Japanese newcomer Momotaro shines brightly among the gems of the once-gritty, now-glam West Loop.
Robata-fired diver scallops at Momotaro.
With the L rumbling by above just outside its Lake Street entrance, a modern wood, glass, and brick structure stands in stark contrast to the grittiness of the meatpacking warehouses that line the street. This is Momotaro, a three-story temple to Japanese cuisine, and it’s the latest in a list of high-profile restaurant openings that have made the West Loop the hottest dining district in Chicago. It’s also a dream made reality for Kevin Boehm and Rob Katz, co-owners of the Boka Restaurant Group (Boka, Girl & the Goat, and GT Fish & Oyster).
“I remember years ago, before Boka opened, we said we would do a Japanese restaurant,” Katz says. “Japanese cuisine has always been our favorite. We did the math,” the redheaded 48-year-old jokes. “We’ve had 1,500 Japanese meals during the years we’ve been partners.”
The concept took nearly 13 years to come to fruition as Katz and Boehm opened their other restaurants. While doing a Japanese concept seemed inevitable, the timing had to be just right.
Kaze Chan, one of Momotaro’s talented sushi chefs.
That meant tapping two-time James Beard Award-winning New York design house Avroko, which is renowned for creating stylish spots like Beauty & Essex and Quality Italian in New York and RN74 in San Francisco. “Design is critical and a passion for us,” says Katz. “You have to push the envelope forward in Chicago or you’ll get passed by.”
Avroko’s design takes a page from Japan’s history. “We were inspired by an era of Japanese history called the Economic Miracle, a period of time right after WW II,” says partner Adam Farmerie. “This was a time that the notion of the ‘salaryman’ [or white-collar worker] was born, so we decided to make Momotaro an homage to this force of Japanese nature.”
That inspiration is visible throughout the 8,500-square-foot space, down to the bar’s handwritten drink menus reflective of vintage Japanese stock exchange boards. Chicago’s modern version of the salaryman comes to life each night at tables filled with young finance and creative types, digging into sushi and sake; sophisticated foodies; and international Japanese travelers who feel right at home with Executive Chef Mark Hellyar’s cuisine, which draws inspiration from day-to-day dining in Tokyo.
“It’s seasonal Japanese food with a Tokyo flair,” Hellyar notes of the menu, which features everything from hibachi king crab and robata-grilled meats to steaming udon and ultra-fresh sushi. “We get a lot of Japanese diners, and [our food] reminds them of Japan.”
Hellyar, who most recently opened Makoto in Miami and Le Diplomate in DC, wowed Katz and Boehm during his first tasting audition with an entirely vegetarian tomato-based dish that mimics a traditional meaty, mustardy steak tartare. “We knew from the first bite that Mark would be the guy,” Katz asserts.
Hellyar’s second in command is Michelin-starred sushi chef Jeff Ramsey. Their skills are on full display in dishes like a beautifully marbled and seared A5 Miyazaki Wagyu wrapped around decadent sea urchin, meltingly tender robata-fired diver scallop, and silky curry udon with ground pork.
Hailed by critics as an instant classic, Momotaro has already been called one of the city’s best Japanese restaurants. Was the 13-year wait worth it? There’s no question in the owners’ minds. “It’s always worth the arduous journey if the end result matches the vision,” says Boehm. “And in this case, it certainly did.” 820 W. Lake St., 312-733-4818