Restaurant review: Miso Izakaya

Shochu finally comes to Edgewood Avenue

How many Atlanta restaurants have to be knocked silly by the backswing of our anticipation before we all learn these words by heart: soft opening? I don’t mean two days of family-and-friends gatherings before the press release goes out, I mean a month or two of getting it together before anyone’s even heard of the place.

In Miso Izakaya’s case, the hype was hardly the fault of the owners. Unlike a certain pizza place that comes to mind, the restaurant had no propaganda machine whirling in advance of its opening. In fact, Miso’s opening reminded me a little of a slasher flick. We stalked this poor restaurant. So excited were we at the prospect of an intown Japanese pub, we trolled Edgewood Avenue for months, reporting on signs of construction, drooling at the doorway, whining about the delays. And then, in February when Miso did finally open, we pounced. Despite that the izakaya (which basically means place to drink) had no liquor license, we rabidly burst through the doors, an army of foodies, critics and bloggers, and declared boldly that … it sucked.

I admit it. I’m guilty. I, too, so wanted this place to be that sake den I’ve been longing for since leaving bigger cities where true izakayas exist. (Anyone been to Decibel in NYC’s East Village? Then you know what I’m talking about.) I was tempted to write the place off after an initial visit because, honestly, in those first months, the food was not up to par. And there was nothing delicious and alcoholic to wash it down with and soften the blow, which made the indignity seem more egregious.

It was tempting to write about the disappointment at the time, but I decided to hold off until the liquor arrived. I’m so glad I did. Because not only does Miso Izakaya have one of the coolest drink lists in town, but its food has improved considerably as well.

What do I remember from those early meals, apart from the lack of booze? Goopy rolls, uninspired small plates (a dry, lifeless tonkatsu — panko-breaded fried pork — particularly sticks out), waterlogged, underwhelming sushi.

Since then, the menu has changed a bit. The yakitori and ramen, which were on the original menu but unavailable both times I went in March, never materialized and have been removed. Owner Guy Wong apparently had a difficult time getting the required ingredients and equipment from Japan, and has decided to forgo the items for the time being. Other dishes — the tonkatsu, for instance — have simply gotten better. In the pork’s case, the meat is moister, more flavorful, and less anemic.

A hulking hamachi kama (yellowtail collar) is fried somewhat crudely, but burrowing in through the crispy exterior and digging out the sweet, white flesh is worth the 20-minute wait noted on the menu. (It didn’t take that long when I ordered it.)

A dish of crispy duck with white miso and Chinese broccoli (which was thankfully not, as the menu stated, puréed) provided tender, musky meat under caramelized duck fat, perfect for gobbling while drinking too much shochu.

And what of that shochu? Here is where Miso Izakaya’s true calling lies, and the reason I hope the restaurant can claw its way back from so much negativity in its early days. What this place deserves to be is a beloved Japanese bar. It's wholly worth going for the shochu alone. Drink enough of the stuff and you might get hungry and try a few of the small plates — or don’t. But if you’re a fan of Japanese culture and liquor, you won’t be let down.

A quick lesson for the uninitiated: Shochu is a distilled liquor made from a variety of base ingredients, from sweet potato to soba. The platitude usually given to Western drinkers is that it tastes similar to vodka, but sochu’s flavors are so varied I find the vodka reference completely unhelpful. Miso carries almost 30 shochus, including one made from barley and aged in oak (the Kakushigura) that tastes more like a light whiskey, and one made from soba (the Unaki) that tasted to me like Chicklets gum.

The beer list is also impressive, especially for its selection of Hitachino. You may have seen the White Ale around town, but Miso carries five other varieties from the Japanese brewery. There’s a small but well-chosen sake list, and a variety of sochu-based cocktails, which I skipped in favor of more sochu on the rocks.

Unfortunately, the sushi is still the weakest link. Even the more rudimentary small plates are acceptable when thought of as bar snacks. (The fried chicken wings? Just chicken wings, with a bit of ginger in the coating. In other words, perfectly good grease for soaking up liquor.) But the sashimi here is still limp and often mushy. You’re relatively safe going with standards such as tuna and salmon, but venture into mackerel or even yellowtail and things go downhill. Better sourcing or storage or something is needed.

So don’t go to Miso looking for great sushi, or mindblowingly authentic izakaya fare, but do go for the shochu. While you’re there, nibble on the much-improved small plates and reclaim the excitement of having an intown Japanese pub.