Cod to Kill.
Momotaro, Dubai.

To review or not to review. That was the question. Going to a schmanzy Japanese restaurant like Momotaro is not an everyday affair for me, or even an every week one for that matter. So it just felt like a waste of a golden opportunity to visit one, and not be able to analyze it to death for all my fellow foodies and review hunters to witness. If only I could have stealthily slipped in, dined, and slipped out, all in one smooth and inconspicuous affair, setting up everything in my favour for an objective, unbiased review.

But I had my hands tied. We knew the manager at the restaurant. They all knew that we were coming. Everyone knew, from the hostess who knew all our dietary restrictions even before we’d uttered a word to her, to the chef who sent out miniature complimentary samplers as a teaser for subsequent courses. It was all too arranged, too biased. I was sure I wouldn’t review Momotaro – I’d just dine, and then leave, causing no harm to either the restaurant or my readers with a biased review.

Until I tasted the miso black cod. That changed everything. It was so frighteningly perfect that I just couldn’t keep it to myself.

So biased or not, I’m reviewing it. You can take this with a pinch of salt, or a bucketful if you like. I’ve consoled myself by reasoning that if a reservation was made a few hours before the dinner itself, it would have been near impossible for the restaurant to change anything – the quality of seafood they’d already bought, their sauces and marinades, and of course, the chef himself.

They couldn’t even have changed the decor, though I would imagine that being the one thing they may want to change for their more style-conscious guests. Stern samurai-like slashes through a reddened wall, hovering above childish red flowers pencilled into the sofas, all softly lit with aspiring-to-be-romantic red tones. If Momotaro had aimed for a theme, it was totally lost on me. Though that personally doesn’t upset me in the least– my business is with food, not the minutiae of restaurant upholstery, unless it completely upsets the balance of the meal (whatever that means).

The hostess recommended a pre-selected, customized three course menu for both myself, a staunch seafood lover, and my friend, a long-time victim of vegetarianism who occasionally indulges in a chicken dish or two.

As a welcome gesture, the chef sent out two complimentary starters – yellowtail sashimi from the appetizer menu for me, and vegetarian agedashi tofu, a non-menu item, to accommodate my friend. The yellowtail sashimi was positively electric , with a yuzu marinade (an East Asian relative of the mandarin or grapefruit) and jalapeno garnish that shot spicy citrus currents through my mouth, making my taste buds perk up and tingle with anticipation for what was to follow. I was so engrossed in my electric sashimi plate that I completely failed to notice my friend devouring his bowl of tofu, though his raving review and the gleaming empty bowl at the end of the course were both tell-tale signs of a dish that was much appreciated.

Next up were plates of two sizable sushi rolls – Caterpillar sushi with mango, salmon, crab and asparagus, and Yasai California sushi with grilled asparagus, mushrooms, cucumber and avocado. The Caterpillar roll was as good as most good sushi places I’d eaten at – nothing extraordinary or creative, but just solid, well-rolled, fresh sushi.  I loved that, rather than having a pre-made lump of wasabi (or imitation wasabi made of horseradish and mustard seeds that some cheaper places will dole out), the server grated a wasabi root right at our table – a unique touch that I had personally never witnessed before on my sushi excursions elsewhere. I also made a mental note to come back for some of their more adventurous rolls, like the one with spicy duck and leek, or another with soba noodles, crabmeat, prawns and spinach (…the latter sounds like a sushi roll made out of remains left in a Japanese kitchen-sink. Not too appetizing, but I’m plain curious about what it tastes like.)

Caterpillar sushi roll with mango, salmon, crab and asparagus, and garnished with crunchy caviar

The starters and sushi rolls made for a complete meal, but our friend and his team at the restaurant had evidently set us up for nothing less than excessive indulgence. And if excess presents itself like it did in my next course, as soft chunks of miso cod nestled within a delicately wrapped leaf, I have only three words for the server: bring it on.

Momotaro's take on the holy grail of seafood: Miso Black Cod, or Gindara Miso

I’ve never tried the celebrity miso black cod at the world famous Nobu, the Japanese restaurant that won miso cod a place amidst the culinary wonders of the world, so I’ll admit that I may not be an authority on this subject. But authority or not, I experienced instant gastronomical love at the first bite of Momotaro’s version of miso black cod. Each morsel of cod was crisp and caramelized at the edges, with an exceedingly tender, miso-marinated flesh that released a heady, sweet-salty aroma of butter melting on warm toast. Weeks after eating at Momotaro, I can still shut my eyes and recompose the taste and aroma of this exquisite dish in my mouth – which instantly sets off a craving that usually gets quelled with whatever inferior substance is closest at hand.

I did manage to steal a few bites from my friend’s plate of chicken teriyaki and side bowl of soba noodles with shitake mushrooms and yasai (Japanese for vegetables), both items not on the menu but which are typically available on request. The two dishes were unimpressive (I guess it’s hard to get creative with chicken teriyaki), though to be fair, anything may seem lacklustre after having had the miso cod.

Chicken teriyaki - good for those who'd prefer to stay away from seafood, but not a palate-pleaser in my opinion

After this atrocious amount of food, not having dessert would have been equivalent to running a marathon and pulling out right before the finish line. And I’m no quitter, especially not when the finish line is crème bruleé, with that classic glassy surface that shatters into infinite sugary shards as I pierced my spoon through, scooping out green tea-infused custard from beneath that is soothing, luscious and decadent all at once.

I left Momotaro in an over-extended, but blissfully satiated state, with my wallet still feeling intact since much of the meal had been complimentary (we barely paid Dhs. 200 for a meal that, under non-biased circumstances, may have easily run into Dhs. 350 or above, excluding wines and cocktails.)  The miso cod, yellowtail sashimi and crème brulee were all truly outstanding, even if culinary snobs may turn up their noses at a menu which claims favourites from other upscale Japanese restaurants (both the cod and yellowtail are Nobu mainstays, while the green tea crème brulee is not an uncommon menu or online cookbook appearance either)

Regardless, I don’t care where the chef got his inspiration from, his execution of the dishes was extremely solid, and sparked an ‘oh wow…this is incredible.’ moment more than once through the course of the dinner, both for me and more surprisingly, for my veggie/chicken-atarian friend whom the chef had gone out of his way to accommodate. I’ll definitely be back, hopefully incognito the next time I drop by for some of their divine miso cod.

Souk al Bahar, Old Town Island, Level 3, Downtown Burj Khalifa
Phone: (04) 4257976

Author: InaFryingPan

With a family legacy of ingenious cooks, a nutritionist and chef-extraordinaire mother, and a father who introduced me to steak and caviar when I could barely reach the table, I had no choice but to acquire a keen awareness of food during my childhood years in Dubai. But it was only after I found myself on a college campus in Philadelphia – far away from home, too cheap as a student to spend on anything other than pizza, and with dorm rooms that had little rat-holes of kitchens if they even had them at all – when I developed a heightened appreciation of food. An appreciation of food that I once ate every night at the dinner table in Dubai, but that was now an entire ocean away. I lusted for the culinary treasures that lay outside the stale walls of my college dining hall, hijacked friends’ kitchens to try my hand at something, anything , remotely edible, and greedily raided different websites in search of highly-rated restaurants. With my move to New York to work for a consulting firm that secretly harbored self-professed foodies, my appreciation transformed into a passion, an addicition. I felt like everyone around me in New York was talking about food: where to get the best cupcakes, pizza slices, banh mi, kati rolls, pho, fried chicken, and every other food item out there that is just a plain old dish in some part of the world, but that’s become hyped to unforeseen proportions in New York. What fuelled my addiction over time was travel to different cities, both for work and play, which gave me unfettered access to the culinary havens of not only New York, but also of DC, Virginia, Chicago, Houston, Vegas, Austin, Seattle and even a little city called Bentonville (Arkansas!). After 9 years away from home, I’ve finally taken the leap to come back to Dubai – with not just an awareness, but genuine appreciation and passionate addiction for what I’d taken for granted as a child. Mom, I’m back to reclaim my seat at your dinner table, and to rediscover this city with its ever-expanding menu of international flavors.

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