Metro Atlanta sushi chef in search of the perfect bite

Chef Leonard Yu prepares neta boxes that display the fish for guests and keep it chilled prior to dinner service at his Decatur pop-up, Omakase Table.  (CHRIS HUNT FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION)

Credit: CHRIS HUNT

Combined ShapeCaption
Chef Leonard Yu prepares neta boxes that display the fish for guests and keep it chilled prior to dinner service at his Decatur pop-up, Omakase Table. (CHRIS HUNT FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION)

Credit: CHRIS HUNT

Omakase Table chef Leonard Yu’s quest to prove himself pays off.

There is an Indonesian greeting, “Sudah makan nasi?,” that asks, “Have you eaten rice yet?” Because if you haven’t eaten rice, you simply have not eaten. Rice is one of the defining elements of the Indonesian diet. All-nourishing Hindu goddess Dewi Sri, from whose body rice was believed to have been first produced, is honored with shrines in rice fields and harvest festivals.

“Rice is my foundation,” said Leonard Yu, chef of Omakase Table, a six-seat pop-up with two seatings on Mondays and Tuesdays at Brush Sushi Izakaya in Decatur with plans to open a brick and mortar restaurant in the fall.

As a child Yu rode water buffalo through the enormous rice fields of Karawang in Indonesia. His mother would tell him he needed to finish every grain of rice on his plate or Dewi Sri will cry.

“Sushi starts with rice, so I already had this understanding of how important it is,” he said.

But he never thought he would be building his own temple to sushi, serving a parade of small joys in the form of rice + fish + soy sauce. “I thought I would be a French or Italian chef,” Yu said. His grandmother and mother had restaurants in Jakarta, where he loved to be in the kitchen to help. “My mom always said I had a good palate and I should go to culinary school,” said Yu.

He was a diligent student in culinary college and was offered a job after studying for just six months. After stints cooking French and Italian cuisine at Ritz Carlton Indonesia, Ritz Carlton Malaysia and Singapore’s famed Raffles Hotel, he embarked on his American dream in New York with the promise of a job. The offered job did not exist when he arrived, so he found an interim restaurant job at Sushi Watanabe in New Jersey. It was here that he found his true calling.

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Chef Yu seasons rice with red vinegar in a large hangiri bowl. (CHRIS HUNT FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION)

Credit: CHRIS HUNT

Chef Yu seasons rice with red vinegar in a large hangiri bowl. (CHRIS HUNT FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION)

Credit: CHRIS HUNT

Combined ShapeCaption
Chef Yu seasons rice with red vinegar in a large hangiri bowl. (CHRIS HUNT FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION)

Credit: CHRIS HUNT

Credit: CHRIS HUNT

Becoming a respected itamae (sushi chef) is steeped in tradition and formality and requires a long apprenticeship. One can spend years performing menial tasks before ever being able to prepare food.

“Being a non-Japanese chef, I had to work even harder to prove myself,” said Yu. “They told me everything I learned is wrong, even just holding the knife. I worked in one of the best hotels in Singapore, and here I am in New Jersey, and they tell me to scrub the floor, sharpen knives, cut scallions, clean the table. I couldn’t even clean the table properly,” he said. “But Watanabe San put the foundation and the discipline in me.”

Yu moved to Atlanta in 2016, working in a few Japanese restaurants before landing at Brush on the Decatur Square to work with chef-owner Jason Liang, who was named a James Beard semifinalist in February 2022.

“His sushi was very impressive to me,” Yu said. In Japan sushi masters say, “steal with your eyes. Jason is the only chef who shared recipes and their ratios with me; most sushi chefs don’t teach.”

Practice is a good master when it comes to sushi. It is a continual process in patience and respect. There is a lot of work and so many types of fish to learn. Every fish has a different preparation and a season. And everything a sushi chef does requires precision. Even the plastic wrap on the fish takes an hour and a half each evening.

“Sushi is a lifetime achievement and first you need to love it,” said Yu. “You need to get better every time. In 10 years I will be better. It’s my ikigai — the thing you live for,” Yu said.

Sitting down to Yu’s omakase, guests first wipe hands clean with a hot towel called an oshibori. Yu adjusts his cooking implements, an array of sharp knives, long Moribashi plating chopsticks. He wipes his cutting board, all the while his apprentice gathers petite glazed ceramic dishes for the first course. A lidded vessel foretells chawanmushi, an egg custard he tops with salmon roe.

Omakase in English means “I leave it up to you” as in, each course is chef’s choice. It is a type of dining in which the quality of the raw ingredients, their taste and texture and the overall aesthetic are inseparable and equally important as 20 or more nigiri and small dishes are served from light to heavy, each one highlighting seasonality. The sushi chef aims to present the purest flavors with minimal cooking and manipulation.

These are things a guest at a sushi bar can learn during omakase. As Yu fills a lidded wooden ohitsu with rice from the larger wooden holder called a hangiri, he mentions that his sushi is his own style, noting that many chefs describe theirs as Edomae, referring to sushi’s humble origins as a fast food developed alongside Edo Bay (now Tokyo Bay). Its inception was a way to preserve fish in fermented rice and evolved into the nigiri we know today. However, “There was no rice cooker in the Edo period, no refrigeration,” said Yu. “Technology makes it easier, but we can’t be authentic Edomae with these advances.” To correctly characterize it, most omakase is “Tokyo style.”

In a circular motion, he grated fresh wasabi root, not the green colored horseradish most sushi places serve. While preparing otsumami, the small snack dishes that precede the fish courses, he cleaned his board and wiped his Honyaki knife, made by skilled craftsmen in the same method as a traditional Japanese sword. He has a collection of Japanese knives, most in the $2,000 range. “I know the maker and the sharpener of each one,” he said.

Petite plates arrived with a Hokkaido scallop and strings of grape seaweed. He never serves hotate (scallop) as nigiri, as he doesn’t think it is balanced with rice and vinegar. “I’m really into using different types of seaweed,” he said as I delighted in the tiny pops of marine flavor from the green strands. “Omakase should be an expression of the chef who makes it.”

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Some of Chef Yu's knives are from smiths who only produce two knives a month due to the time consuming process it takes to produce them. (CHRIS HUNT FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION)

Credit: CHRIS HUNT

Some of Chef Yu's  knives are from smiths who only produce two knives a month due to the time consuming process it takes to produce them. (CHRIS HUNT FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION)

Credit: CHRIS HUNT

Combined ShapeCaption
Some of Chef Yu's knives are from smiths who only produce two knives a month due to the time consuming process it takes to produce them. (CHRIS HUNT FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION)

Credit: CHRIS HUNT

Credit: CHRIS HUNT

The chef quickly noticed a diner using utensils with his left hand, so Yu adjusted his placement of things. There is discipline as well as conscientiousness with omakase service. When consuming a meal at a sushi bar, the dinner is a player in the process, able to ask questions in this experiential space.

During otsumami, small plates interspersed during omakase before nigiri, we tried hamo, dagger tooth eel, served with pickled ume (Asian plum). Yu has transformed this creepy looking bottom dweller into a delicate parcel with a hint of smoke and the complement of plum sweetness.

“It has thousands of bones,” Yu said. “I have two knives just for this fish.” It takes years to master cutting it, he told me. He learned via YouTube. He moves it to a binchotan charcoal grill for seconds and adds only a pinch of salt and lime. He never uses a torch on sushi, always the ancient way of binchotan.

As his expediter, Sophia Dillard, pours wine, she casually mentioned that sushi traditionally is meant to be eaten within 15-20 seconds after it’s placed in front of a diner. Even being a sushi eater takes practice and learning.

Midway through nigiri courses, sea bream with salt and lemon was served almost as a palate cleanser, priming my palate for more.

“Eating sushi is appreciating the true flavor of the fish,” he said. Sakura Masu, cherry blossom trout, is only available for a short season in the spring. He cut through the tender meat with one unstoppable pull of his long, single-bevel knife; his hand with one finger on top helped to focus on the precise cut — just as he was first shown by Watanabe San.

The order and the balance of the meal is carefully planned. Each person at the sushi bar got a description of the fish and preparation. When a guest left for the restroom, Yu continued serving each of us the next course. Seamlessly, her piece was placed as if she never left, never disrupting our order.

I asked how he forms the rice for nigiri, which means “two fingers,” the correct size of fish draped over seasoned rice.

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Among the 20 or more dishes Yu serves during a seating is tamago made from eggs and sweet shrimp. (CHRIS HUNT FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION)

Credit: CHRIS HUNT

Among the 20 or more dishes Yu serves during a seating is tamago made from eggs and sweet shrimp. (CHRIS HUNT FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION)

Credit: CHRIS HUNT

Combined ShapeCaption
Among the 20 or more dishes Yu serves during a seating is tamago made from eggs and sweet shrimp. (CHRIS HUNT FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION)

Credit: CHRIS HUNT

Credit: CHRIS HUNT

“First I create an air pocket,” Yu said. “The rice needs to hold together but fall apart right away.” He shapes it like a boat, so it holds firm while you pick it up. If he notices a guest uses chopsticks to pick up nigiri, he packs their piece tighter.

Yu said his rice is saltier than most chefs, but the type of soy sauce he uses (aged in cedar for 10 years) is less salty than most. “When I started my pop-up, I experimented with a lot of rice,” he said. He uses a combination of Koshihikari and Nigota rice from Hokkaido aged with akasu red vinegar. He chose his distributor because they purchase from Japan, and he can tell them just how much he wants the rice polished, which helps balance taste. “The outside should be hard, but the inside should be soft so you can taste each grain,” he said.

In my next bite I noticed the curvature of the fish pressed into seasoned rice, the residual warmth of chef Yu’s hand that sculpted it, the bracing coolness of the fish, its sinuous resistance and the gradual melting on my tongue.

Near the end, chef Yu served sweet and delicate tamago, a rectangular omelet made by folding over the eggs many times. Beyond being tasty, it is something significant in rating a chef’s skill. Liang tested his recipe more than 40 times. It was Yu’s foundation. “He taught me his recipe­ — sushi chefs never do. I just perfected it,” Yu said.

He will take this recipe with him when Omakase Table, an 18-seat, omakase-only restaurant, opens in October in West Midtown. Until then he will serve Omakase Table on Mondays and Tuesdays at Brush.

And he will keep learning from Liang, who taught him much about aging fish and about culture and history, as his native Taiwan shares much flavor and tradition with Japan. Eventually, Yu will take his lead with burgeoning sushi chefs. “I will share, show and explain why it has to be that way,” he said as his apprentice washed the table behind him in the same Watanabe-style circular motion.

“Omakase is the highest a sushi chef can achieve, the best representation of him,” said Yu. “One piece of a perfect bite is my lifetime achievement.”

Omakase Table. 5:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Mondays and Tuesdays. $185 per person. Prepaid reservations required. Brush, 316 Church St. Decatur. 347-977-7229, omakasetableatl.com.

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