Moto-i, the only sake brewpub outside of Japan, has had an interesting run in the six or so months that it has been open. It had a roaringly good start under the guidance of opening chef Chris Olson but hit a rocky period after Olson’s departure; its gastronomic compass seemed to go a bit haywire and I received what was certainly some of the worst restaurant service of 2008.
Fast forward to spring 2009: Vincent veteran Jason Engelhart’s steady hand has asserted itself at a place that appears to be on its way to becoming an Uptown anchor. Some questionable menu items appear to have been eased out to pasture; new arrivals are perfectly calibrated to the restaurant’s Tokyo-meets-Andalusia small plate approach to food that’s directly inspired by the Japanese neighborhood pubs known as izakayas. Although the menu does offer some larger noodle dishes and delectably delicate one-off buns (such as pork/hoisin or pulled chicken), it’s the small plates and sake that really drive this place, giving it a unique niche in the ecology of Twin Cities restaurants.
House-brewed sake is the star of the show, and a fourth variety — Junmai Futsuu Nama ($6) — has recently appeared on the menu. Theoretically tasting of dried figs, the stuff undeniably has a restrained tang of fruit to it, and may be the most balanced of the restaurant’s sakes — it’s a welcome addition to the menu, particularly as it costs two dollars less per glass than its compatriots.
On the food side, karaage (deep-fried soy sauce-marinated chicken with katsu sauce, $6) is the damnedest thing. Most dishes are premised on flavor contrasts — sweet vs. sour, spicy vs. cool and creamy, etc. Texture and temperature contrasts are also common: the snap of a cold pickle on a hot burger, sport peppers on a Chicago dog, water chestnuts in a stir fry. But the karaage works primarily on a moisture contrast basis — wet katsu sauce contrasting against a bone-dry fried coating covering a super-moist marinated bit of chicken. It’s a novel and pleasant experience, and one plate of karaage should be sufficient to entertain three or four palates.
Smoked salmon and lime-flavored rangoons ($6) are outstanding, and probably worth a visit on their own merits. They could serve as a template for how to make rangoons correctly: cooked to order, a crisp, delicate exterior skin, light and creamy filling with a perfectly balanced blend of cream cheese and slighty musky flavoring, tag-teaming it with a sweet chili dipping sauce. [For a template on how to make rangoons incorrectly, see our recent story on the wontons at the airport Wok & Roll.]
One way in which new Moto-i unfortunately reflects both Confused Moto-i and Original Moto-i is that desserts still need some work. An orange blossom panna cotta with chocolate pearls ($4) tasted like an orange yogurt drink with tiny Cocoa Puffs floating on top of it — the stuff never gelled. But this rather confusing (if ultimately pleasant and amusing) dish was light years ahead of the miserable mochi that reached the table.
In a Japanese-American dessert context, mochi (cakes made from glutinous rice pounded into a paste) are often filled with ice cream or sweet red bean paste, and tend to be chewy, dense, and decadently delicious.
Moto-i’s mochi ($4) were thin little hollow shells, served with strips of mint, and crushingly salty soy sauce. The menu suggested that ginger and sugar were both involved in the dish, but upon tasting, both flavors were AWOL. The salt was the only taste left standing in the bizarre post-apocalyptic landscape that was the Moto-i mochi plate.
The result was a dialogue that went like this:
WAITRESS: So, how were your mochi…?
DINER: Not good. Bad, actually. The soy sauce is killing everything else on the plate.
WAITRESS: Oh… I see. I’m sorry.
[removes plate of mochi; leaves; returns]
WAITRESS: You’re completely right. I just tasted them — the soy sauce we’re supposed to use on these is sweet, and yours was salty. Do you want us to remake it…?
DINER: No thanks.
WAITRESS: I’ll take it off your bill and let the chef know so that it doesn’t happen again.
That’s the definition of excellent service. Customer presents complaint. Waitress promptly and personally verifies the substance of the complaint. Waitress offers replacement, economic reimbursement, and additionally promises to inform the chef. Subarashii!
There’s nowhere else in Minnesota to get the exact izakaya small plate experience that Moto-i offers up, and there’s really nowhere outside of Japan to get all that plus sake that’s made mere yards from where you’re eating. Sheer novelty makes Moto-i worth visiting, but good value and some astoundingly tasty little plates of cunningly crafted food make it worth frequenting regularly.
Izakaya Japanese in Uptown
2940 Lyndale Ave. S.
Minneapolis, MN 55408
OWNER/CHEF: Blake Richardson / Jason Engelhart
HOURS: Noon-2am daily
BAR: Sake, wine, and beer
RESERVATIONS/RECOMMENDED: Yes/Yes on weekends
AVERAGE ENTREE: $5-7 (small plates), $10 (noodle dishes)