My spouse, George, cultivated his sushi chops in Japan and San Francisco. When lots of Japanese restaurants sprouted up in 1996, he and I did a kamikaze survey of seven sushi restaurants in as many days for this newspaper. So we were excited to read Pat Tanner’s account (U.S. 1, May 5, “New Chefs on the Block”) of MoC MoC, the new Japanese restaurant owned by Michael Chang, former manager of Sunny Garden (now Hanami), where the soothing ambience was as much of a draw as the food.
Sure enough, MoC MoC has a stunningly simple decor that makes you feel like you have “been somewhere.” But how is the sushi?
On our first visit we’d been happy with plain sushi, on the menu for $40 for two. With miso soup ($2.50), green tea ($2), and shared mochi ice cream (I’ll explain later, $3), a B.Y.O. dinner for two can be just over $65 including tip.
But the menu is way too tempting to stick with the standard. MoC MoC functions like the Japanese version of a tapas bar — lots of tempting little dishes, elegantly arranged, with complex sauces and crispy shredded veggie underpinnings. We began to get a hint of this with Usuzukuri, thinly sliced fluke arranged star fashion on (sweet) ponzu sauce, sprinkled with scallion and caviar, $10.
The priciest current special is grilled Chilean sea bass, $35, but we were lured to Fantasy Salmon (seared salmon-wrapped mango with caviar and Yuzu citrus dressing, $18) and Hola Hamachi (thinly diced yellowtail and jalapeno circles and Yuzu citrus dressing, ever so slightly spicy, $16). Both had exquisitely complex tastes that I’ll dream about for weeks, but the portions were small, and we were still pretty hungry.
Remembering our sushi survey days, we ordered a la carte but splurged on the fresh versions. Regular eel is $5, but we had the fresh Anago (sea eel) at $8, and it was so worth it. The melt-in-your mouth blue fin tuna, George laughingly declared, was “better than sushi grade.” Fresh wasabi, $5, was another treat.
Since we were still a bit hungry, we ordered fresh shellfish, a real luxury. One fresh scallop ($15), sliced microtome thin, yielded three bites apiece, and the “muscle” from the scallop was prepared separately. Same with the fresh sea clam ($10). But it was with the final dish, Uni, or sea urchin, that Chang really won my heart. I have tried to like sea urchin three times, including at a hotsy-totsy Manhattan restaurant, but each time it tasted like, well, where the creature lives, at the bottom of the fish tank. Chang combines it with avocado (and citrus, it seems), serves it on a spoonlet and wonder of wonders, it is delightful.
On a Friday night we arrived at about 5:45 p.m., after a quick stop next door at the Record Exchange, and by 6:15 all but two tables were taken. Diners are secluded in nice niches but the tables can be too close for telling secrets. The friendly waitress was a veritable fish sommelier, advising us on this, suggesting that. We were glad we took her suggestion re mochi ice cream: two rice cakes about the size of marshmallows (actually sort of a marshmallow consistency), filled with strawberry or mango ice cream, and cut in two. One order, two bites each, wonderful finish.
Cost, yikes! No alcohol and we managed to spend $122 plus tip (but remember, we purposely chose several of the high-end items — don’t forget there is a $40 sushi dinner for two, as well as many other moderately-priced menu items, including sushi a la carte). On the other end of the menu spectrum for us the students next to us (she taught him how to use chopsticks, he taught her string theory) had an appetizer of dumplings ($6) and two orders of Yaki Udon (stir fried noodles with vegetables, $14) for a very reasonable meal.
Like its upscale competitors (Elements comes to mind) MoC MoC (pronounced Moshee-Moshee — sounds like the Japanese word for hello) can be a destination restaurant, but it can also be the Japanese version of the neighborhood bistro. Those with little ones, take note: it is well stocked with high chairs.
MoC MoC, 14 South Tulane Street, 609-688-8788. www.mocmocsushi.com. Open weekdays for lunch from 11 to 3 p.m. and for dinner from 5 to 10 p.m., Saturday, noon to 10:30, and Sunday, noon to 9:30 p.m. Michael Chang, owner.