The Boka Restaurant Group, led by Kevin Boehm and Rob Katz, has a lot of burners running at once. The pot that’s just about to boil is Momotaro (820 W. Lake St., West Loop, no phone yet), the group’s first foray into Japanese food.
“Japanese food is Rob’s and my favorite way to eat. By far,” Boehm says. Today, about four months before the planned July opening, they announce Momotaro’s chefs, plural, using the common Japanese-restaurant split between a hot-food chef and a sushi chef.
Neither has worked in Chicago before; each has a pedigree.
Mark Hellyar, who is in charge of the hot menu as well as serving as executive chef and partner, put in stints at the respected Washington, D.C., restaurants Citronelle, Nora’s, and Blue Duck Tavern. Most recently, he worked as a corporate development chef for Starr Restaurants, which is approximately the Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises of Philadelphia. In an odd coincidence for Chicago’s food scene, his last project for Starr developed menu items for Morimoto, the namesake restaurant of the chef Masaharu Morimoto, whose food just arrived in Chicago at the revamped Japonais by Morimoto.
Jeff Ramsey, the sushi chef, had his greatest success at the strangely named but Michelin-starred Tapas Molecular Bar in Tokyo, a supersmall, sciencey tasting-menu spot. For his audition for Boehm and Katz, however, he kept things simple. “We flew to L. A.,” Katz says. “This guy [Ramsey] schleps from Tokyo and puts together this sushi tasting for us. It was one of these aha moments. This is different. This is sensational. Not molecular. Just real sushi. It’s going to appeal to everybody.”
Momotaro will sprawl over multiple floors. The main floor seats 130, alongside a sushi bar and a glass-enclosed robata bar. The cocktail bar sits in a two-story-tall space, with a full-height back bar reminiscent of an old Japanese brokerage board. Downstairs, a 30-seat bar shares space with an 80-seat izakaya, the Japanese after-work heavy-snacks bar that food-news junkies will remember as a local trend that briefly sputtered a few years ago.
The cross street at Momotaro’s address is Green, the same street that in just a few blocks, abuts Publican, Publican Quality Meats, Little Goat, RM Champagne Salon, and Green Street Smoked Meats. “Green Street. We think this is the new path,” Katz says. Green is the new black.