First Look: Craft Izakaya

Freestyle eating and drinking at Krog Street Market

The bar is the essence of an izakaya, the Japanese equivalent to a gastropub, tapas bar, or public house, and at Craft Izakaya the bar is front and center. Izakaya-style eating is about small plates of salty, spicy, savory comfort food that is engineered to go best with drinking and sharing among friends. The new 2000-square-foot eatery is good for all of the above.

Craft Izakaya is the second restaurant to open in the refurbished Krog Street Market, a former 1920s warehouse and manufacturing facility near the Eastside Beltline Trail in Inman Park. The mixed-use development will eventually house numerous restaurants, retail shops, and more. Till then, chef/owner Jey Oh, who also owns Sushi Huku on Powers Ferry Road, and chef Eli Kirshtein's the Luminary across the hall, are holding down the fort.

It's not a traditional red lantern that marks this "place of sake" (a loose definition of "izakaya"), but rather Craft's lively, walk-up bar that opens to the food-court-like interior of the market. It's difficult to resist grabbing a stool if one is available. Adjacent to the bar is Craft's hushed entryway, a sleek corridor that leads to the host's stand in the spacious dining room. It's decorated like a Japanese public house, with copious amounts of wood and a large window through which diners can see yakitori skewers cooking over traditional Japanese binchotan charcoal. Edison bulbs dangling from the unfinished ceiling create a starry night effect overhead.

The menu is divided into categories — steamed, fried, grilled, or raw — and is illustrated with vibrant, true-to-life photos of the food. Everything is meant to be mixed and matched and shared. There is spicy tuna ($9.95) wrapped in a ball of sliced avocado with bright flying fish roe. A portion of crunchy seaweed tempura and spicy mayo comes on the side. A comforting salmon rice bowl ($12.95) comes with delicate salmon belly, warm bits of tomato, and salmon roe served over sushi rice. From the grilled section, hamachi kama ($14.95), a meaty yellowtail collarbone, comes with delightfully crispy skin. The dish is flaky and smoky and falls apart in meaty chunks when prodded with chopsticks. Takoyaki, grilled balls of batter filled with octopus, ($6.95) is a classic izakaya dish. Not only do you get a bit of octopus in every bite, but the feathery flakes of dried bonito add a salty splash of the sea.

Steamed Japanese custard, chawan mushi ($9.95), with bits of shrimp, scallop, and ginkgo nut arrives in an earthenware vessel. The quivering custard basically glides down the throat in a wave of umami flavor. The silken Agedashi tofu ($5.95) is both sweet and savory, crispy on the outside, creamy and soft on the inside. The tofu comes in a rich sauce and topped with scallions and bonito flakes. Fried baby octopus ($8.95) are fun to share. They come whole, flash-fried in a light batter, and complemented with spicy aioli that has a Sriracha kick.

Beyond the two pages of sushi rolls, there is a comprehensive kushiyaki section of skewered and grilled treats ranging from $2.95 to $4.95 per skewer. Pair a stick of shishito peppers ($2.95) with a skewer of chicken hearts ($3.95) that are tender and charred. The Thai Complex cocktail with bourbon, allspice dram, lemon juice, Thai spice syrup, and Coke, complements these skewers with its woody smokiness.

Most nights the sushi bar is packed with eager faces awaiting chef Oh's treatment of the super fresh fish. Every Tuesday and Thursday, an eclectic variety of seasonal fish is flown in from the famed Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo. Order a regular selection of chef's sashimi ($29.95 for 12 pieces) and watch his masterful ways with striped tuna, salmon, yellowtail, albacore, flounder, and amberjack. To perfect your experience, reserve a spot at the sushi bar and entrust Oh in choosing your courses in omakase fashion ($75-$80). It might include expertly cut horse mackerel sashimi presented as if it were swimming upstream with grated fresh ginger, chopped scallions, and fresh wasabi root. Or maybe luscious uni nigiri topped with rich and creamy otoro. It's not on the menu but chef Oh makes a V8-like hearty uni shot. You read correctly. Uni shot: a glass with Sriracha, ponzu sauce, house-cured salmon roe, a quail egg, and uni draped into the savory and spicy liquid.

Liquid delights are just as abundant at Craft. With the help of knowledgeable servers, it is easy to pick something cool and clean on the list of 13 sakes or explore the assortment of shochu cocktails called Chuhai. The wine list is decent but without vintages. Craft even serves vibrant-colored bubble tea with booze-filled tapioca balls such as the Gorilla Whale ($11): vodka, blue curacao, milk, popcorn-green tea syrup, and nori.

There is an array of craft cocktails infused with Asian spices and herbs, as well as classic standbys. The Hickory Daiquiri Dock ($15) is a rum-based cocktail that is wood smoke-infused by a hand-held smoker gun.

There are no uniforms at Craft. Servers instead wear wristbands that at first make you feel like you are missing out on a trend or a ping pong tournament. Service is friendly and knowledgeable about the menu. It feels as if there is more of an emphasis on fun and comfort and less on table turnaround. Think it would be fun to end your experience with say ... cotton candy? Grab a free stick of the pink candy floss on your way out.

Craft Izakaya is whatever you need it to be. It's not orthodox. It's the freestyle mixture of drinks and nibbles that define izakayas: no rules, just fun comfort food prepared with traditional skill. It's ready for you for drinks after work, for elevated sushi that's faultless in freshness, for sharing small plates with a large group, or for a casual meal of Japanese flavors. Lingering with friends is allowed and encouraged. Kampai!

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