For almost anyone in the business of entertaining people — whether as a chef, concert promoter or otherwise — there comes a moment when taking a risk implies an uncertain variation on that famous maxim from Field of Dreams: If you build it, will they come?
For chef Allen Suh, his version was something along the lines of: If you open a ramen shop inside of a small breakfast diner in a sleepy residential neighborhood on Mondays and Tuesdays, historically two of the slowest weeknights for any restaurant, will they come?
Suh spent eight years working his way up the restaurant food chain: late nights spent watching "Iron Chef," a gig at a hibachi grill, classes at Le Cordon Bleu, and working in the celebrated kitchen at Restaurant Eugene. He also spent four years as executive sous chef at One Flew South, which has the unusual distinction of being one of the most celebrated airport restaurants in the world. All of that experience still couldn't guarantee that people would actually show up.
But come they have. In the year since opening Gato Arigato, essentially a restaurant inside of a breakfast diner called Gato Bizco, simply getting one of the 30 seats inside the place has become part of the experience. There are no reservations. The wait can swell to hours, leaving an unusual mix of hip 20-somethings, Midtown foodies, and Candler Park locals to mill about on the sidewalk, drinking sodas from the corner store while peering inside the windows to guess when the next seats might open up.
They're waiting for sticky little pillows of mochi studded with pork belly, sashimi adorned with threads of fresh wasabi root, house-pickled ginger, an okonomiyaki pancake dripping in "happy brown sauce," and bowls of tender ramen noodles rolled right before their eyes. It doesn't hurt that ordering the whole menu costs about as much as two entrées in most of Atlanta's other hyped restaurants.
Customers haven't been the only people to follow Suh's lead. After noticing Suh's success, Jarrett Stieber, a protégé of chef Ryan Smith at both Restaurant Eugene and Empire State South, set up shop in the back of Candler Park Market and started turning out unusually ambitious Southern dishes on paper deli plates. James Ellington, a veteran of Holeman and Finch and the Spence, took over Thursday nights at the Gato for what he's calling Jimmy's Hot Chicken Shack, a second restaurant concept within the diner. At times this fall, the modest block has seemed like the most exciting place in Atlanta for determined, young chefs. At the apparent center is Suh, one whose unpretentious sensibilities and palette for comforting food are poised to shape a coming chapter in Atlanta's culinary scene.
Suh's style is checkered in contradiction. He's a self-described "Southern boy" who attended Dunwoody High School with parents from Korea and a résumé strong in Japanese food. He counts his nine months spent working the line at the genteel Restaurant Eugene as some of the most formative in his career, but if you ask where he likes to eat lunch he might tell you Waikikie Hawaiian BBQ, where plastic trays come piled high with layers of Spam, eggs, and gravy. He didn't start cooking professionally until he turned 25, but he's spent most of the eight years since obsessively devoted to the craft.
With just the support of Gato owner Nicholas Stinson, who also works the line with him, Suh has put together a brilliant shoestring of a restaurant. Arigato is a precise representation of his contradictions: defiantly casual and quietly sophisticated, traditional dishes executed untraditionally. You get the impression that the only authenticity that concerns Suh is that of his own taste.
Forgoing the debts of investors or obligations of a corporate gig allows Suh culinary freedom, but also a lot more work. He also lends his talents to the breakfast line, as well as the dinner services at Arigato, an arrangement that isn't easy on his schedule. For most of the past year, on Tuesday nights after dinner service, he would just lay down in one of the booths to catch a few hours of sleep before opening for breakfast on Wednesday morning. The diner is now closed for breakfast on Wednesday mornings so he can catch up on sleep in his own house.
As a way of explaining his ambitions, Suh recounted a conversation from earlier this year. A woman had asked if he thought it was a step down to be flipping omelets in a breakfast diner when he had been working in Atlanta's four-star kitchens. His response is like a koan that explains his philosophy of food: "There are no steps down," Suh says. "Everything is knowledge."