Small plates, big impact at moto-i

  • Article by: RICK NELSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 26, 2009 - 9:29 AM

You'll be happy at any hour with skillfully crafted bar fare and house-made sake.

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The staff at moto-i, including bartender Sinoun Hooper, has an impressive depth of knowledge regarding all things sake.

Photo: Tom Wallace, Star Tribune

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A good dumpling is hard to find. Which explains why it's so easy to crush on moto-i.

The new Lyn-Lake-er's steamed dumplings come five to a plate, so tender and delicate that they require a healthy bit of chopstick dexterity to lift them in one piece. My favorite blends tiny cuts of crunchy carrot with snips of bright green pea shoots and bits of beefy mushroom, chased by the sneaking flavors of garlic and ginger. I could eat them all day long. That's not a knock on the ground pork-green onion or curried chicken versions -- they are delights in their own right -- but such thoughtful vegetarian cooking is uncommon in this meat-loving town.

Because it's more bar -- a brewpub, to be precise -- than restaurant, moto-i's food tends to get overshadowed by owner Blake Richardson's sake-making efforts. That's a shame, because chef Jason Engelhart's work more than stands up to Richardson's liquid counterparts. By drawing on experiences gained during his half-decade in the kitchen at Vincent, as well as a yearlong assignment at Avec in Chicago, one of the country's great small-plate operations, Engelhart is bringing a powerful skill set to his first Asian cooking assignment. Engelhart signed on in November, replacing opening chef Chris Olson, and since then he's slowly been making the mostly Japanese menu his own.

The bar snacks at moto-i (pronounced mo-toe EYE) are tasty enough to crank up nibbling from a hobby into, at minimum, a part-time vocation. I love the little roasted Spanish peanuts that brazenly whistle with lime and Thai chile flavors, and, apparently, so do others; Engelhart told me they're selling about 60 pounds of them a week. Wrinkled, finger-length shishito peppers, gently fried and twinkling with salt, have a teasing sweet-hot bite. Nutty taro, cut like matchsticks, is fried and served with a feisty chile-kissed mayo. Ropes of chewy, flavorful beef jerky give jaws a workout. Puck-shaped sweet potato croquettes have a pleasantly crunchy outside that give way to a rich, mellow interior.

Bits and pieces

The menu's small-plate section really shines, and not just for the aforementioned dumplings. I'm crazy about the steamed buns, slider-size sandwiches filled with crispy caramelized pork belly glazed in a thick hoisin sauce or pulled roast chicken splashed with a fiery chile sauce. Because they start with first-rate beef, pork and chicken from Minnesota family farms, the juicy grilled skewers require little or no embellishment. Engelhart does a more-than decent bulgogi -- the traditional Korean grilled beef -- and has a nice touch with kimchee (Korean fermented vegetables), steering clear of using brined shellfish but obviously not timid with the sweat-inducing seasonings. Salads, including a refreshing crab-avocado blend and a pretty toss of spicy mezuna and paper-thin shears of cool Asian pear, clearly embody Engelhart's keep-it-simple ethos.

There's no sushi -- praise the heavens -- but Engelhart, a total rising star, offers a daily sashimi special, showcasing beautifully cut fish so clean-tasting that you wonder if the restaurant keeps a standing first-class reservation on Northwest. Tempura is restricted to a single (and, frankly, so-so) sweet potato effort. Less expected are the thin slices of a rich, distinctively pungent terrine made using monkfish livers, the so-called "foie gras of the sea." Even the chicken wings, a throwaway at bars from Stillwater to Shorewood, are worth ordering.

For larger appetites, Engelhart produces a handful of rice and noodle dishes, with mixed results. I find the noodle dishes a little oddly one-dimensional, but the rice dishes -- save a dull Thai fried rice -- are something else. A bowl of rice topped with smoky chicken, mushrooms and a meticulously prepared coconut milk-green curry ranks near the top of my favorite dishes to eat right now. A fried tofu/red pepper/Thai basil combination, finished with a slow-burn red curry, isn't far behind.

Desserts include piping hot doughnut holes dusted with five spice-seasoned sugar and a shot glass filled with a luscious orange-scented panna cotta, capped with a tangy berry purée and crunchy chocolate-covered rice puffs. One particularly inspired touch is the intricately crafted chocolate truffles -- flavored with lemongrass, jasmine and sake -- that are made especially for the restaurant by up-and-coming Minneapolis chocolatier Brian Conn.

All about sake

Countless words (dead-tree publishing, blogging and Twittering keystrokes) have already been devoted to moto-i's in-house sake brewing operation (don't miss the three-glass sake flight, a self-guided mini-tutorial), so I won't encourage further carpal tunnel, other than to share my gratitude for Richardson's dare-to-experiment entrepreneurial spirit. Further kudos for not going the scary sake-tini route; this is a libation best served straight up, not diluted in some fruity cocktail haze. Even better is how Richardson obviously trains his service staff in all matters sake. Their knowledge of -- and enthusiasm for -- his handiwork is impressive.

The restaurant's industrial glass-and-brick exterior adds a much-needed dose of style to this occasionally gritty neighborhood. Inside, the Minneapolis design firm of Smart Associates has parsed a surprisingly substantial amount of square footage into a series of connected-but-semi-separate spaces; a second-floor bar -- and future karaoke hot-spot -- serves the rooftop patio above. Overall, it's a casual, understated mix of contemporary cool (stainless steel, fixed louver window coverings straight out of an Abercrombie & Fitch outlet) and traditional warmth (deep, oak-slatted booths and an eggplant/terra cotta/teal color palette) that deftly communicates its Asian intentions with a whisper rather than a shout.

Two nits: It's a shame that the sake-making operation is buried in the back rather than front-and-center, and the less-is-more decor occasionally feels as if budget cuts got in the way of finishing touches.

The sound is right, too: No cheesy J-pop soundtrack. It's as if the hip clerks working down the block at Tatters are spinning records. Anywhere I can hear vintage Devo and eat dumplings this good -- until 2 in morning, no less -- is fine by me.

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  • Chef Jason Engelhart

  • MOTO-I

    ★★★

    Location: 2940 Lyndale Av. S., Minneapolis, 612-821-6262, moto-i.com

    Hours: Noon to 2 a.m. daily.

    Atmosphere: Airy and spare, with plenty of breathing room and flattering lighting.

    Service: Earnest, informative, cheerful.

    Sound level: Conversation-positive.

    Recommended dishes: Dumplings, shishito peppers, Asian pear salad, steamed buns, bulgogi, crab salad, green curry with chicken, red curry with fried tofu.

    Wine list: Six reds and six whites, all organic and/or biodynamic labels, affordably priced. All-Minnesota beer list. A half-dozen house-brewed sakes.

    Price range: A tremendous value, with nothing over $11.

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