Momokawa Shares the Taste of Kyoto With Manhattan


A few weeks ago, I was blown away by Hibino, a Japanese restaurant in Cobble Hill specializing in the food of Kyoto, a city 200 miles west of Tokyo with its own venerable micro-cuisine. Soon after, a Japanese friend told me it wasn’t the only such place in town: Another Kyoto joint called Momokawa opened a year ago on the outskirts of Curry Hill.

The restaurant has been jiggered into two floors of a sagging townhouse, so that you have to make your way through a narrow hallway to reach a tight spiral staircase that ascends to the dining room. Emerging on the second floor like a newborn babe, you’ll see four booths along one wall, which can become semi-private by rolling down rattan shades above them. A few tables overlook the street, and several seats line an L-shaped bar. That’s the extent of the place.

That bar doesn’t serve sushi. Instead, cold sake is dispensed from a fascinating list that specializes in junmais, made only with rice, water, yeast, and koji (steamed rice inculcated with aspergillus mold, which breaks down the starch so that it can be digested by the yeast). These sakes have a pure, plain, slightly acidic flavor that goes so well with food, you might be tempted to abandon wine and beer altogether. The best deal is a 720 ml bottle of Shirakabe Gura ($33), made in Kyoto and designated “tokubetsu,” meaning the rice has been milled down by 35 percent, on the theory that removing the hard outer layers of the grain results in a cleaner taste.

When you order a bottle of sake, the waitress brings a choice of tiny cups in a wicker basket, running from austere, etched-glass beakers to squat, hand-thrown ceramic vessels, including one with a pair of comical faces—one sober, one drunk. Use your first few tiny cupfuls to wash down apps, from a menu that abounds with oddities. “Tomato with delicious salt” ($3) relaxes in a thin broth, an entire fruit accompanied by an Okinawan sea salt so fine, it might be mistaken for cocaine. The NaCl contains traces of seaweed, which produces the “umami” flavor that the salt’s name implies. If eating a tomato seems all wrong in a Japanese restaurant, the same powder comes with several seafood selections, too, including a frequent special of chilled boiled octopus ($9).

Some of the starters are specifically intended to go with sake. One of the strangest features eggplant mired in a purée of fresh lima beans, and, for lovers of the slimy, there’s raw firefly squid ($7), a naturally phosphorescent sea creature that grows to a length of only three inches. Alas, it won’t be glowing by the time you eat it. Unlike Hibino, Momokawa has no sushi, but every day a few scintillatingly fresh sashimis take their place on the specials menu. Yellowtail was a favorite on one occasion, and a snapper-like fish called Alfonse ($15) on another, both generous servings prettily fanned out in a wicker basket with radish slices and wads of fresh wasabi.

Like Hibino, the heart of the menu are obanzai, home-style dishes from Kyoto. Most scrumptious is a hamburger-size fish cake—chunky and sweet, fried till the outside is caramel-colored. Another revelation is boiled yam cake, a pile of wobbly purple cubes that might be mistaken for thick Jell-O, splashed with spicy soy sauce. You’ve probably never had anything quite like it. Other things that left us scratching our heads with pleasure included a Chinese wonton soup with the expected flavors warped by shredded shiso leaf, which imparted a flavor something like cinnamon, and a warm salad of conch and asparagus slicked with a dressing incorporating both soy sauce and butter.

Shabu-shabu—a bubbling broth in which you cook vegetables and premium meats at your table by dipping—was invented in nearby Osaka, and forms a prominent section of the menu. I’d skip it, not only because it’s nearly impossible to finish this bland meal without spraying droplets all over yourself and your dining companions, but also because this being summer, you don’t want to imbibe gallons of hot liquid, which is the last stage of the eating process. Instead, enjoy ochazuke ($8). This simple dish is usually executed by Japanese moms pouring green tea into the crusty grains remaining in the bottom of the rice cooker, then stirring them with shredded nori, sesame seeds, and tidbits of salted plum or salmon, and serving it as a soup. Momokawa’s might constitute the perfect evocation of this dish—except, of course, the mom is missing.