John and Kerry Ra have been in the Springs sushi scene for a long time. The couple co-owned both Tomo Sushi locations, as well as the now-defunct Miyaki Sushi, until they sold out and retired three years ago. But in mid-February, the Ras came out of retirement for a new sushi venture, named Sushi Ato, in the growing Northgate neighborhood.
"I think I was delusional when I opened up a restaurant again," says John. Whatever the couple's appetite for suffering, evidence suggests it's outpaced by their appetite for good sushi. The team of four behind Ato's inviting 35-foot sushi bar has over 95 combined years of sushi experience, with the greenest being 12 years deep in the biz.
The menu's sizable and varied, with meat, cooked fish and noodle dishes, as well as sushi aplenty. At lunch, we opt for a gyudon beef bowl, consisting of tender beef and onions simmered in dashi, served over steamed rice. It's heavy on umami, but a dash more dashi in the huge rice portion would not go amiss.
We also try the curry katsu, picking pork over chicken in a pounded-thin, panko-coated cutlet. Japanese curry's pretty subdued next to Indian and Thai takes, but the carrot- and potato-studded sauce does well over the katsu's crisp coating. As with all of Ato's plate specials, it comes with miso soup, a passable salad in a citrusy dressing, stir-fried veggies, steamed rice, and two fried gyoza dumplings. We skip it at lunch, but an extra $3 for the lunch bento combo adds shrimp and veggie tempura, plus a small California roll.
Plates go up a few bucks in price at dinner — the cashew encrusted salmon, which goes from $12 to $15, still feels like a decent deal. The tender piece of fish comes topped with a mound of crab-wasabi-peppercorn sauce, which mostly tastes of rich-sweet Japanese mayo. Atop the veggie stir fry, the salmon skin gets soggy and texturally unpleasant. We do go for the $5 dinner bento combo here, adding a pleasant tuna roll to the above-mentioned options — a substantial amount of food, make no mistake.
But the standout non-sushi dish we sample over lunch and dinner is the shoyu ramen. The nutty broth reads more miso than thin, clean soy sauce, but it's delicious either way, bearing a braised slice of pork belly, bamboo shoots, bok choy, bean sprouts, and an egg. I'd love a less done yolk to mix in with the broth, but all told, it's a generous bowl of soup with pleasantly chewy noodles.
Moving on to the sushi, there's a fair array of classics and creative rolls alike. Start with something a touch controversial — ankimo, or steamed monkfish liver. In the Pacific, monkfish is heavily overfished, but our server tells us that this fish comes from Scotland, where they're underfished. Recent NOAA reports corroborate that claim, so we don't feel too bad about ordering the $9 plate.
Served under tiny masago fish eggs and microgreens, the ankimo has a pleasant tenderness and unique fishy-organ-y flavor. For another adventurous bite, we sample the uni — the delicate edible parts of a spiny sea urchin. Ours tastes briny with a hint of sweetness, wet yet creamy in texture, served with a dot of wasabi for a deeply oceanic taste.
But if all that's too adventurous, the anago — sea eel — will please as well. It's a little tougher and fishier than unagi, but it's an easy step into less-common fish for the curious but tenuous diner.
As for rolls, our server directs us to the Avalance 1 roll, deep-fried and baked, full of cream cheese, avocado and salmon, each slice topped with a swirl of spicy Japanese mayo and masago. It's a fun play of textures and unusual tastes, with the mayo bearing more of a satisfying chili pepper flavor than heat.
We also try the Tijuana Ninja roll, designed at Miyaki Sushi, which comes full of crab, cream cheese, shrimp tempura, chopped jalapeño, and burnt chili oil. Not as spicy as it sounds, there's plenty of textural fun going on. For traditionalists, the Crazy Horse roll has avocado, tuna, salmon, and hamachi. Add a dab of wasabi, and it's delicious.
Ato offers no full bar, but hot sake always pleases — the plum sake, which cuts sherry-sweet plum wine with sake, sips enjoyably, though the $18 price tag for a large serving gave us a bit of sticker shock. Cheaper and sweeter at dessert, the tempura ice cream bears satisfying crunch and chew, decidedly kid-centric under plentiful chocolate and strawberry syrup.
Menu-wide, the Ato team's experience shows. Their menu has tastes both familiar and adventurous, making their dining room accessible to eaters of all stripes. It's another dining destination in the increasingly impressive northern Springs food scene.