On a bright fall day around 2 p.m., Ege Sushi only has two tables occupied in its modest dining room. One by me, huddled over a bowl of steaming udon, slurping comforting broth and fat noodles muddled with scallion and nori and the occasional wisp of egg. A young black woman and an older, Eastern European-looking man occupy the other table. They're speaking a language that sounds like a cross between Russian, German and Portuguese. Perhaps they're speaking Russian but she has a Spanish accent. I imagine they're spies, or doomed lovers, their affections thwarted by grand tribulations and vast distances.
The waitress appears at the table, answering requests with a short nod and an enthusiastic “Hai!” As I look around the room at the slightly shabby but comfortable brown décor — sushi bar stretching down one side of the room, a lone beer tap standing over a keg refrigerator at the back of the room (pouring Sapporo), signs handwritten in Japanese — I realize I could be almost anywhere in the world. The authenticity of the food and the Japanese staff suggest we could be in Anytown, Japan. But the international clientele and the place's almost transitory feel indicate that we could be in any city large enough to support small pockets of intercontinental authenticity.
In fact, we're in a strip mall in Marietta.
A few evenings earlier, on a Saturday night, my husband and I were seated at Ege’s sushi bar and handed laminated menus. (It would take two more visits before I'd proven I deserved the specials menu, made up mainly of izakaya — Japanese pub — dishes.) The restaurant was full, tables mostly occupied by groups of Japanese men. When I asked for a sake list, the waitress responded that there was none.
“You can have the $7 cold sake. That’s the cheapest.”
“Is there anything else? I might be interested in something more expensive.”
She glared at me. I took the $7 sake.
The regular menu does feature an assortment of dishes, ranging from classic izakaya-style to sushi bar mainstays. Tofu appetizers, topped with uni or mentai (a spicy, slightly bitter fish roe), are dusted with slivers of chopped seaweed and come in shallow ponzu baths. On the uni version, the silky tofu plays against the creamy sea urchin for a mouthful of umami goodness. The isobe age, a battered and fried fish cake served with Japanese mayo, is a pleasingly hot, crunchy, oily accompaniment to that ice-cold draft Sapporo. Grilled smelts (shishamo) are filled with roe, the small fish becoming a wrapper for the pop and wiggle of the ocean-flavored eggs.
It did take the specials menu to find some of the restaurant’s best dishes. On visit three, after the waitress commented, “You like tofu, huh?” and then a reserved, but sternly approving, “You eat like Japanese,” we were finally presented with the handwritten list. Ask for it. Demand it. You’ll find ponzu mirugai, chunked and fried giant clam — what I (ignorantly) imagine Japanese children order at the drive-thru in place of chicken nuggets. The small cubes present all the fried goodness of fair food, but with an undertone of briny, meaty heft. Sweet and occasionally spicy shishito peppers come under a blanket of shimmering, waving katsuobushi (shaved bonito).
Whole grilled sardines garnered a few bites of oily, flavorful flesh, but for anyone but the fishiest fish lover, the muddy inner bits make the dish slightly overpowering.
The sushi bar delivers a few interesting fish, including saltwater eel, which is lighter and more naturally flavorful as sashimi than the more common freshwater kind. Sweet shrimp was a highlight, the raw flesh intense and deeply flavored, the fried heads presented a minute later to munch on in crackly delight. Knife work is sometimes a tad rough, and this isn’t the wondrous, pristine fish found in a couple of Atlanta’s best sushi restaurants. I did love the bakudan, a jumble of sashimi and seafood bits in ponzu with a raw quail egg to mix in.
Service is at turns gracious, annoyed, flustered, complimentary, and loving. There are two servers on the floor on the busiest nights, and waits can be long for a drink, or to remove that smelly sardine head from your table. But the personalities of your waitresses, sushi chefs and fellow customers become such a part of the experience, the restaurant would lose a considerable part of its charm if it were any different.
We're lucky Atlanta is large and varied enough to offer world-class sushi, dazzling Japanese cuisine, authentic izakayas and beyond. Thanks to Ege, we also have a Japanese restaurant with more modest aspirations — to be exactly what you might find on the corner in some Japanese neighborhood. I'll raise a $7 toast to that.