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A friend is in Japan this week and tweeted a picture of a bowl of beautifully marbled raw beef with raw onion and soy mirin dipping sauce, marveling at how simple and yet remarkable such a dish could be. A little while later he tweeted an important clarification: actually, it wasn't beef, it was horse.
That's by way of saying that there's a lot to Japanese cuisine that we've never seen and probably never will see on these shores. (Some will say thank god, but horse is eaten in many places, including Montreal, which isn't so far away.) We get a few steps closer whenever a new, serious attempt at presenting Japanese cuisine beyond teriyaki chicken and California rolls opens here, and we're about to get a high-profile attempt next week, when the Boka Group's Momotaro opens at 820 W. Lake Street.
Momotaro has to be one of the largest and most culturally ambitious food businesses to open here since Eataly—and though there's no retail side, it resembles the Italian food behemoth in the fact that it offers at least four distinct dining experiences within its space. I'll have more on one part of that next week, but I (along with rather a lot of other people) attended a preview party in advance of next Tuesday's opening, and toured the whole space, located in a long-shuttered warehouse that's been transformed into a vast, glamorously sexy space.
The main floor starts with a large bar area, in which the cocktail prices are cheekily marked in both dollars and yen (check that exchange rate!); there are multiple rows of small tables, lined up like desks in a classroom, facing the bar. Halfway through, the room is interrupted by the sushi bar, which has seats around a busy half-dozen sushi chefs, led by Jeff Ramsey, who won a Michelin star in Japan at Tokyo's Tapas Molecular Bar. There's also a nook with a six-seat table which faces the sushi bar for omakase dining.
Past the sushi bar the back half of the room is dominated by a glass-enclosed kitchen with robata grills and burning bincho logs visible to diners. Co-owner Kevin Boehm points out that compared to the busy bar area, this hot-food-focused section is spacious and more relaxed, with tables spaced far apart; the total downstairs area seats about 120, which is certainly less than it could.
Upstairs there's a mock Japanese board room for private dining—I immediately thought of this one in Kill Bill—but the most interesting part is that, like a larger version of Sumi Robata Bar's Charcoal Bar, the downstairs is given over to an entirely separate bar and restaurant, with its own entrance. This izakaya will serve drinks and Japanese-style bar snacks, and has much more of a divey feel than the chic restaurant upstairs.
Boehm explained the genesis of the Japanese restaurant—"It's both my and [co-owner Rob Katz's] favorite food. My second restaurant, in Florida, was a Japanese restaurant, and Rob's father was an investor in one and he grew up around it." He says the development process was long and complex—well, half of it was. "Jeff did a tasting of sushi for us and we were like, okay, that's covered. No need to worry about that." Procurement is obviously essential to sushi, however, and he says they've developed connections with buyers at the Tsukiji market in Tokyo and elsewhere to get the level of product they want.
In contrast, developing the cooked menu involved close to eight months of recipe testing by chef Mark Hellyar, a celebrated D.C. chef who'd most recently worked for Steven Starr's restaurant group in Philadelphia. In the past they'd done test kitchen work in other restaurants of their own, but "there was no way we could crowd into Little Goat's kitchen for this. Storefront Company had just closed, and so we approached them about leasing the space until they found somebody. We've spent the last seven, eight months there."
Knowing that one of their current chefs, Lee Wolen of Boka, is a big fan of Asian food, I ask if he's expressed any wishes that he was doing the kind of food that Momotaro will be doing. "He's more into Thai and Chinese flavors," Boehm says. "But, yeah, he came over and saw the hot food kitchen and the robata grills, and afterwards he said, 'Maybe you shouldn't have shown me that.'"