I am not accustomed to being landlocked. Being this far from the ocean makes me nervous on a number of levels, not the least of which being my access to fresh fish. For most restaurants, this isn't that much of an issue -- modern distribution and storage allow Atlanta's restaurants access to perfectly good fish. But it is an issue for sushi restaurants. Even at the best places, the sushi you are served has most likely been frozen. Atlanta is simply not close enough to the ocean, or to a major world fish market, to get fish that fresh.
Fish that has been frozen and then served as sashimi has nothing wrong with it. Much of it is butchered on the boat and frozen within minutes of being caught. But if you have ever eaten sushi in a good restaurant, in a city where fish is available fresh and unfrozen, it will ruin the frozen-then-thawed sushi experience for you.
Which is why I was excited to hear of a dish at the new restaurant on Peachtree Road in south Buckhead, Starfish Sushi & Sake Bar. The Hamachi Kama dish (broiled yellowtail collar) is served raw pre-broiling, with part of the belly sliced into an order of sashimi. Or so I'd heard. The fact that this particular cut of sashimi is served as a part of the fish rather than a loin butchered and frozen somewhere far away made me think that the chances of finding a little personality in the flavor were much greater.
I decided to withhold the pleasure of this experience for my last visit, and started with rolls and a sashimi combo. Specialty rolls at Starfish are all named after movie titles, from the American Beauty roll to the Rumor Has It roll. The award for the most unappetizing name for a sushi roll goes to the Charlie and the Chocolate Factory roll, which is a spicy tuna roll with thinly sliced beef tatake on the outside. I've never had beef on a sushi roll before, but the combination actually works as spicy surf and turf. If you're a fan of fun and inventive rolls, you won't be disappointed here, even if you do cringe a little at the cutesy names.
The $40 sashimi combo came with all the standards: tuna, salmon, yellowtail, flounder. Everything was flawless, but my fresh vs. frozen bias reared its head, especially with the salmon, which was still stiff and cold in the middle. Sashimi like this is simply void of any personality. Easy to eat and pretty to look at, but so clean-tasting you wouldn't know it came from the ocean. Perhaps I would have better luck with my hamachi kama.
After much anticipation, I returned to Starfish for the yellowtail collar and sashimi. I started with a salad of tuna, scallop and mango. The fish came layered over a big bowl of lettuce, and I actually found the tuna here to be much more delicate and pleasing than the cold ruby slabs that had been on the sashimi plate. But the mango was mushed up with an under-ripe, mealy tomato, and the dish as a whole didn't work.
Time for the main event. My yellowtail collar arrived -- fully cooked, and with no sashimi in sight! "Excuse me," I said. "Isn't this supposed to come with sashimi?"
The waiter hurried off to the kitchen, then returned and said, "The chef said that this is correct."
"But it says on the menu, 'Hamachi Kama with sashimi.'"
"Yes, that is sashimi," the waiter said, pointing to my broiled collar. "It is cooked."
I was deflated, so disappointed I hardly noticed how lovely the broiled collar was, with juicy, meaty white flesh and a satisfying crisped skin. After all, sashimi is, by definition, raw fish. Others have had the dish served with the raw belly meat, both before my experience and since, but for some reason I was cheated.
I did manage to get my hands on another Starfish offering not found in many sushi joints, monkfish liver. If you've been curious about this delicacy but wary, this is a good place to try it. It is mild and creamy, with a hint of the ocean but the heft of liver.
Starfish is still getting its feet. The liquor license just came through, and it already offers a good (albeit expensive) sake selection. Service is eager and pleasant. If you don't like the music when you walk in the door, come back on another night, because you're going to hear that one CD on repeat the whole time you're there.
Despite the letdown of my hamachi experience, Starfish does deliver on a number of levels. The chefs are inventive, the food can be fun and the fish is the best quality you're likely to get from a small restaurant in a landlocked city.
Editor's note: Our star ratings system has, frankly, become something of a mystery. The key to the ratings has never appeared regularly in the paper, and their meanings have become unclear. So as of this week, the star rating key will run each week in the Good Eats section. We are also tweaking the meaning of the stars ever so slightly. In the past, a two-star review has signified a lukewarm response on the part of the reviewer. From now on, one star will mean "fair," restaurants that have redeeming qualities but are lacking in at least one major aspect. Two stars will mean "good," and three stars will mean "very good." For a full explanation, see the key in the info box above.