When Momotaro opened, it was immediately a massive sensation, sucking in all the diners, critics, and general Chicagoan Internet airspace. And from walking through it, I could see why, as I passed all the happy people dining in the open, handsome room of sleek, natural woods before venturing down a stairwell into a Conradian heart of darkness. But if the above restaurant is for the posh West Loop crowd and Japanese businessmen, the Izakaya is louder and funkier, a moody bar that mirrors old Tokyo in neon.
We took our seats on stools not built for the posture-deficient as we pored over the carefully curated menu to thumping pop. Unfortunately our cheerfully professional waitress was forced to shove her head between the awkwardly-placed columns that bookend each table. She looked like a living Dorian Gray-esque portrait awoken to help.
The degree of difficulty starts out pretty high. We ordered two skewers—the shiitake and a play on breakfast bacon and eggs—both so simple there is nowhere to hide. The mushrooms come off the robata smoky and skewered, big earthy ears interspersed with torched scallions. The bacon and eggs are nothing like Denny’s on a stick, winds of belly wrapping little poppable quail eggs that burst in your mouth like water balloons. The Izakaya specializes in these extra small, small plates. Because next up to bat is the uni toast, their squishy, alien texture somehow incongruously capturing all that delightful briny cream in two slippery bites.
The beef tongue salad is the least successful: a bowl of corned beef and pickles, dolloped with eggplant mayo that never quite conveys their full eggplantiness. It’s not a bad dish; it’s just not a memorable one. Same for a tuna and spicy octopus roll, with brilliant slabs of fish gleaming like red marble that fail to distinguish themselves from supermarket nigiri. The hits are hits. You just want a higher batting average when you’re paying $9-17 per finger food in an elegant basement.
But your eyes light up when the tonkatsu is brought out, a fried continent of Kurobuta pork nestled in shavings of cabbage slaw seasoned and sauced to tart perfection. The pig is hammered thin and breaded in crunchy panko accompanied with a glaze that coats your tongue. And then our waitress appears with the sizzling clams, warning us unnecessarily to beware the pot, which is pitching wafts of lemongrass steam. I have no idea why the accompanying “Crazy J’s garlic toast” is so crazy, but then the bread goes into the broth and you wonder why all our spas have so let us down on the steam room experience.
The Izakaya still has some kinks to iron out: a few issues of underseasoning and the strange buildout, but as with all Boka Group restaurants, you expect them to figure it out and fast. Pretty soon, I expect the Izakaya at Momotaro to compete with her big sister because this dark basement should hold no fear.