Recently, a friend showed me a photo he took near his South Boston apartment. “This sums up the new Southie,” he said with a laugh. The image was of a morning-after stoop, decorated with a black smudge where a cigarette had been extinguished, next to an empty, single-serve carton of Imagine organic creamy butternut squash soup.
True enough. Also summing up today’s Southie: Moko, a new Japanese and Korean restaurant that has been an instant hit. The neighborhood is hungry for sushi, and more — here there is a market for an increasing diversity of restaurants. (One can only eat so many shrimp and lobster sauce burritos at LeeChen’s Mexican Grill & Chinese Food.)
It’s where Kendall Square sat for years, demand for more restaurants exceeding supply. Then, suddenly, Kendall blossomed. There are new places to eat on every block. Among them is Fuji at Kendall, another sushi spot, from the people behind Fuji 1546, Shabu Restaurant, Kama Lounge, and other Quincy establishments.
In South Boston, Moko has a lot going for it, starting with good looks. The room is decorated with pale wood and slate accents, cramped but cute. In the back, there’s a small sushi bar where chefs pat together nigiri and roll maki. To the side, there’s a bar with a few bottles on the shelves, for show only. Moko is still working on getting a liquor license.
The staff is congenial but has its hands full. The restaurant doesn’t take reservations. Potential diners can call and put their names on a list. “Forty-five minutes,” the voice on the other end says. Sometimes this results in a call 10 minutes later. Sometimes it means a two-hour wait. Servers deliver food haphazardly, an appetizer with an entree, followed by another appetizer, without bothering to identify what any of the dishes are.
Were the food worth the wait, none of this would matter. Moko, run by the same people as Samurai in Back Bay, does best with elaborate sushi rolls. The Wild Fire has a spicy-tuna heart with a topping of seared tuna, jalapenos, garlic, and ponzu sauce, a punch of heat and smoke with a light hit of citrus at the end. Unlike many such highly constructed maki, this one features distinct flavors that work well together.
Sometimes the distinct flavors aren’t in synch. The Coco Salmon roll is a tropical creation, filled with coconut shrimp and topped with Cajun-seasoned salmon, avocado, wasabi, and basil sauce. That Cajun flavor is as out of place as it sounds, an accordion refrain on a Caribbean beach.
Moko’s rice is gummy. Trying to skirt the issue, one might order sashimi. At least one person behind the sushi bar is inexperienced; a piece of maguro sashimi is hacked, the surface curved and bumpy.
Moko’s appetizers are inspired by Japanese cuisine — for instance, katsu, fat cubes of bean curd breaded and fried in a manner traditionally done with thin cutlets. (Pork, chicken, and an unusual fish katsu are all available as main dishes.) They are enticingly golden and crisp on the exterior, but cool on the interior. A starter called “sexy crispy” is one of the above, a crunchy wonton chip topped with tuna tartare, pure reception fare.
Korean main dishes are a true disappointment. Beef chapchae is oily and bland; and edamame bibimbap is based on that gummy rice, served so cool the yolk of the fried egg dribbles into it and remains liquid.
Open for two months, Moko is still getting its sea legs. That’s not stopping South Boston residents from eating here. The place may be too popular, too soon, for its own good. If nothing else, it’s a signal the neighborhood is ready for a broader menu.
Meanwhile, in Cambridge, Fuji at Kendall is operated by a more-seasoned team, and it shows. It runs like a restaurant, not like a botched challenge on “Top Chef.”
In a bright and modern storefront lined with vast windows, waitresses in black leggings and kimono tops take your order, cheerful if not always fully informed. In addition to Japanese food and cutely named sushi rolls (Maki Me Hungry, anyone?), there is a roster of Americanized Chinese dishes — think sesame chicken and pineapple fried rice served in a pineapple shell.
One meal begins with edamame, improved upon with the Japanese spice blend shichimi togarashi. Next up: kimchi tofu soup, warming and pleasantly sour, worth ordering multiple bowls of so no one has to fight for the last spoonfuls. Agedashi tofu is a simple dish of fried tofu in broth; in Fuji’s rendition, the tofu is soggy and oily.
Sushi here satisfies a craving, but it doesn’t distinguish Fuji from other Japanese restaurants in town. Standards such as maguro nigiri and negihama maki are prepared well, the fish fresh and cut with skill. More-involved rolls — spicy katsu tempura (shrimp katsu, cucumber, and avocado, with roe and spicy mayonnaise on top), dynamite maki (filled with roe, cucumber, avocado, jalapeno, and tuna and topped with seared scallop) — will please those who gravitate toward such creations, although trying more than one at a time yields a repetition of flavors. A BLT roll is sushi for sushiphobes. Filled with bacon, lettuce, and tomato, it tastes like the sandwich, the inevitable conclusion of a process started when mayonnaise and cream cheese became part of the sushi-making pantry.
As for those Chinese dishes, General Gao’s chicken is inedible, all breading around the tiniest nubbin of meat. The sauce is candy sweet. If you have eaten General Gao’s chicken at 2 in the morning at some neon-lit, anonymous corner joint, you have eaten a better version.
What is excellent here: creamy, refreshing Thai tea slush with the chewy, jumbo tapioca balls called boba. This and a serving of kimchi soup would make a great lunch.
Both restaurants are a success, filling gaps in the neighborhoods they serve. They also offer a reminder that pretty decor doesn’t always mean better food. Anyone who has eaten transcendent xiao long bao, zereshk polo, cabeza tacos, or pulled pork at some little hole-in-the-wall is well aware of this.
Not long ago I interviewed David Gelb, director of “Jiro Dreams of Sushi,” a documentary about a legendary Japanese sushi chef. The conversation turned to seafood sustainability. “If people ate sushi less often and treated it as the special occasion it is, maybe it wouldn’t be a problem,” Gelb said. “But people are eating it every day. This is a delicacy and should be treated as such.”
I thought of those words with every bite of crazy-tricked-out-spicy-sexy-over-the-top-tuna-and-the-kitchen-sink maki. It’s time to change the sushi paradigm, moving from quantity toward quality.
674 East Broadway, South Boston. 617-752-4601. All major credit cards accepted. Not wheelchair accessible.
Prices Appetizers $2.95-$15.95. Entrees $11.95-$19.95.
Sushi rolls $4.25-$13.95.
Hours Sun-Thu 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Fri-Sat 11-12 a.m.
Noise level Conversation easy
May we suggest Wild Fire maki.
FUJI AT KENDALL
300 Third St., Cambridge. 617-252-0088. www.fujiatkendall.com. All major credit cards accepted. Wheelchair accessible.
Prices Appetizers $3-$32. Entrees $14-$45. Sushi rolls $4-$17. Desserts $6.50-$10.
Hours Sun-Thu 11a.m.-10 p.m., Fri-Sat 11 a.m.-11 p.m.
Noise level Conversation easy.
May we suggest Kimchi soup, negihama maki, dynamite maki, Thai tea slush with boba.
Ratings: ★ ★ ★ ★ Extraordinary | ★ ★ ★ Excellent | ★ ★ Good
★ Fair | (No stars) Poor
Devra First can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @devrafirst.