Reduplication, the process of repeating a word, in whole or in part, either in its original format or with some small change, is a common practice in many of the world’s languages. Think of phrases like namby pamby in English or the Yiddish-inspired practice of using shm to alter a word, as in bagel shmagel. The Japanese language relies heavily on reduplication with words like tsugitsugi and hitobito, so it’s unsurprising to see a restaurant with the repetitive name Motomoto serving fare inspired by Japanese traditions on Monroe Street in downtown Phoenix.
Motomoto is situated on the ground floor of the Hilton Garden Inn at Central and Monroe. The hotel itself occupies the recently renovated Professional Building, one of the original Phoenix skyscrapers. The restaurant operates independently from the hotel and is more closely tied to its sibling Nanaya on the east side of Phoenix than it is to the Hilton brand. The hotel and restaurant are a block south of the Van Buren / Central (westbound) and Van Buren / First Avenue (eastbound) light rail platforms. A bike rack is across the street at the northeast corner.
Motomoto describes itself as “sushi and izakaya.” The former is ubiquitous in America; the latter is a newer import that has rapidly been expanded beyond its traditional meaning. In Japan, an izakaya is a tavern that serves Japanese bar food, often items grilled on skewers over charcoal. Few places that use the word izakaya here maintain that focus; instead, the robatayaki menu is often augmented with sushi and ramen. To be fair, though, Motomoto is using izakaya only as part of its description, acknowledging that it is pursuing a broader approach in its menu.
Likewise, the decor doesn’t always adhere to tradition. Motomoto looks Japanese with its wall of faux cherry blossoms and parasols on the ceiling, but its cheerfulness and abundance of natural light suggest a dinner destination more than a late night watering hole. Just as the word bistro has become detached from its French origins, izakaya is rapidly becoming a way to describe any Japanese restaurant in America that emphasizes cooked food as much as raw fish. Appreciated on those terms, Motomoto is a worthwhile addition to the downtown dining scene.
Motomoto offers basic appetizers like edamame and agedashi tofu, but some of the items on skewers may be more interesting, especially if ordered at a discount during happy hour between 5 PM and 6 PM each evening. Chicken karaage skewers are five generous pieces of chicken thigh, battered and then fried before being presented with shredded cabbage and spicy mayonnaise. Another appealing option is the tuna tartare, crisp rice cakes supporting a layer of minced raw tuna, an item that bridges the gap between appetizers and the sushi menu.
That sushi menu offers standard nigiri choices such as salmon and yellowtail. An aesthetic assortment of miniature nigiri, originally called onigiri due to their spherical shape, has since been renamed since it does not have all the traits of traditional onigiri. Regardless of what it’s called, this sampler is a satisfying meal for one or a shareable plate as a prelude to individual entrees. Motomoto doesn’t emphasize over-the-top rolls with cream cheese and heavy sauces, but it does have a few crowd-pleasers with tempura shrimp or salmon wrapped in rice.
Returning to cooked food, Motomoto’s entree selection has continued to evolve as the restaurant has become settled, but some of the stronger selections have included a ruddy curry paired with fried eggplant and stir-fried bok choy and seared salmon seasoned with miso and presented with mushrooms, mustard greens, and small balls of squash. Other entrees featured are pork katsu, teriyaki chicken, and grilled eel. Of course, the myriad items on skewers, such as chicken, octopus, beef, scallops, mushrooms, and pork belly can be equally satisfying.
The restaurant offers two familiar types of ramen: a shio bowl with a dark, salty broth and a creamy miso paitan. Both ramen preparations come with a soft egg, leeks, mushrooms, corn, and chicken or pork chasu. A third possibility is a spicy vegan ramen. Obviously, it omits the egg and goes all in on the vegetables. It also replaces the standard noodles with ones made with spinach. Unlike some ramens that are labeled as spicy but not really all that fiery, this bowl has a genuine kick, especially when paired with a black sesame old fashioned from the bar.
That bourbon drink is one of many from the restaurant cocktails menu that are available for only five dollars during happy hour. Two other standout drinks are the Tokai margarita, a strong and spicy model with a blistered shisito pepper dangling from the glass and an optional lava salt rim, and the Moshi Moshi, another specimen of linguistic reduplication that mixes rum and amazake fermented rice beverage with coconut, pandan, lemon, and nutmeg in a tall tiki glass. There is also a selection of beer, wine, Japanese whiskey, and sakes with a chart mapping their tastes.
Desserts all display a Japanese influence. A yuzu creme brulee is as tart as its citrus component would suggest. When sampled, it verged on sour, a contrast to so many excessively sweet desserts, but perhaps a case of the pendulum swinging too far in the opposite direction. A matcha tiramisu, on the other hand, strikes an appropriate balance, adding green color and a bit of tea flavor over an espresso base. Like the restaurant’s name, Motomoto’s food reduplicates much that has been seen before but adds just enough of its own touches to be interesting.
15 E. Monroe St., Phoenix AZ 85004