MOMOSAN RAMEN & SAKE | ★ | Japanese | $$-$$$ | Chinatown International District | 510 Fifth Ave. S., Suite 119, Seattle; 206-501-4499; momosanseattle.com; daily 5-11 p.m.; no reservations
Bethany Jean Clement: Let me confess: I’ve never watched “Iron Chef.” I elected not to educate and/or prejudice myself before experiencing Seattle’s new location of this formidable-sounding entity’s restaurant, Momosan, which has branches in New York and Waikiki.
Tan Vinh: One of the year’s most anticipated restaurant openings finally dropped in the Chinatown International District in September, with an all-encompassing menu: ramen, sushi, donburi, bao and poke; Japanese comfort food and Asian fusion; both Chinese- and Western-inspired dishes. If you ever dine around the Chinatown ID, these cuisines all have a familiar ring. What, then, about this restaurant caused such a social-media frenzy?
Despite Bethany’s willful ignorance, this place represents the local debut of one of Food Network’s biggest stars, Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto. His name is everywhere. His brand shows up on the drink menu, on bottles of sake and shochu, and on beers, both on draft and in bottles. He even has a cabernet sauvignon called “Dream” named after him. Shelves are studded with robots and Japanese action figures — a server explained that these are similar to the memorabilia of Morimoto’s upbringing. Surely, there is a Rosebud story in this somewhere.
Bethany: That makes the place sound biographically cinematic, but the poor toys live in cages. The reality is dated industrial-chic: a black-and-gray color scheme with concrete floors, high ceilings and the requisite exposed ductwork. MTV-era hits playing at high volume — Phil Collins with your ramen, anyone? — plus all the hard surfaces and packed communal tables ensure shouting.
But Food Network fans have flocked. Better arrive at Momosan Seattle right when it opens if you want to earn the privilege of eating Morimoto’s gyukotsu ramen, made in the quantity of just “25 orders per day!” as the menu exclaims. An impressive bone protrudes from each bowl, ensuring the Instagrammability of a seven-hour-braised beef rib. But what’s most impressive about this bowl of soup — what’s truly exclamation-worthy, and not in a good way — is the price. It costs $26.
Like much of the food at Momosan, the gyukotsu ramen seems primarily designed for camera-readiness. The broth tasted muddy rather than rich; some of the meat achieved the melty tenderness such a long braise would promise, but some remained recalcitrant, tough and chewy. And like much of the food at Momosan, it made me wistful about something else — in this case, the short-rib pho at nearby Pho Bac Súp Shop, which comes with multiple giant bones sticking out of it, plus more meat, more broth and more flavor. It costs, sanely, $15.
Tan: That much-talked-about gyukotsu tasted more like the pho-ramen hybrid many Asian places in the States offer these days. Morimoto’s duck ramen is also a misnomer; it hews closer to a number of Southeast Asian noodle soups. That aside, I thought the duck version was his most successful soup: a pungent, fatty broth, brimming with meaty strips of roasted Peking duck to match, cut with bright Thai basil and cilantro.
Bethany: Agreed on the duck “ramen” being the best option — but it made me wish for the more nuanced braised-duck soup at Vietnamese-and-Chinese spot Hue Ky Mi Gia just a few blocks away … which costs $10 to Momosan’s $15. Price isn’t everything, but one expects good value from a chef made of iron. Here, the tonkotsu broth tasted like it could’ve been chicken instead of the traditional pork — in fact, it’s an unsuccessful mix of both, ending up thin and sad instead of milky and luxurious.
Tan: That might have been one of the worst versions of tonkotsu I’ve had in Seattle. Mine was served just a couple of degrees above lukewarm and lacked the requisite salty, fatty flavors. It was as if someone had dropped three ice cubes into the bowl to make it palatable for an infant.
Bethany: Over the ambient din, I heard Tan blurt, “APPALLING!” As for Momosan’s noodles: They’re specially engineered to stand up to slow ramen-eaters, according to some of the copious info in the laminated menu (which also features Denny’s-style glamour shots of all the food). Tan likes his ramen properly al dente, while I prefer mine on the softer side. Neither of us was happy: These noodles start out strangely stiff, then don’t get more tender with time, just oddly slack and dull. Real ramen snobs want to eat fast, while Philistines like me can take our time.
Tan: These Frankenstein noodles are like nothing that I’ve ever tasted before. Neither the broth nor the fat clings to these strands. The noodles are like Gore-Tex. They also lack that alkaline tang that good ramen noodles possess.
Bethany: On our second visit, feeling less than optimistic, I asked Tan to please just order the two Momosan specialty cocktails he guessed would be least terrible. We ended up with a “momo-jito,” which tasted like weak yet still somehow oversweet limeade, and a “mango matchashu,” a mango-sake-matcha matchup in which mango alone prevailed. I’d take the Morimoto-label “Easy Cup” single-serving sake over these anytime — it’s got an anti-challenging drinkability suitable for, say, a Tokyo subway ride.
Tan: The cocktails amounted to nothing more than spiked juices. They lack bitters and any imagination. Looking at the lineup, you’d think Momosan only had a minimal liquor selection. But it boasts a full bar, including one of the best collections of Japanese whisky in the neighborhood — this is the way to go here.
Bethany: Not just the cocktails get dumbed down with sweetness — both the ready-for-its-close-up soft-shell-crab bao and the duck tacos suffered from unremittingly sugary sauces. The bao failed on fluffiness, while the tacos’ gyoza-wrapper shells shattered and fell apart. Rarely have I felt so bad for a crab or a duck.
Tan: I concur on the sweetness ratio, which I usually chalk up to the kitchen trying to mask low-quality meat, but that’s not the case here. The roasted duck had the ideal ratio of crispy exterior to layers of melty fat. It’s a shame it was drowning in a pool of apricot sauce.
Bethany: The duck is so nicely prepared and deeply flavored on its own. And the soft-shell crab was greaselessly fried and fantastically, surreally presented whole — it looked ready to scuttle out of its flat bao, across the table and out the door in protest.
Tan: The best food I had at Momosan: meat and shrimp skewers roasted over an open flame. They weren’t adulterated with much — salt and the smoky flavor, lemon wedges on the side. Also: the thick-cut golden fries, like fancied-up jojos, rendered in duck fat and dusted with sea salt.
Bethany: My most positive Momosan moment came courtesy of pig ear — the thin, twisty fried strips here are simply salty, crunchy and chewy, a good version of a great drinking snack, especially dipped into Japanese mayo.
But, sorry to say, so much more disappointment happened at Momosan: “hot oil carpaccio,” or five thin, small slices of yellowtail swamped with sesame oil. Karaage, the Japanese fried chicken that’s hard to do wrong, wronged by a thick, eye-watering sweet-and-salty sauce. Grilled squid so rubbery, I’m still chewing a piece of it. An exceptionally mild version of wontons in spicy sauce with dissolvingly mushy wrappers … which reminds me, I haven’t been to tiny, Spartan, delicious Szechuan Noodle Bowl in way too long.
Tan: Service, however, was some of the best I’ve had in Seattle, the level you would only expect at white-tablecloth establishments. Servers can explain dishes in great detail without any notes. They smile and make eye contact. No matter how hectic — and it’s frenetic all the time — they don’t look fazed or ruffled. It puts me at ease, making me forget how crazy-loud and slammed this dining room is. Just be sure to ask them to course out the food or else it all comes at once.
Bethany: Many nice people work hard here to keep you happy and keep things moving, and the kitchen’s execution rarely seems to be the issue. Momosan’s problems lie with the conceptual rather than the operational.
Tan: It’s like this is Kitchen Stadium, where the contestants can’t just reproduce the classics with a minimalist approach — they have to go over-the-top. That’s what the food feels like at Momosan — too many dishes overworked with odd fusion and cloying sauces, meant to appeal to the lowest-common-denominator palate.
Bethany: Only the kindness of the servers imparts any sense of humanity in this generic, overwhelmingly loud space — and the food only makes you think of all the places you’d rather be, eating other things. We left Momosan feeling full but regretful about it.
Momosan Ramen & Sake: 510 Fifth Ave. S., Suite 119, Seattle; 206-501-4499; momosanseattle.com; daily 5-11 p.m.
Adequate at best for ramen; skewers, duck-fat fries and fried pig ear somewhat recommended; many other dishes problematic
Prices: $$-$$$ (appetizers $5-$12; ramen $15-$26; rice dishes $16-$22; sushi rolls $7-$18)
Noise level: very loud, with hard surfaces and high ceilings creating a hell of a din; upper bar level somewhat less cacophonous
Service is a high point here — friendly, knowledgeable and efficient
Drinks: full bar (specialty cocktails $11-$15), plus sake, shochu, beer and wine (including Morimoto-branded versions of each)
Access: no obstacles; men’s and women’s restrooms (and very messy ones on our visits)