soto Japanese Restaurant), the flashy Chris Kinjo (MF Sushi), the serene Art Hayakawa (Sushi Hayakawa) and the talented Fuyuhiko Ito (Umi).
Now, after honing his blade at Umi and O-Ku, Korea native Jackie Chang seeks to create his own legacy in the dynastic world of Atlanta sushi lords.
At District M in the new Modera development in Sandy Springs, the executive chef is slicing Hokkaido scallops and Japanese sea bream behind a 16-seat sushi counter touted as one of the city’s grandest. He flies fresh fish in from Japan (and other regions), refuses to serve any kind of tuna but expensive bluefin, and offers an all-you-can-eat, market-price omakase experience that starts at $120 and continues to infinity. How big is your appetite? How deep is your wallet?
If that sounds a little rich for your blood, don’t despair: Even the most frugal of fish fans can duck into this minimalist, multilevel, all-black room for a lunchtime sushi or temaki set in the $12-$26 range.
If you like watching a kitchen in action, a seat at Chang’s bar offers a ringside glimpse of the hustle and bustle. Even if you opt out of the omakase experience in favor of a mix-and-match assortment of hot and cold dishes, which is the strategy I recommend, the sushi bar beckons, particularly on weekend evenings when the restaurant is packed with well-dressed sake sippers anticipating their next caviar-dotted, truffle-oil-massaged sliver of king salmon.
Still, showmanship and luxury ingredients can only get you so far.
After three visits to District M, I’ve concluded that the cooked food often tastes better than the raw, and that the overall experience can be formulaic, bumpy, sometimes goofy.
I’ve had servers stumble over basic menu questions. Top my beer glass with water, only to flit away without apology. And bring soy sauce, wasabi and pickled ginger to go with my nigiri omakase dinner just minutes before the chef instructs me to enjoy his creations just as they are — without benefit of said accouterment. To sauce or not to sauce, that is the question.
It is possible to have a decent meal here if you orchestrate it yourself, choosing carefully from the list of cold appetizers, tempura sets, fancy sushi rolls and contemporary nigiri.
I liked the tartares of freshly chopped bluefin, salmon (mixed with shiso and avocado) and beef (paired with an adorable little raw quail egg to stir in yourself). All three are presented with tapioca crackers that are crunchy (some would say too much so) and crafted, it seems, to evoke the sharp spiny edges of sea-urchin shells. (Pro tip: Since all three tartares come with these so-called “tapioca tostadas,” just pick one.)
Also on the chilled side, the smoked hamachi carpaccio is satisfying, visually and gastronomically. The slivers of red-tinged fish are laid out on a plate to look like a starfish, “tentacles” sprawled happily in a shallow pool of gently acidic yuzu kosho sauce, the whole dish sprinkled with thin slices of prickly jalapenos.
Grilled twist peppers, shishitos brushed with a sweet brown sauce, tasted just fine, but the dancing bonito-flake garnish was uninspired and did little to womp up flavor. As for the various tempura, forget the salt-heavy, prosciutto-wrapped fried oysters — the bivalves were a bit overbreaded and overcooked — and go for the vegetables. We liked the varying textures of our assortment: fresh asparagus, crispy lotus slices, purple taro root — all nicely executed, though begging for a sprinkle of salt.
When entree time arrived, we pulled crispy skin off a whole grilled bronzini to savor the delectable mild fish underneath. To my date’s astonishment, I even chomped the crispy tail, though neither of us was brave enough to devour the eyeballs.
Our lunchtime set of miso-glazed black cod was not as impressive, however. At its best, this buttery fish will maintain its trademark flakiness when you break it up with a fork. Here, it was so tender that it crumbled to the touch, and the side scoop of rice was poorly cooked and texturally wrong. How hard is it to cook rice?
By now, you must be wondering about the sushi. I’m sorry to tell you it is more mixed than magical.
Sure, we liked our Roku roll: lobster salad over squid ink rice with a squirt of wasabi creme fraiche. It’s more a clever idea than a flavor bomb, however. (Cost-conscious diners should consider ordering this $22 bauble at lunch, as part of the $20 maki combo set that allows you to pick one fancy and one classic roll.) The Ku roll, tempura eel topped with thin strips of avocado and a creamy truffle aioli, was better.
But when it comes to the nigiri, Chang rarely delivers a compelling bite.
I found the $90 nigiri service to be a rather joyless and rote experience. Piece after piece (including toro, grouper, mackerel, snapper, seared beef and scallops, uni, a Japanese prawn) was put before me — some with a hint of truffle, wasabi, shiso, grated ginger — yet nothing blew my mind. Certainly the chef was generous — I counted 18 pieces altogether — and frequently asked if everything was good, but where is the flavor?
Isn’t this where the master is supposed to dazzle us with pristine offerings from the sea, and maybe a bit of flair? The service began with the aforementioned smoked hamachi carpaccio and ended with tofu soup and a couple of scoops of green-tea ice cream. I left with a full stomach but little emotional satisfaction.
District M is brand-new, but the cuisine feels stuck in the previous decade, and the middle stream. If Chang wants to swim with the big fish, he’ll need to come up with some new tricks. For now, District M is a snooze.
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