Momotaro – Chicago, IL
- 820 W Lake St, Chicago, IL 60607
A bunch of the rowdy Jensen clan rallied in Chicago this past March for a melange of celebrations, not the least of which was my 30th birthday celebration. Our big family meal was at the temple of Chicago dining, Girl and the Goat. I will save that post for later in the week, because it was a monumental meal. But to give you a taste of the Chicago festivities, here's a review of the fantastic Momotaro, a Japanese catch-all establishment in the Fulton Market area just west of downtown.
The squad had all departed early on Sunday morning after a rambunctious Friday and Saturday, and I was left by my lonesome with a late checkout at the hotel downtown to wait for my evening flight back to Austin. When I was finally ejected from my nap (partying takes a toll!) at 4:00, I hustled over to Fulton Market for a beer and perused restaurant offerings in the area. Fulton Market is rife with fabulous places for a meal or a tipple, so I knew I was in the right spot to sample something new in Chicago.
Frequent readers of my blog probably know what I was craving. That's right... sushi. Luckily I was right next to what was a highly recommended Japanese combo sushi spot and izakaya, Momotaro. I dragged my suitcase a few blocks and had a seat at the sushi bar for a dinner early enough for a retirement community in Florida.
The space is absolutely massive, and very pretty. I was particularly compelled by the vaunted bar stacked with hundreds of Japanese whiskeys and other spirits (which were sort of cheesily/annoyingly priced in yen and USD). The place is also pretty trendy, also in a sort of annoying way––I think they are trying to cater to multiple crowds, from the foodies to the "woo girls." I can't even find a hint of information about the sushi chef on their website, which is alarming given how impressive his resumé seemed to be from my server's description.
The menu is perhaps even more massive than the restaurant and the intended audience, and I had a hard time even beginning to fathom what on the list looked most compelling. They had pages of sushi options, including nigiri, sashimi, specialty nigiri, and pages of rolls, as well as izakaya-style small plates, cold apps, and entrées for one of for the table. WHEW. Fortunately, my helpful server guided me toward what he considered to be the very best on the menu, and I settled in for a "come what may"-style meal. I got a good sample of the range of the menu aside from the larger portions.
I started with a delightful half bottle of Rihaku "Dance of Discovery" junmai sake, which was recommended by my server for its earthy, umami-driven characteristics that he believed would be excellent with the "more elevated" sushi I would enjoy, as well as the smoky izakaya dishes. Less milled than a ginjo or daiginjo, it indeed expressed itself with body, smoke, and earth, with a healthy hint of tropical fruit.
From the cold apps portion of the menu, I enjoyed a hamachi (yellowtail) dish, consisting of hamachi sashimi, watermelon radish, garlic, and a yuzu and shoyu broth underneath. Atop each slice of radish was a zingy harissa paste. An enjoyable dish, and good starter, but far from the most memorable item.
Izakaya-style robatayaki (grilled) skewers were to follow, and WOW did the server make good choices. Two of my very favorite robatayaki ingredients are shishito peppers and octopus, so naturally, he chose these. The shishitos, which were brought as a free surprise, were simply prepared with lemon and sea salt, and had a small amount of a barley-miso "condiment." The grilled peppers were perfect, and I enjoyed the smoke with the salty earth of the miso, which in turn complemented the sake! The octopus, while TINY for the price, was excellent, and prepared very simply with lime and black pepper.
Time for sushi! I went with the chef's sampler, which was highly recommended by my server, despite the fact that I would normally opt to pick some of my favorite types of fish. But first, I was brought one of the most outstanding pieces of fish I'd ever been presented; brought in dish housing a cloud of cypress smoke was a perfect piece of horse mackerel (aji). This was incredible. Subtly smoky and nuanced, but still allowing the fish to shine, and the aroma of cypress brought everything to the next level. Wow. I'd come back just for this.
It seems this place focuses on "decorated" sushi as opposed to the hyper-traditional "let-the-fish-speak-for-itself" style. I have an appreciation for both. Fortunately, I tacked on a couple of my favorites to the already impressive spread, which were in their "pure" form: chutoro (medium fatty tuna belly) and uni!
From left to right:
- Hirame (flounder fin) with ankimo (monkfish liver)
- Sawara (Spanish mackerel) with ginger and garlic
- Salmon belly with ikura (salmon roe) and kombu (seaweed)
- Hamachi (yellowtail) with egg yolk and chive
- Skipjack with its liver and garlic
- Hotate (scallop) with purple uni and ikura
- Bluefin belly tartare with wasabi blossom
- And finally, uni!
What a great spread! I really enjoyed the salmon belly and scallop in particular.
This place was delicious, if unfocused. I grow increasingly concerned, however, about the corporatization of restaurants. Rather than stellar local establishments, restaurant "groups" open many different spots, and advertise the restaurant as "the latest project" from that restaurant group rather than showcasing the chef. To be sure, there are such groups that are very local (like the people behind Girl and the Goat in Chicago, or Odd Duck/Barley Swine in Austin), but often they tend to be conglomerates that drown out the local restaurant scene. This place feels very corporate and "hip," and their website is replete with such references. These corporate restaurants also tend to charge astronomically high prices. However, the food they are serving is outstanding if you know what to look for, and I would recommend it if you are looking for some excellent (if spendy) sushi in the Fulton Market area.