Those giant-sized sushi rolls that are tempura-fried and/or sprayed with pink aioli and/or doused with jelly and/or lolling in pools of dark, sweet syrup always make me think of clowns. If a clown went out for sushi—this is an upscale clown, one whose tastes have evolved beyond Klown Kibble—these rolls are what the clown would order. The tobiko looks like tiny confetti! It's a sushi circus! When the rolls arrived, the clown would honk his nose.
There is so much for a clown to love at Capitol Hill's new Momiji. The swank Japanese restaurant—where Dawson Plumbing used to be on 12th between Pike and Pine—is brought to you by the team behind Belltown's Umi Sake House, which also (by way of awesomely named chef Billy Beach) spawned Japonessa. All three places have looong lists of specialty rolls that make lovers of friedness/mayo/sugar (and also just MORE STUFF) so, so happy. At Momiji, there are 40 such rolls, including: Baby Girl Roll, "crab & scallop mayo mix, avocado & bell pepper topped w/shrimp, kiwi & spicy strawberry habañero sauce & green onions," $14; Pretty in Pink, "crab-mayo mix, creamy scallops, tobiko & cucumber, wrapped in soy paper & topped w/avocado, sweet chili aioli & soy glaze," $14; and Tropical Paradise, "mango, strawberry, tobiko, cucumber & avocado topped w/tuna, salmon & spicy blueberry sauce," $12.
But if you prefer your mayo with fries, your jelly with toast, your syrup with pancakes, your sushi with just fish and rice, and your clowns far away, never fear: There is still much to love at Momiji. First off: the highly tuned design, including custom woodwork and an interior Japanese courtyard. "Momiji" means Japanese maple, and there are two of them—one squat and flaming scarlet, one stately and flaming gold—shivering and lovely in Momiji's secret autumnal landscape. (It's a bit crowded with Japanese-garden elements in there, like a gorgeous woman with too much jewelry, but, then, still, she is gorgeous.) There is also unexpected, eye-deceiving brickwork, and two hallways that make you want to just stand in them, and illuminated-from-within art in both the bar and the back room. (Prompted to speculate about the art in the bar, the bartender ventured, "A cloud? An albino hot dog?" As for the back room, the art looks like a bear and some salmon and maybe a UFO, and it is loud there, better for a party than a date.)
The nigiri sushi is pricey and worth it. Single pieces average $3 or $4, and a daily fresh list offers treasures. Mirugai (our phallic friend the geoduck) has the right snappy-but-not-chewy texture and the taste of the tidal zone—a little salty, a little fecund, a little sweet, but not a lot of anything except delicious ($5/piece). Uni, the rich and creamy sea urchin, tastes delicate but a little dirty, just like it should ($5.50/piece). All very good: wild white king salmon, hiramasa yellowtail, and wild aji ($4/piece). The sushi rice here is sweeter than average (more mirin, it seems); they also do not put a pad of wasabi in between the fish and the rice. The cuts of fish are neither scanty nor huge. They are pleasingly long and narrow, draping off both ends of the rice.
Unlike Mashiko in West Seattle or Sushi Kappo Tamura on Eastlake, there is no evident concern for whether fish is local at Momiji. A recent fresh list had selections from Japan, Australia, South America, California, and Alaska—only the mirugai ("Pacific NW") and the white salmon (Fraser River in British Columbia) were sourced nearby. And if you want to set fire to your Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch pocket guide and go straight to hell by way of mercury poisoning, the sushi prices at happy hour (4 to 6 p.m. in the restaurant, 4 to 7 in the bar) will get you there—four pieces of assorted nigiri for $6, five for $7, plus assorted rolls (clown and otherwise) and drinks for super-cheap. It is tempting to try to single-handedly empty the ocean.
The dish that's stuck in my head is the seasonal mushroom batayaki ($9)—shiitakes, chanterelles, and oyster mushrooms sautéed in a nut-brown, outrageously buttery sauce (I drank the remains of it out of the bowl). It's a classic, and it was well executed, and it is so good on its own that Momiji's addition of wildly out-of-season asparagus was puzzling. Don't get me wrong—the asparagus tasted good, especially pushed through that sauce, but in this day and age, serving asparagus at an upscale restaurant in Seattle in November is perverse. "Hey," this seems to say, "that's what semitrucks are for!"
Momiji isn't striving to be a temple—so sue it. This isn't a place to worship a master at the sushi bar, behind which three or four people are working hard. This is a place to come with seven girlfriends and one guy, like a party there one night last week, and toast each other with sake (low end, $6 a glass; high, a $350 large-format bottle described as "symphonic, deep & brilliant, glorious") and gales of laughter and I-LOVE-YOU-GUYS!es. This is a place to order a big, steamy bowl of udon ($15), which comes with a pottery lid and is full of just-right noodles and dark-meat chicken and king-crab legs and scallops and shrimp and clams and a big mushroom cap and bok choy and nori and green onion and toasted black sesame seeds; the bowl has a little lip, so you may drink the rest of the broth before you excuse yourself to go therapeutically blow your nose. This is a place for soft-shell crab with just the right amount of batter, in a plentiful portion, with a side salad you actually want to eat ($11). This is a place for oyster shooters that have pico de gallo and tobiko in them, because why the hell not, which end up tasting like a Bloody Mary that Neptune would serve you at god-brunch ($3/each). Or, at the other end of the spectrum, an austere dish of house-made, meltingly silken tofu ($6) from the formal, multicourse kaiseki menu (listed, oddly, à la carte).
I also had a roll at Momiji from the specials sheet that seemed specially engineered for me: the I ♥ Roll. It was all my favorite things, no clown: uni, yellowtail, tobiko, and scallions ($10). It had softness and firmness, it was savory and lush, with the pop of the tobiko and the pepper of the scallions... I totally ♥'d it. Thank you, Momiji, and see you soon.