The first sake brewpub outside of Japan doesn’t make much of a show of itself. With its slim, neon kanji windows, moto-i manages to keep a low profile. I’m not sure whether owner Blake Richardson foresaw the economy-driven backlash against the brash and ubercool, or whether the demure street front was just a well-timed choice. Whatever the reason, he has managed to slip by the skeptics and naysayers to bring us something entirely new. Bravo!
Step inside moto-i, and its modesty slips just a peg to reveal a bit of cheek: the bar’s televisions all play Japanese programs, and the menus are delightfully thematic. However, set against the dark, sleek-lined furniture of its moody dining room, the space does not venture into kitsch. The staff takes sake-brewing seriously, and customers are treated to a wealth of information about the process. Richardson also is the owner of nearby brewpub Herkimer, so clearly, fermentation is a passion of his.
Normally, I discuss wine or beer in the context of pairing, and while the food at moto-i is impressive, the menu has been created to support the sake, not the other way around.
You can order a Minnesotan beer at moto-i, but unless you can’t tolerate sake, your first order of business should be a tasting flight ($12). Each sake at moto-i has its own distinct flavor, so it is only in sampling a few that you begin to appreciate just what Richardson has managed to accomplish.
Our first sake, Tokubetsu ($10), simply was bursting with notes of honeydew. Not too dry and not too sweet, it is smooth as liquid silk. Ginjo ($12) is subtler, with a hint of pear in the finish.
We also tasted Yamahai ($14) alongside Genshu ($9), and the contrast between the two was even more striking. Yamahai offered a velvety texture with a trace of banana, but Genshu presented something else entirely—cask-strength, it exchanges fruitiness for sensation, tickling the sides of the tongue. The bartender warned us not to make fast friends of Genshu, because its high alcohol content sneaks up on the unsuspecting enthusiast.
Lastly, Junmai Nama was crossed by Futsuu (both $8). Junmai Nama offers the same honeydew kiss as Tokubetsu, but it is more delicate. However, Futsuu is straight sassy. “Futsuu” is the term given to an informal, “daily” sake, and a sake sometimes is termed so when its maker isn’t quite satisfied. I always have favored flavor over smoothness, but if you’re of the other camp, try the same Futsuu served hot ($11), and it mellows out significantly.
If I hadn’t been eating food the whole time, I would have ended up a statistic. Luckily, the menu is broad enough to include everything from snacks to entrées, and they all are fabulous.
We began with appetizers. Fried Shishito Peppers with kosher salt ($4) are surprisingly sweet and mild, so before I knew it, they all were gone. If you need a bit of crunch, Taro Shoestrings ($3) are a decent chip alternative, served with spicy chili aoli. Thai Chili Peanuts ($3) are especially good with the lighter, sweeter sakes.
For a heartier snack, consider Hoisin Pork Bun ($3), a Northern Chinese-style steamed bun featuring a neat little rectangle of succulent pork tucked into a puffy dough pocket. Housemade Green Curry Chicken Dumplings ($8) are surprisingly light and spunky, with just a dash of curry to punch things up. Oven Roasted Chicken Wings (daily special at $7) are prepared as one traditionally would approach duck feet—cured and cooked in duck fat before a final crisping in the oven.
Entrées are plentiful as daily specials. Frequent features include Hawaiian Blue Prawns ($16), with perfectly al dente housemade pasta, carmelized garlic, chilis, and sake; Hangar Steak ($20), which is simply spectacular with thyme-miso butter and sautéed mitake mushrooms; and Coconut Green Curry ($10), a regular menu item worth ordering repeatedly—although one of moto-i’s spiciest dishes, I still found it to be very approachable.
Because of moto-i’s focus, I hadn’t expected the desserts to be as memorable, but Orange Blossom Panna Cotta ($4) is worth planning ahead for. Little chocolate pearls give a nice crunch to the creamy panna cotta, served in a sake glass, and spiked with light berry coulis.
Sata Andagi ($4) are traditional Okinawan doughnuts that have been dusted with sugar and five spice—if fried dough appeals to you, then a word of warning: Taste these, and State Fair doughnuts forever will be ruined for you. And you know what? That’s not altogether a bad thing, because moto-i should be in business for a long, long time—ubercool Uptown and all.
2940 Lyndale Ave. S., Mpls.