First Taste

First Taste: New Downtown Phoenix Japanese Restaurant Motomoto Misses the Mark

The Sumopolitan was bright and citrusy, while the Tokai Margarita was spicy, yet well-balanced.
The Sumopolitan was bright and citrusy, while the Tokai Margarita was spicy, yet well-balanced. Natasha Yee
When a new spot opens in town, we're eager to check it out, let you know our initial impressions, share a few photos, and dish about some menu items. First Taste, as the name implies, is not a full-blown review, but instead, a peek inside restaurants that have just opened — an occasion to sample a few items and satisfy curiosities (both yours and ours).

Downtown Phoenix's Hilton Garden Inn, a historic art deco skyscraper built in 1932, has a new tenant.  Japanese restaurant Motomoto Sushi & Izakaya moved in on June 3.

Motomoto is a sibling to Nanaya Japanese Kitchen, an Arcadia area restaurant in the charming space behind Gaslight Square at 36th Street and Indian School Road. Both are owned by Eddie Chow and Akira Nakasu of Jin Hospitality. At Nanaya, the Chicken Miso Katsu Sando served on Japanese milk bread and the Tuna Lover Roll are the stuff that dreams are made of.

Expecting a similar quality, we went to Motomoto with high expectations.

Outside the new restaurant sits a simple patio with high-top tables and black iron chairs. A couple of diners chatted while they noshed on Asian fare and sipped on beer.

click to enlarge
The hexagonal bar is surrounded by bar stools and wrapped in black marble tiles.
Natasha Yee
Inside, a host led the way to our table, passing a hexagon-shaped bar with black marbled tiles and a gold bar footrest.The space, which housed Nook Kitchen for four years before it closed in June 2020 due to the pandemic, looks very much like the hotel restaurant that it is.

Our half booth faced a glass-encased wine display separating the bar from a small dining area. In another room, the ceiling was covered with white and red wagasa, traditional Japanese umbrellas made of bamboo and paper. Purple lights illuminated the wagasa and a fake cherry blossom tree sat on one side of the space, creating the most festive area of the restaurant.

click to enlarge
The wagasa, traditional Japanese umbrellas made of bamboo and paper are illuminated by purple lights.
Natasha Yee
After we took our seats, cocktails were on the brain. They took a minute, since our server was also the bartender. But they arrived fresh and pretty, the Sumopolitan a more citrusy version of the classic cosmopolitan with sumo citrus infused vodka, hibiscus honey, Italicus, a rose petal liqueur, and lemon. The Tokai Margarita with tequila and spicy agave was well-balanced and not too sweet with a blistered shishito pepper garnish.

"Our menu is made to encourage sharing across the table in spirit of Japan's dining culture, where eating 'family-style' is standard," the menu read, and the advice was heeded. There are lots of options at the sushi and izakaya restaurant, from small plates to sushi and sashimi, and main plates of ramen and robatayaki skewers grilled over Japanese charcoal.

An izakaya is a Japanese bar where small plates are served to accompany alcoholic drinks. In Japan, people go in groups and share various plates among their party, yelling "sumimasen!" to summon the server amid a noisy dining room.

But this dining room was rather quiet and our server probably wouldn't appreciate the same sentiment, so we ordered the standard American way, working through the menu from small to heartier fare.

click to enlarge
The Daikon Salad was smoky and refreshing.
Natasha Yee
The Daikon Salad came first with curly endive lettuce and shaved daikon tossed in a sesame shoyu dressing placed atop charred okra. The whole thing was topped with bonito flakes, which gave a smoky flavor to the earthy dish. It was one of the highlights of the night, the crisp lettuce blending with the charred okra for a refreshing yet unique salad.

Looking a bit mummified, the Moto Tempura Set was next. A pile of shrimp, shitake mushrooms, kabocha squash, and lotus root seemed thrown onto the plate haphazardly aside tentsuyu, a salty and sweet tempura dipping sauce. The thick, doughy battered shrimp and veggies tasted better than they looked, though we wouldn't order the dish again. It wasn't crisp, airy, or delicate as tempura promises to be.

click to enlarge
Although we wouldn't order the tempura again, the Hamachi Sashimi was a keeper.
Natasha Yee
The Hamachi Sashimi was our favorite dish of the evening, perhaps the only one we'd return for. Yellowtail sashimi sat in a bright yuzu dressing with chili flakes and micro cilantro, at once spicy and invigorating. The sauce could be sipped on its own, and the himachi, topped with sliced Fresno chiles, was fresh.

At this point, our server came by to tell us that the kitchen would be closing soon and that we needed to put in our final orders. It was 9:20 p.m. on a Friday night and the restaurant closed at 10:30 p.m.

click to enlarge
We added two soft boiled eggs to the Spicy Vegan Ramen.
Natasha Yee
Feeling the pressure, we chose the Spicy Vegan Ramen and the Matcha Tiramisu based on our server's recommendations. It was awkward ordering dessert before the meal was over, and though the restaurant wasn't busy, with just one other table inside, we felt rushed out.

The vegan ramen featured rich coconut broth, green spinach noodles, shitake mushrooms, Chinese broccoli, and diced tofu. And the Matcha Tiramisu was a fun play on the Italian version, the grassiness of the matcha blending with the creaminess of the mascarpone cheese, topped with powdered sugar-coated raspberries and a matcha cream slathered lady finger decorated with delicate flower petals.

click to enlarge
The Matcha Tiramisu was a fun play on the Italian version.
Natasha Yee
By this time, at about 10:15 p.m., chairs were being stacked and blinds were being lowered. If Motomoto expects to excel in the competitive downtown Phoenix space, it's going to need to up the ante on presentation, atmosphere, and service.

We're hoping that they're simply growing pains for the new restaurant, as nobody likes to feel like a nuisance instead of a paying customer. Perhaps Motomoto could take some cues from its pleasant and tasty sister restaurant Nanaya.

Motomoto Sushi & Izakaya

Inside the Hilton Garden Inn Downtown Phoenix
15 East Monroe Street
480-868-7981
Monday through Thursday, 4 to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 4 to 10:30 p.m.; Sunday, 4 to 9 p.m.

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Natasha is a dining reporter who loves to explore the Valley’s culinary gems. She has covered cannabis for the New Times, politics for Rolling Stone, and health and border issues for Cronkite News in conjunction with Arizona PBS, where she was one of the voices of the podcast CN2Go.
Contact: Natasha Yee