Review: Nakato

Ah, the Japanese steakhouse, the ultimate in gee-whiz dining. For many, Japanese steakhouses are the default choice for birthday/date night/family get-together eating. There’s a chef who kind of acts like a clown! It’s sort of ethnic, but the food is totally safe and familiar! We don’t have to talk to each other because there’s someone throwing spatulas around!

Nakato’s been the king of Japanese steakhouses in Atlanta for 35 years. The restaurant’s divided into two rooms, one for the hibachi grills and one that’s geared toward more traditional dining. It’s the hibachi room that’s always full, however. The garden room, where the sushi bar resides, stays relatively quiet. And that’s a shame because Nakato serves some of the city’s most varied and interesting Japanese dishes.  

The spacious garden room is a throwback to another era, and charmingly so. Floral upholstered furniture and large flower arrangements overlook a rock garden, and bring to mind a 1970s hotel restaurant in a tropical city or tourist town. In fact, there’s an outpost in Myrtle Beach, S.C., I’ve visited and enjoyed for its decent-enough sushi.

Atlanta’s menu goes well beyond standard raw fish. The wide selection of appetizer-sized plates is full of the classic flavors that make Japanese dining an obsession for so many. Miso glazed eggplant dissolves into sticky, creamy sweetness on the tongue. Grilled yellowtail cheek exhibits all the buttery goodness inherent in the fish. Agedashi tofu delivers three soft cubes, lightly fried and swimming in a delicate soy-based sauce. Chawan mushi, a small cup of egg soup with a consistency that borders on custard, is a real treat, full of ginko nuts, chicken and seafood.

Be sure to look to the menu’s seasonal selections, which showcase the freshest and most interesting fish and produce. It pays to ask what’s special today in terms of sashimi and sushi — fish often arrives daily from Japan. As for the standards, Nakato’s fish is almost always pristine and flavorful. I had some of the sweetest, most texturally pleasing giant clam one evening, and a piece of toro that made my taste buds hum with fatty happiness.  

Nakato’s one of the only spots in town to serve shabu shabu, basically Japanese fondue. A large pot of bubbling kobu broth sits on the table, and diners pull from a platter of thinly sliced sirloin, chunks of tofu, and various vegetables to cook in the broth. Give it a swipe through ponzu sauce and gobble it down; DIY dinner fun at its best.

The hibachi room is certainly useful when dining with children or less adventurous in-laws (the full sushi menu is available here by request), and the food coming off the grill is as good as any. Even I had to agree that the filet mignon was tender and delicious. Also helpful in such situations is the large and descriptive cold sake list.

Service borders on formality and is heavy on the upsell. One night, in the hibachi room, we dared to decline the fried rice part of the fun (which costs $2.75 extra) and it was as if we had offended the Nakato gods. “No?” the server asked with incredulity. “What, you don’t like fried rice?” When the hibachi chef arrived, a charmingly sweet kid from Indonesia, he also questioned our sanity for bypassing the fried rice. Another night in the garden room, a waiter was so intent on selling the sashimi salad it became downright uncomfortable. But when a friend got sauce on his shirt and the hostess lovingly dabbed it clean for him, it was hard to find fault in her doting attention.

This brand of old-fashioned hospitality is what makes Nakato so endearing. It’s a dinosaur of Atlanta dining, outmoded on so many fronts by the flashy Japanese restaurants that have come since, and yet another example of how slow and steady can win the race. For 35 years it’s been delivering hibachi fun to the masses, and quietly, in the other room, classic, quality Japanese to an appreciative audience.