Sneak Peek: moto-i

I didn’t see this one coming. The first micro-sake-brewery restaurant in the whole entire country has opened on the corner of Lake Street and Lyndale Avenue in south Minneapolis. Really. The country’s first. Or so say the publicists behind moto-i. And since I don’t know differently, I pass it on to you.

The place is the brainchild of Herkimer owner and founder Blake Richardson, and it opened Monday night. I went last night and it was sort of at the next level of a soft opening. Brown paper was still taped to all the windows, staff and customers hidden inside, as if illegally on site. The place doesn’t have all its art up on the walls yet—I’m told sumo-wrestler photos are forthcoming—but even bare-walled, it’s pretty cute. Wooden booths and floating glass window frames (topped with artful sticks) give the place a vaguely inside-a-sake-cedar-box air, and the throbbing music makes it feel very San Francisco/Portland/Seattle.

My first impression? Intrigued. It’s stupid to judge a restaurant that’s only been open four days, and still has brown paper on the windows, but here I go: The sake I tried was very, very good, far better than I expected. My favorite, the junmai nama, was well-balanced, harmonious, and had nice, cucumber-honeydew notes to it. The unfiltered sweet sake, called the junmai nama nigori, was milky and likable. And the junmai nama genshu is fiercer, rougher, and dryer—but still appealing.

In short, if you had told me two weeks ago that people would be enjoying—really enjoying—house-brewed sake on the corner of Lake and Lyndale, I wouldn’t have believed you. Color me impressed.

The menu is in the tradition of a Japanese drinking-snack restaurant, an izakaya, but also unique. On the one hand, there are lots of little $3 snacks, like the excellent version of Spanish peanuts dusted with kaffir lime leaves and Thai chilis. On the other hand, there are larger snacks like bowls of ramen and other noodles, and curries served with rice. On this ridiculously preliminary visit, I found the seasoning of the dishes to be all over the map: Udon noodles topped with ground chicken tasted all but unflavored, and braised pork ribs were almost indelibly salty. But I really liked the $3 hoisin roast-pork bun: a nicely fatty slab of meat folded into a tender and pliant rice-dough pancake.

More than that, I really liked the spirit, surprise, and energy about the place. I’ll be back. Till then, here’s my snap judgment: If you’re a Japan-o-phile, a sake connoisseur, or simply looking for a new fun place to drink near Uptown, check it out right away. If you’re a food person, give them a few weeks to iron out the kinks and then stop by. It’s really very promising.

2940 Lyndale Ave. S., Minneapolis