Taka takes on sushi

Forget parachutes, what color is your eatery?

Some of my best and worst culinary moments have been spent at Soto. To sit at the bar there and watch Chef Soto prepare sushi rolls of extraordinary complexity and flavor has been as close to an altered-state experience as I've had since I gave up hallucinogens.

Unfortunately, my sushi reveries often have been crashed there by miserable service. Aficionados know that unless they sit at the bar, waits can be interminable, with orders seemingly delivered at just the precise moment one is about to erupt in volcanic rage. Things improve for a while then seem to worsen. Generally, it's a crapshoot for me whether the amazing cuisine is going to rise above the often amazingly bad service.

You can't help thinking about Soto, when you walk into the new Taka Sushi Cafe (375 Pharr Road, 404-869-2802). A host and staff of servers who do everything but offer to give you a back rub immediately greet you. Educated about the menu and attentive to the extent you can't even unfold your own napkin, they create such a contrast to Soto, you immediately wonder if it's not intentional.

It probably is. Taka, the chef who gives his name to the small restaurant, formerly worked for Soto and was opening sushi chef at Bluepointe. It was his dream, the host told me, to have his own restaurant before he turns 40, an imminent event. The restaurant has decided to stress service in a big way.

Tiny, with only four seats at the bar and maybe 20 tables, Taka is oddly painted that brilliant blue suggestive of the Aegean that you often see in Greek restaurants. The color is repeated in glassware and table linens. Decorative accents are minimal — some abstract photographs and some very real-looking faux fish floundering on the walls.

The menu is certainly not as extensive as Soto's. There is plenty of sushi from which to choose, along with an assortment of hot and cold small plates, but no complicated entrees. Moreover, prices are competitively low, while the quality of the fish is extremely high.

We started with an asparagus salad, crisp stalks in a light ponzu with grated radish ($4) — an effective way to wake up the palate for the explosion of flavors to follow. Wayne chose a sashimi sampler as his starter, a very generous plate of at least six different fish, all of them sparkling, with a killer range of tastes ($10). My more interesting choice was a warm egg custard baked with seafood, including shrimp, crab and fish ($9). Some will find the dish too rich. It's almost like baby food for fish lovers. You'll also find yakitori, dumplings, teriyaki pork with Coca-Cola, and fried calamari.

We ordered a sampler of sushi rolls for our entree. Although we enjoyed everything, we were a bit disappointed that the $26 dish didn't include more than three rolls (24 total pieces). We were hoping for a broader sampling. The point is really just to save a few dollars; though, depending on the rolls you'd order individually, that may not happen. Our plate included a Jezebel roll of cucumber and crab coated in roe, one of lobster rolled in an egg sheet and a third of eel wrapped about omelet and vegetables. The latter was our favorite.

Still anxious to try more, we ordered two hand rolls — salmon skin for me and squid for Wayne ($5.50 each). The salmon skin roll was the best I've had in a long time, though my all-time favorite remains the one that used to be on the menu at Umezono in Smyrna.

For dessert, we ordered a serving of the kinky green tea tiramisu ($6), opting for the Italian-Japanese fusion over the Italian-Mexican cappuccino flan. The tiramisu, served in a goblet, is dense and gooey, a nice finish to a meal of clean, sharp tastes. There is also a fairly extensive menu of teas, including some good herbals, along with the traditional Japanese green and brown. Good sake is also available.

Cheap noodles
"I'm not so sure about the quality," Wayne mused as we headed from Doc Chey's to What's the Scoop? for gelato, "but I don't see how they produce that much food for so little money."

That's about the best thing I can say about this noodle shop at 1424 N. Highland Ave. myself. Though I know it does a killer business and people love it better than their mama's macaroni and cheese, I will never get it. A gigantic portion of scallion pancakes ($4) bears more in common with beignets than with the delicious Korean specialty that inspires it. The big bowl of spicy cucumber salad ($3) tastes vaguely like slimy bread and butter pickles.

An enormous bowl of rice noodles with very good grilled chicken in a "Thai basil sauce" has a weirdly fishy taste that grew on me but kept me mystified throughout my meal ($6). Wayne's tofu over rice noodles with a Chinese black bean sauce ($6), describes itself as "close to perfect," but I am going to guess that the menu's author never tasted an actual black bean sauce.

I'm not making these negative appraisals simply on the basis of the food's compromise of its ethnic inspirations. Muddy flavors, tempered spices and the most blatant pandering to the white-bread palate suggest a menu rehaul is in order here — and the restaurant's interior could use a similar scrubbing.

Here and there
Raging Burrito in Decatur has opened an adjoining bar called Azul Blue Bar, partly to absorb overflow from the restaurant and provide late-night grazing of small plates until 2 a.m. I'm not sure why owner Scott Herman gave the bar a redundant name — "azul" means "blue" — but shall we note the sudden use of colors in restaurants and bars around town? There's Orange and Scarlett's. There's red, the successor to Andaluz, as well as Red Chair, Red Light Cafe and Cherry. There's Aqua Blue in Roswell and (regular) Blu in Midtown, and now Azul Blue.

Just in case my comments on Doc Chey's above incline you to brand me some kind of culinary ethnocentrist, I share Melissa Stiers' pan of Harmony, the vegan restaurant on Buford Highway I've reviewed it favorably in the past. Harmony prepares mock-meat dishes from soy protein:

"I enjoy your columns pretty regularly. I think I remember once you saying something about a vegetarian Chinese restaurant that was good, Harmony. I went this past weekend, and the cooking was an injustice to the beautiful array of vegetables on my plate. I had the Buddhist Delight. My fiance ordered Tai Chi chicken. My stomach should have shunned his by the name alone. The texture and taste was gross. It was VeggieSPAM poured with warmed, cornstarched soy sauce. My dish shared the same complaints. I truly felt sorry for the vegetables ...

"Your source is not the only one where I have heard that this restaurant is good. It's not even acceptable to the seasoned vegetarian. I mostly write this because I don't want new and non-vegetarians to believe this is what the lifestyle makes you suffer. Some good vegetarian restaurants are Udipi Cafe and Cafe Sunflower, and also anything prepared in Sevananda's kitchen daily, Monday through Friday. These really are greener pastures."

Leave Cliff Bostock a voice mail at 404-688-5623, ext. 1504.??

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