Review: Shoya Izakaya

Authentic Japanese pub food comes to Atlanta

Ever since the early ’80s, when raw fish was still a culinary dare for many Americans, Japanese food has tickled the desires of Western foodies. We fetishize Japanese food for its weirdness, its otherness. More than any other cuisine that’s found popularity in America, Japanese cooking has the potential for taste experiences that push us to the edge of our comfort zone. It delivers taste revelations in places we’d never expect, and has us walking out the door feeling smug that we’ve traversed new territory. Sea urchin, monkfish liver, wobbly fat fish roe — few of us would have eaten this stuff 10 years ago, and almost none of us would be eating it today if it weren’t for Japanese restaurants.

And now that we have the sushi restaurants, the noodle houses and the robata grills, the next frontier in Japanese culture we’re clamoring for is the izakaya. We’ve had a few establishments in Atlanta that get close to the nature of a true Japanese pub, but none as authentic or ambitious as Shoya.

Located in a strip mall next to the gargantuan BrandsMart USA near Spaghetti Junction, Shoya’s huge kitchen is fronted by a somewhat obligatory sushi bar and a jumble of a dining room mainly made up of wooden booths tucked into various nooks. Lighting is bright and there’s a slight feel that you’re perched in a waiting area outside a much more intimate restaurant.

The encyclopedic menu, spread over seven long, wide, crowded pages, will either send you into a rapture of excitement or cripple you with indecision. It’s intimidating, and much of it, except to the seasoned traveler to Japan, will be unfamiliar. Short descriptions in English are helpful, but part of the challenge here is that while you may get an idea of what ingredients will be on the plate, the dish that arrives may be vastly different from what you expected.

Take the aji namerou, a dish described on the menu as chopped horse mackerel with miso. It sounds pretty standard, but what arrives is a small disk of the freshest mackerel, finely chopped, its oily flavor complemented by ginger and its color turned green from the addition of copious amounts of scallion. It’s a totally balanced and utterly fantastic surprise of a dish. On the other hand, many dishes involving tororo, the innocent-sounding grated mountain yam, are likely to deliver textural viscous weirdness. Uni yamakake showcases the complementary flavors of creamy sea urchin and a rougher, less slimy version of grated yams, but for many American tastes, cold yam porridge is a hard sell.

But that’s half the fun here. Order away and see what shows up. Much of what’s touched by fire, from the menu’s kushiyaki section, or in the seafood robata section, is reliably delicious. The ika maru-yaki, grilled whole squid with mayonnaise, showcases squid’s tender nature. Kissed by char, it begs to be swiped through the rich mayo. One evening’s special kushikaki dish of chicken liver had the liver’s exterior almost caramelized with just the right pull, giving way to a creamy, dreamy center. Other kushiyaki dishes, from pork belly to Japanese peppers, are also crispy, tasty fun. Get the assorted plate and sample a bunch.

Sushi and sashimi are both tempting and standard – I didn’t taste anything bad or anything outrageously good. There’s so much to try here that you won’t find elsewhere, I’d just as soon overlook that section of the menu and move on to ochazuke, a traditional end-of-meal dish of rice and umboshi plum or salmon with a nutty barley tea poured over the top.

It would take me days longer and pages beyond my word count to try to address a proper cross-section of what Shoya offers. This is one of the place’s downfalls: Apart from the frantic indecision a menu this large creates, I fear it also adds to the inconsistency from which the kitchen sometimes suffers. More focus and less breadth may eventually add to the overall quality of Shoya’s product.

The tendency, when encountering a menu with this much variety, is to over-order, but I’m afraid that’s the antithesis of the true izakaya experience. A more traditional approach is a few dishes, and a lot to drink. There’s plenty to drink at Shoya — more shochu than sake — and you kind of have to feel your way through the list (servers will give recommendations but not explanations). Do try the light, fizzy fresh fruit sour drinks — sochu and soda that comes with citrus and a reamer for you to squeeze the fruit. Grapefruit and lemon versions are especially refreshing.

Shoya ought to appeal to those of us who seek out newness and adventure, and folks who will appreciate the ambition of a place this authentic. Some of what Shoya offers will undoubtedly test certain diners’ appetites for exploration. The question is, now that we have something so challenging, is it what we really want? You’ll have to answer that for yourself. My answer is yes.