The other night at Momonoki in Midtown, I sat at the tiny bar, scarfed down a bowl of barbecue eel over rice and watched the kitchen at work. On the surface, it was just a bunch of cooks assembling bowls of ramen; cutlet sandwiches; artfully composed protein bowls and delicate pastries.
And yet what I witnessed was more profound, a culinary love affair.
Momonoki (which means “peachtree” in Japanese) is the second endeavor from the husband-and-wife team of Jason Liang and ChingYao Wang, owners of Brush Sushi Izakaya in Decatur. Liang, a South Carolina-born sushi chef who grew up in Taiwan, and Wang, his Taiwanese-born wife and a dessert-maker extraordinaire, have created a valentine of a restaurant, where they serve the kind of Japanese-inspired diner food they like to eat every day.
Actually, they’ve created a pair of conjoined spaces that go together like his and hers towels: a restaurant and cafe with a patio that feels almost draped over the Downtown Connector at Eighth Street. You’ll want to get here to sip coffee or eat warm, loving spoonfuls of miso grits.
Momo Cafe, which opens at 8 a.m. daily, is the showcase for Wang’s creations: minimalist in design, bright in flavor. This tiny room with an upstairs lair is a glass cube-within-a-glass cube, which is to say it sits inside the larger Momonoki, a fast-casual, walk-up spot that offers the same menu continuously all day.
Though Liang still wields the knife at Brush’s weekend omakase seatings, this kitchen is his domain. You can catch him here often, hovering over a pot while Wang puts the finishing touches on her luscious pastries. The night I watched from the counter, she was a study in chicness and calm. Wearing ankle boots, a long white lace skirt and black blouse, her hair pulled up, tassel earrings dangling, she nonchalantly removed cheesecakes from springform pans and decorated them with a pastry tube. No big deal.
From its uncluttered design to its elegant desserts, Momonoki is a peach of a place. Already, it’s a big hit with the Bird-riding set that zips in from the surrounding Georgia Tech campus.
Liang is famously detail driven. You see this in the superb house-made hot sauce and bottled teas; the way the katsu sandos are packaged in little wax-paper jackets, like something you’d buy at a Tokyo train station. But that doesn’t mean every savory dish is perfect. Still, the owners are virtually omnipresent, and their hyper-watchfulness means you are in good hands.
On my first stop, the order-taker steered me away from the takoyaki (fried octopus balls), suggesting a Dinosaur Egg. It’s a soft-cooked egg wrapped in stir-fried pork, battered with panko and fried. A riff on a Scotch egg, it will taste even better when the restaurant is finally licensed to serve it with beer.
Some years ago, I fell in love with a pork-cutlet sandwich at an Osaka train-station luncheonette; I washed it down with coffee and kept going back for more. I am now obsessed with Momonoki’s katsu sandos, particularly the one with tasty little fried shrimp and Japanese tartar. (There’s also fried chicken and filet mignon, a solid avocado-shiitake, a pulled-pork version, and a luxurious A5-grade Wagyu filet from Miyazaki Prefecture that goes for $58. I’m determined to try them all, with a side of the addictive, salty-crunchy lotus-root chips.)
I’ve had mixed results with the “raw” and “cooked” protein bowls from the flip side of the menu. Loved the poke: a mix of bluefin, salmon, yellowtail, avocado, radishes and so on, and the kabayaki unagi: essentially a donburi (rice bowl) with the freshest slab of grilled, crispy-skinned eel you could imagine. The loser for me was the spicy tuna tartare, mainly because the fish had the texture of pork barbecue from the can. Naw.
Frankly, you can get more bang for the buck elsewhere, whether bowls or ramen. Quality ingredients, skimpy portions. That said, I liked the classic tonkotsu, with pork and fish broth, seared with pork belly, egg and various accouterments, as lovely to look at as it is to slurp.
Though you may feel the impulse to dump the tsukemen ramen’s hot dipping broth directly over the noodles, rather than fussing with chopsticks to move the pasta from bowl to bowl, resist the temptation. As is often the case with Japanese cuisine, the ritual elevates the experience. Take time to contemplate each component: unctuous pork, steamed white cabbage, crispy nori. As for the liquid, it’s not broth; it’s gravy. I haven’t tasted anything like it since Kyoto and never thought I would in this country.
Finally, don’t depart without something from the feminine side of this love nest.
The black-sesame soft serve is rich and decadent; the trilevel strawberry-guava cheesecake a thing of beauty. While Liang is the lord of all sushi at Brush, Momo Cafe is Wang’s world: the perfect pedestal for her matcha croissants, lemon madeleines, and opulent napoleons.
MOMONOKI AND MOMO CAFE
Cafe: 8 a.m.-8 p.m. daily. Restaurant: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Sundays-Thursdays; 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays. 95 Eighth St. NW, Suite 100, Atlanta. 404-390-3025, momonokiatl.com.
Recommended: Dinosaur Egg. Tsukemen ramen. Shrimp katsu sando. Unagi bowl. Black-sesame soft serve. Seasonal cheesecakes.