Restaurant review by Amy Cavanaugh
With almost no exceptions, you want to order the dish a restaurant is named for. At Momotaro, that’s the momotaro tartare, which melds dehydrated tomato, a spicy hit of Dijon and onion puree into a slightly sweet, savory spread. It’s served with puffy rice crisps, which are totally unnecessary, since my dinner date was content to just scoop up the tartare on its own—and for that matter, so was I.
It’s a wholly unexpected dish, and it sets the tone for a dinner at Momotaro, the latest restaurant from the Boka group (Boka, GT Fish & Oyster and others), a restaurant group known for opening exceptional restaurants. Here, chef Mark Hellyar and sushi chef Jeff Ramsey have teamed up for a take on Japanese cuisine that’s elegant, and in most cases, delicious.
If you haven’t made a reservation (and even if you have), you may wind up waiting for a table along with boisterous groups of 20- and 30-somethings. There’s a small bar area in the huge, wood-paneled dining room, but a better bet is the downstairs izakaya, which glows with red light and has a four-sided bar and seating designed for groups. I liked the space so much that on a recent Friday, we went to the izakaya to wait for our table and returned to end the evening with a nightcap of Japanese whiskey. There’s a 15-deep Japanese whiskey list, which includes easy-to-find types, like the Yamazaki 12 and Hibiki 12, along with Coffey Grain, a relative newcomer to the U.S., which is round and sweet like bourbon (and one of my favorite whiskies right now), while the Hakushu Heavily Peated is along the lines of smoky Islay scotches like Laphroig. If you’re not going to dip into the whiskey offerings, you have plenty of other options—cocktails, like the Merchant from Kyoto, a bright green tea and gin cocktail showered with nutmeg; sakes, like the Seven Spearsman, an earthy sake with notes of cereal grain; a long list of wines by the bottle and glass; and beers, like Coedo Shiro, a Japanese hefeweizen that’s a nice match for the food.
So you will drink well at Momotaro, and you can pad your stomach with many good things to eat. The menu is expansive, and on two visits I haven’t come close to trying everything, which is divided into categories like snacks, cold dishes, hot dishes, hibachi, rice and noodles and then all manner of raw seafood. Alongside the momotaro, there are other standouts, like the Alaskan king crab legs, which are brought to the table on a hibachi. Squeeze lime over the top and extract the meat from the shell—the crab is tender and slightly smoky.
The curry udon is an ideal cold weather dish, as the thick noodles are coated with warming curry, while the ground pork adds some heft. There’s an array of skewers of meat and seafood cooked over the robata grill, but I’d skip the underdone chunks of sweet potato in favor of the flavorful gingery chicken meatballs, topped with a quail egg, and the smoked bacon and eggs, tiny quail eggs marinated in soy and wrapped with paper-thin slices of bacon.
Seasoning was inconsistent throughout the menu, as a wasabi-dressed salad was overpowering, while a dish of rice with urchin and black truffles somehow managed to taste like nothing. A more successful truffle application was the chawanmushi, a slippery egg custard that dissolves as it hits the tongue, with nuggets of red crab and thick black truffle sauce. We also made short work disassembling the Hamachi collar, funky with miso.
There are more than enough good things at Momotaro to have an entire meal without even glancing at the sushi list, but that’s a mistake. An eight-piece order of nigiri or sashimi omakase is $50, and our enthusiastic, friendly server steered us toward the nigiri plate, with composed bites of buttery shrimp, seared mackerel and creamy uni lightly accented with sauces and other ingredients. Maki, like spicy octopus with pickled shallots and mackerel padded with a mix of herbs, are well-executed and restrained, if lacking the sheer delight of some of the cooked dishes.
If you make it to dessert, you have four choices, including a thick soy custard layered over huckleberry jam and accented with brown butter crumble, so rich that we only finished half of it, and a lighter option, tiny green peaches with sorbet and more crumble. Both are worthy orders, and both contribute to Momotaro’s insightful look at Japanese food.
820 W Lake St
|Opening hours:||Mon-Thu 5-11pm, Fri-Sat 5pm-12am, Sun 5-11pm|
|Transport:||El stop: Green to Morgan-Lake. Bus: 8, 56.|
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