At some point, we all stopped listening to our servers. It happened somewhere between “Hello, my name is Joe, and I’ll be your waiter” and “Let me explain how the menu works.” You can’t blame the populace for tuning out when spiels get longer, restaurants get more complicated, and management never empowers employees to make things easier.
- 820 W. Lake St.
- FYI The Japanese sweet tomatoes that’ve been dehydrated, rehydrated, and presented like steak tartare may be the most creative dish of the year.
- Tab $45 to $55
- Hours Dinner nightly
- Tab does not include alcohol, tax, or tip.
Then, just when we’ve forgotten how to ask for help, along comes a place like Momotaro, where we need it more than ever. “Maybe I ordered wrong,” said an unsatisfied friend after finishing her meal. Another opened the 85-item menu and quickly shut it, terrified by the endless choices. Chill, people. Boka Restaurant Group’s giant Japanese spectacle is not a test of your mettle. It is a restaurant—and a good one, if you welcome your server as he welcomes you.
Yes, Momotaro has multiple kitchens, bars, chefs, and concepts on its three stunning floors. It’s got a enormous central sushi bar with green subway tile, a lounge with the spirits menu on a train station’s departures and arrivals board, and a basement izakaya with small plates and a vintage Japanese pay phone. Even the impressive sakes are divided into sections (Fragrant, Classic, Pure) bound to stymie neophytes.
Curate your meal by choosing a few standouts from the menu’s 10 categories. Start with a snack of ogo, an addictive sesame seaweed salad with nopales and konbu (edible kelp flown in daily from Hawaii). From the Cold category, my waiter pushed the katsuo tataki, one big, gorgeous bite of barely seared bonito with a cucumber and seaweed salad, garlic oil, and orange ponzu. Unflashy but excellent. The Miyazaki wagyu ups the sex appeal, wrapping a raw slice of the highest grade of Japanese beef around supple sea urchin from Santa Barbara seasoned with shiso ohba. Let it sink into your tongue for one ethereal moment.
Executive chef Mark Hellyar’s inspired hot dishes take plenty of chances. The cedar-roasted kurodai, an herby sea bream that flakes off onto a chunky shiso salad, gets a kick from a lemon that’s been dipped in house-ground red chili peppers. He tops chawan mushi, a traditional custard, with thick black truffle sauce and shreds of Alaskan red king crab that resemble ramen. Potential throwaways become stunners: say, an impossibly rich miso soup with silken tofu, puffed tofu, and nameko mushrooms.
In the From the Coals category, you’ll find skewers of everything from chicken hearts to angel prawns, all saturated with binchotan smoke. If you pick just one, make it the washugyu, wherein foie gras melts into skirt steak in a sumptuous explosion that includes shishito peppers and a punchy peppercorn paste. Fight through the wall you may well be hitting now. On the other side is Dungeness crab with mayonnaise and shishitos, served in the shell. First you’ll roll your eyes at the ridiculously dramatic presentation. Then you’ll roll them again in ecstasy.
Chef Jeff Ramsey’s attempt to correct the past decade’s elaborate indiscretions against raw fish may be admirable, but too often the overpriced nigiri, sashimi, and makimono disappoint. A merely OK omakase selection ($50) full of the usual stuff (mackerel, fatty tuna, salmon, octopus) comes to $6.25 for each bite. The best options, such as a kampyo roll of sweet braised gourd with ponzu, are simply not memorable. Others, like the ikura nigiri-zushi—marinated salmon roe packed in a hollowed-out apple—fall back on gimmicks. Sometimes the stunts work: The wonderful toro tartare, served on a giant block of ice dotted with horseradish and edible nasturtium leaves, comes across almost as savory ice cream.
Robust cocktails with names like Warlord’s Bounty give way to a list of affordable wines by the glass and bottle and sake selections such as the crisp Snowflake, a dry junmai from the prefecture of Yamagata. On one visit, I considered skipping dessert, but the army of staffers told me I’d regret it. A slice of the steamed shittori, a moist yuzu cake with dehydrated blood oranges, tapioca balls that resemble fish roe, and a Greek yogurt sorbet, proved them right. Again.
Disregard the sushi, and Momotaro still eclipses Boka, Balena, GT Fish & Oyster, and Girl & the Goat in terms of ambitiousness. While Boka Group staffs are always impeccably trained, Momotaro is the first restaurant of the bunch where the front-of-the-house crew members do not fade into the background. They become equal partners, ready to help. Let them.