Boka Restaurant Group is about to make a big splash in, of all places, the Southport corridor. The neighborhood has never been known as a huge foodie destination, but that might be about to change, as not one, not two, but three new spots — including a chicken restaurant from chef Lee Wolen and Stephanie Izard’s Little Goat Diner — come to the neighborhood. No shade to Wolen and Izard, but I’m most excited for the third offering: a new Japanese spot from Momotaro chef Gene Kato called Itoko.

Why am I so excited for this particular restaurant? Two primary reasons. First, Kato is aiming to create a neighborhood version of the always-excellent (but also pricey and hard to get into) Momotaro. “Itoko means cousin,” explains Kato. “The idea of the name is because we wanted to capture some of what made Momotaro and Izakaya Momotaro special.” He described the place as positioned somewhere between the high-end Momotaro and the faux-gritty casual Izakaya, with the added bonus of a smaller space that allows for some different dishes. For example, handrolls. “We don’t do them at Momotaro often because by the time they get to the table, the seaweed is too soft, it loses the crunch and then everything inside falls apart,” says Kato. “With Itoko, because the space is smaller, everyone is close to the sushi bar, so we can have a hand roll section on the menu.”

The second reason? One delicious word: Robata. Longtime fans of Kato will remember his excellent and acclaimed Sumi Robata Bar, and while Kato is quick to emphasize that Itoko is not the second coming of Sumi, it will have a significant robata selection. Even better, thanks to the help of some industry friends, he managed to get his old robata grill back up and running.

Back when Sumi was closing, Kato was cleaning out his kitchen and heard a knock on the window — his across-the-street neighbor, chef Giuseppe Tentori, was checking in on him. Kato let Tentori in, and told him that he couldn’t take his expensive, custom-made robata grill because it was too heavy. Tentori immediately rustled up his kitchen crew and helped Kato load the grill onto a U-Haul truck. “It was such amazing hospitality,” remembers Kato. At that point, Kato hadn’t joined Momotaro yet and needed to pay off some debts, so the grill got sold to Nick Kokonas for use at Next. When Itoko finally came around, Kato bought the grill back from Kokonas, and it will have a place of pride in the new dining room.

That being said, even the robata offerings will be a little different than those Sumi diners might be used to. “At Itoko I want to be a little bit more playful,” explains Kato. “You’ll get the essence of a Japanese dish, but it’s not so forced into tradition.” For example, at a traditional robata joint, a grilled scallop would be served plain, with nothing to distract from its scallop-ness. At Itoko, it’ll be plated with a wasabi and pea puree; a little extra hit to emphasize the flavor.

The same approach will apply to the sushi selection, with a focus on creative maki. “That doesn’t mean we’re going to do a California roll,” laughs Kato. “But I try to take into consideration why diners like those dishes.”

Itoko won’t be open for business until later this year — the first restaurant in the development to open will be from Wolen — but expect it to hit the ground running, as Kato has been training staff at Momotaro for months. He’s hoping that neighborhood diners will get to try something really special. “I want to be able to follow the traditions that we are heavily connected to here at Momotaro, and bring that same standard, that quality, that DNA to Itoko, but make it special on its own.”