Moto-i and the Case of the Naked Peanuts

Moto-i, the first sake brewery restaurant outside of Japan, is a restaurant that I reviewed very favorably shortly after it opened. I stand behind that review.

It's therefore with hesitation that I am hereby bringing charges against the restaurant and a waiter who shall remain anonymous. To whit: the misdemeanor charge of Conspiracy to Commit Shitty Peanuts. Moto-i's menu has an offering entitled "roasted peanuts," which come seasoned with keffir lime leaves and Thai chili flavoring. Simple stuff, but when properly executed, they're a revelation, provocative and delicious. Addictive, really -- a minor bar food breakthrough.

They're so surprisingly good, in fact, that when bringing a group of out-of-towners to Moto-i last Saturday, I ordered two cups of the peanuts to share with the group. In a way, they're one of the most impressive things on the menu, a jazzy and imaginative twist on a typically humble item.

But here's what emerged from the kitchen: Two small cups of ordinary bar peanuts. One had a slight hint of chili flavoring, and the other was merely peanuts, nothing more.

One of our dining party (who had tasted the peanuts in their heyday and was jarred by how far they'd fallen) pointed this out to the waiter. His response: "Oh, I'll talk to the chef about it."

The report came back: "The chef just didn't have the stuff we needed to make the peanuts tonight. We ran out."

Period. We pushed him: "Seriously? You're charging us $4 for two cups of unseasoned or barely seasoned peanuts that bear no resemblance to what you've listed on the menu?"

He grudgingly comped us for one of the cups of peanuts... after tax.

Why is this worth mentioning, let alone bringing into the court of public opinion?

When you charge a customer for something on your menu, you're making a promise. In this case, the explicit promise was peanuts seasoned with keffir lime leaf and Thai chili, and the implicit promise was "peanuts as tasty as the ones you got last time." Both promises were broken. All that needed to be said to the waitstaff was: "Hey, if people order the peanuts, tell them we ran out of seasoning, and they can order them plain or order something else."

Instead, the unseasoned peanuts -- two contempt-laden cups of "we don't think you'll notice that we didn't season these things according to our menu" -- were dispatched the table.

When the restaurant was called out on the lie, the initial reaction was to stonewall, and then finally comp half the cost.

The peanuts left a sour taste in our mouth. We'd come through the door talking  them up, and left apologizing to our friends for selling them on a false bill of goods. Worse, our waiter had treated us like cranks in the process.

It's worth mentioning: Customers often are cranks, complaining about slightly undercooked or overcooked food in order to game the system for free food or show off their "superior knowledge."

In this case, however, all we'd wanted was a food item like the one we thought we'd paid for, or an up-front warning that such an item couldn't be made. Barring that, not having to pay for peanuts we didn't actually order, plus an expression of sincere regret, would've been just fine.

The peanut incident, (compounded by an inedibly tough order of beef bulgogi and a headache-inducing soundtrack of flirting-with-gabber techno music), marks a pronounced turn for the worse for Moto-i. The sake's still great, numerous menu items (including the delicious pork buns and yakiudon) still shine, but there are some warning signs of shakiness or decline. It's possible that the departure of opening chef Chris Olson has taken a toll, but that's a question that a kitchen insider would need to address.

With luck, the staff will rally, an adequate supply of keffir lime leaves will be located, and the restaurant will return to its full potential; it remains one of the most promising and creative joints in the Twin Cities, and a potential Uptown superstar.