Moto-i is dangerous. There isn't a better word for it. "Seductive" and "addictive" both begin to describe the experience, "entertaining" is an understatement, and "intoxicating" is definitely somewhere in the mix. Moto-i is less a restaurant than an onslaught, a tsunami of small tastes and diminutive glasses of the house-brewed sake that gives the restaurant its name. "Moto" means "the beginning"; in the context of an izakaya (a Japanese gastropub), it's the beginning of fermentation. In a larger sense, Moto-i may be the beginning of a culinary movement—it's the first sake brewery restaurant outside of Japan.
Blake Richardson, owner of both Moto-i and the nearby Herkimer brewpub, brings his business instincts, brewing skills, and a burning love of sake to Moto-i, which has opened up in the former Machu Picchu space at Lyndale and Lake. With no disrespect toward his other brewpub, Moto-i is a quantum leap forward. Much of its food would be worth eating at twice the price, and the novelty of Minneapolis-made sake on draught is potent indeed.
Standout dishes include a yakiudon (a chicken-and-noodles dish, $10) that a lady at the table described as "what kissing a girl must be like." Without getting too intimate, there's something to that. The noodles are velvety, soft, sweet, and yielding. Steamed buns ($3) are two-thirds great. All three varieties are essentially pillowy finger sandwiches; the hoisin pork or chicken and kim chee types have enough bright flavor to punch through the starch, but the fried tofu style doesn't. Thai beef jerky ($4) is shockingly good, chewy with a smoky tea-like flavor that stands up to the spicy sriracha it's served with.
Sake is the star of the show, however. A flight of all three varieties costs $15 and runs the gamut from the Genshu (strong and a little sweet) to the Junmai Nama (lighter, with a discernable note of melon) to the Nigori (cloudy, mellow, and textured). Sake makes an appearance in the food, too—in the pickled daikon, in an excellent steamed mussels with mint appetizer ($6), and in a poached-fruit dessert, but its role at Moto-i is more primal than that. You can visit the restaurant and dig the food without drinking the sake, but you're missing a classic symbiosis, like red wine with hearty pasta or beer with sausages.
Still new, Moto-i has some evolving to do. Desserts ($4) are hit-or-miss, tending toward "miss." Mochi, poached fruit with coconut sticky rice, and milk jelly could all use more sweetness. It's entirely possible that austere desserts are more authentic, but for an American sweet tooth they fall short. Okinawan sugar and five-spice doughnuts are better and come to the table pleasingly hot.
Down the road, Moto-i plans to offer at least nine varieties of sake, including a sparkling style, and sake to go in 750ml bottles. With this kind of ambition (and a firing-on-all-cylinders start) Moto-i may change the way Minneapolis—and the United States—goes out for a night on the town.