I have a wife who is half Japanese, and a mother-in-law who comes from a small fishing village on the coast of Kagoshima Prefecture on the island of Kyushu. My mother-in-law is from peasant stock, and hardly interested in pretending to be a urbane sophisticate. My interest in Japanese food is part a product of personal fascination with things Japanese, but also partly practical. I have to feed my in laws. And to that end, the Doraville roll just doesn’t cut it.

For those of us who lack Japanese blood, Japanese rearing, a year in Japan as an English teacher, or perhaps some time as an izakaya chef, there is one reference you should get your hands on beyond all others. I say this, not as someone who has read extensively about these issues, but as a scholar, who has an advanced degree from a good university, and thus has had to become a world class expert on a topic at least once in my life. I’m claiming some skill in learning, and some ability to recognize a great book when I see one.

Shizuo Tsuji's masterpiece is a must read for food bloggers and aspiring food critics.

Shizuo Tsuji’s tour de force cookbook and thorough blow-by-blow discussion of the Japanese meal, “Japanese Cooking: A Simple Art” is a must read. Either you have read it, you have acquired what he knows through personal experience, or you simply don’t know what you’re talking about when it comes to the Japanese meal.

To show what  this book can do for the food blogger and food critic, we’ll start with some common misconceptions.

Misconception 1: A Japanese meal begins with miso soup, salad and rice. It continues with an entrée, and ends with a sweet dessert.

Uhm, no. A traditional Japanese meal ends with things like miso soup and rice. In fact a traditional meal might be little more than rice and pickles (tsukemono).

The basic components of a Japanese meal.

The four course Japanese meal starts with clear soup or sashimi, proceeds to grilled, steamed, simmered, or deep dried food, perhaps includes a salad, and ends with rice, miso soup, pickles, tea and perhaps fruit. And in this  vein, the first part of Tsuji’s book, the part that talks about technique, lore, ingredients, the part less focused on just the recipes, is laid out in the order of the Japanese meal.

Misconception 2: Sushi is the highlight of the traditional Japanese meal.

Sashimi highlights a Japanese meal, especially if you are a guest.

No. High quality sashimi is what an ordinary Japanese family would give to a guest to show them respect. Preparing most sushi requires special skills, skills the average housewife does not have. To think that sushi is common food is to reduce the whole  of Japan to a nation of sushi chefs.

Misconception 3: Ramen is Japanese food.

The Japanese consider ramen noodles to be of Chinese origin.

The irony of this situation  is that everyone thinks ramen is Japanese except the Japanese themselves. Ramen, like yakisoba, is considered by the Japanese to be a Chinese import. It is, however, a popular import, much as sushi is a popular import in America.

Misconception 4: I have done a good job as a food critic by talking about a Japanese restaurant’s ramen and their sushi.

Sad to say, this makes about as much sense as discussing a hamburger joint’s French fries and shakes, as opposed to their burgers. But 90% of the criticism of Japanese restaurants in Atlanta can’t get past the ramen or the sushi. Although a place with great French fries and great drinks is worth noting – maybe you  go to the restaurant just for those –  it doesn’t capture the whole of the eating experience.

Misconception 5: I can determine the authenticity of a Japanese restaurant by the quality of its ramen.

See Misconception 3 above, and think about it a while. Yes, I’ve seen Atlanta food bloggers try this one out as well.

Misconception 6: I can determine the authenticity of a Japanese restaurant by the quality of  its tuna sushi.

This isn’t strictly from Shizuo Tsuji’s book, but it’s an issue worth mentioning. I’ve seen Atlanta bloggers go down the path of complaining about  the tuna sushi in Japanese restaurants, and holding it a against  the establishment. And to be plain, a good chunk of deep red bluefin nigiri was my first love in nigiri-zushi. But bluefin is a currently a step away from being classed as an endangered species, and making any judgments on the basis of tuna is exceptionally crass.

Misconception 7: All Japanese restaurants have a sushi bar.

Only in America are we so in love with sushi that all Japanese restaurants have to have sushi bars. Americans are so in love with sushi that Thai restaurants have sushi bars, as do higher end grocery stores. As an example, it would be unthinkable  for an Atlanta izakaya to lack a sushi bar, but that’s by far the common state of affairs in Japan.

 There really is no restaurant I love more than an izakaya, and no matter how many trendy American restaurants like to put that on their website they never get it right.

Zack Davisson, in his review of Izakaya: The Japanese Pub Cookbook.

Red Robin is on the the corner of Scenic Highway (124) and Webb Ginn Road, on the far right side if you’re driving from Snellville to Lawrenceville along 124. This is the same side as On the Border, Ted’s Montana Grill and Doc Greens.  Strictly speaking this is a Lawrenceville location but I’ve never felt I was in Lawrenceville when I was there.  Once inside it has a bright cheery ambience, with televisions embedded in the floor of the waiting area, and bright posters on the walls.  There is a bar in the restaurant and you can get alcoholic drinks. They have beer and fancy mixed drinks for the adults and fancy lemon and limeades for the young at heart.

Historically, Red Robin is a chain that started on the west coast. The restaurant is based on the idea of a gourmet burger.  Their burgers are full sized and come in at least 30 different varieties. You can get beef, chicken, salmon, turkey, fish, and vegetarian burgers. Toppings? They have plenty of them. French fries are meaty and they will give you fries until you can’t eat any more. Most burgers are topped with a fancy mayonnaise. If you don’t like mayo, they have mustard and ketchup on the tables.  If you don’t want a bun because you’re on an Adkin’s diet, they can accommodate that as well. My favorite is the 5 Alarm Burger, which has a spicy pepper jack cheese, jalapenos, chipotle mayo, and a ‘tangy salsa’.

Service here has been generally good, with an emphasis on the generally. I’ve come into the restaurant when they were short of cooks and the time to meals was horrible then, well in excess of 90 minutes. I’ve had the occasional mediocre server. For the most part they do get back to your table, ask if you want refills, top off your fries, etc.

My only complaint is that they are a bit pricey compared to the alternatives. It’s hard to get a burger cheaper than $9.00 here, and the Prime Rib Dip is priced at $12.99. Quesadillas are about $10.00 and the side salads are close to $5.00 each. Onion rings? $7.99. I find that I spend about as much here as I do Ruby Tuesdays.

Take home? It’s a nice place, but an ounce on the pricey side. If you’re on a budget, a fast food burger spot may be in order. If you want a little pampering, good inventive burgers, all you can eat french fries, pretty drinks, and a place to sit down, Red Robin may be the place for you.

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