Once upon a time there was a child hero, Momotaro, from a popular Japanese folk tale. His arrival in the world is tied to sensual pleasure: The G-rated version brings him into the world from the belly of a peach while the grown-up version features a peach that rejuvenates an older couple, resulting in the birth of this peach boy. He's renowned for delicious millet dumplings that help him recruit a dog, a monkey and a pheasant to conquer an island of demons. The moral of the story is “good dumplings make for loyal friends.” As does good sushi.
Momotaro Sushi, at the eastern end of Carytown, also has a good story. Its owner Justin Chu managed one of his Carytown sushi competitors (there are three within that mile) before venturing out on his own. The chef, Ya Wen Chu, is a recent AcmigrAc from Japan. Together they've crafted a simple restaurant from a space that had recently been a pizza joint and a Latin market.
A visit on a chilly Tuesday night finds Momotaro busy but not full. The chill of the evening is quickly relieved by a cup of hot sake while we look over the menu. We start with the requisite miso soup, this version rich and flavorful, and a salad of iceberg lettuce topped with a piquant ginger dressing.
I love the communal aspect of sushi — it's a meal best shared. We're eager to try the shumai, or dumplings, but the restaurant is fresh out. The nigiri starter platter includes a standard selection of fresh tuna, salmon, tilapia, crab tamaga and spicy tuna roll. It's some of the freshest sushi I've had in a long time.
We also experiment with a few special rolls. The botan roll — botan is the Japanese word for the peony flower and is also a reference to the brand name of a popular sushi rice — combines eel and avocado and is topped with a crab and avocado drizzle. The Hot Mama roll lives up to its name with blackened seared tuna topped with salmon, the perfect combination of sweet and spicy.
The decor is understated — Japanese screens hang from the ceiling with decorative cloths behind which the chef works his magic. And behind him is a huge plasma screen TV, showcasing a sushi program from the Food Network during my visit. Televisions are one of my pet peeves in a restaurant; if they don't add to the ambience, they should be kept off. Likewise here. One recent exception that I recall is a hipster sushi parlor in Chicago that projected anime and kung fu films onto the wall. Another element that can destroy a sense of atmosphere is Top-40 radio — I'd rather see a modest investment in some music mixes that can add rather than detract from the mix. Commercial radio doesn't make my maki taste any more authentic.
Never one to give up the chance to end the evening on a sweet note, I look forward to sampling Momotaro's one dessert choice, green tea ice cream, but it's fresh out. I wonder if the restaurant been busy over the weekend or cautious in the supply. Many restaurants are becoming more conservative in their ordering and preparation in hopes of managing an erratic number of diners. The way the staff is overly attentive, plying us with questions about how we liked the meal, is off-putting in some ways, but understandable for a new venture.
A second visit for lunch finds the restaurant busy. The lunch special consists of miso soup, shumai dumplings and a variety of sushi and maki to choose from. The shumai are so good we order an additional side. After all, the dumplings made Momotaro famous, and these lightly steamed miniature pillows, filled with a mixture of shrimp and scallions, are a big hit. They'll keep me coming back for more demon-fighting sustenance.
What Momotaro may lack in atmosphere it more than makes up for in the quality of sushi. And it's at a price less than its competition. I think this story will have a happy ending. S
Momotaro Sushi $-$$
2803 W. Cary St.
Monday-Thursday, 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m.
Friday-Saturday, Noon-11 p.m.
Sunday, 5-9 p.m.