Restaurant Review - Sushi House Hayakawa: Sushi master

A slice of Japan on Buford Highway

After a long wait on a Saturday evening, three couples finally take their seats in a long row at Sushi House Hayakawa's short sushi bar. When they first arrived for their reservation, looking straight off the cover of AARP magazine (older, affluent, coiffed and attractive), there weren't six adjacent seats at the sushi bar, and it caused quite a stir. But many apologies were made on the part of the hostess and Hayakawa himself, and eventually the space cleared.

"We're very well-traveled," one of the women declared. "We've eaten sushi all over the world. What's fresh from Japan tonight?" With a sly smile, Hayakawa points to himself.

You might recognize Atsushi "Art" Hayakawa from his time at MF Sushi in Midtown, where he worked a few years back. Now in his own restaurant on Buford Highway above I-285, it's not just Hayakawa that appears to be fresh from Japan. Almost everything about the place feels authentically Japanese, from the pristine fish flown in daily to the clean, spare, light wood decor, to the bottles of sake and sochu lined up behind the chef.

Sushi House Hayakawa is located in a part of town usually frequented by the Asian and Latino immigrants that populate the area, as well as serious eaters looking for ethnic food. Hayakawa has gained enough attention with his fiercely authentic Japanese sushi bar that on a Saturday, the place is a madhouse. But a different breed of customer can create a very different dining experience.

On a Monday night (or Tuesday or Wednesday), the frenzied atmosphere and demanding diners give way to a convivial formality and calm that's instantly soothing. Sit at the sushi bar on any of these nights, and chances are Hayakawa will chat with you, recommend sake or sochu, and make you feel like a part of the place. If you choose to sit at a table, the adept servers will bring you tastes from the giant bottles of sake until you've found something you love, and they'll carefully explain each dish as it arrives.

All of this is a great advantage, seeing as many of the best dishes aren't on the menu (at least not in English). I came across the fabulous monkfish liver only by asking Hayakawa personally about his specialties. The liver, cut into wedges and bathed in a tart, savory ponzu sauce and topped with scallions, is mellow, creamy and delicious, with just the faintest hint of ocean as an aftertaste. Word of mouth led me to the salmon roe marinated in mirin (a sweet rice wine), ladled over rice like a volcanic eruption. Sweet and briny, it emitted none of the fishy flavor that roe sometimes harbors; instead it tasted as clean and pure as fresh fruit juice, but with an aquatic pedigree.

I'm usually a sashimi girl, but Hayakawa pays such close attention to his rice's temperature, texture, quantity and flavor that I finally understand the art in nigiri sushi. The difference is a matter of lightness and contrast – order the sushi and sashimi combo and Hayakawa will pick exactly the right fish to pair with the soft, sweet rice and exactly the right pieces to leave in their naked glory. It's the first time in 10 years I've managed to find excitement in a simple tuna roll – the ratio of fresh fish to rice to savory seaweed makes it a wholly new experience.

Hayakawa shows off his knife skills with meticulously cut sashimi as well. You won't find huge, long lists of different kinds of fish and, in fact, there's no real way to order by the piece. But you won't be disappointed as long as freshness rather than novelty is what you're after. Mackerel is dense, firm and sweet, with a silvery skin that looks as clean and sharp as the flash of the knife used to slice it. Shrimp impart a mouthfeel so creamy the sensation is startling. Giant sea clam smells and tastes exactly like a tide pool – a little disconcerting, but ultimately delicious.

There are touches of Japanese hospitality throughout the dining experience. The women's bathroom even has a small cabinet containing anything you might possibly need, including hosiery. The restaurant only serves dinner, but it stays open late – until 2 a.m. on the weekend.

Sushi is one of those trends that's come so far from its origins, sometimes it's almost unrecognizable. Hayakawa presents us with the creation story, about a cuisine focused on freshness, purity and skill. It's an idea that's fresh from Japan.