Five skewers are fanned out on my plate at Momo Yakitori, their tips blackened from their brief turn over blisteringly hot binchotan charcoal. The flesh impaled on these kushi sticks has all been butchered in-house from chickens, not that you would know that on initial inspection. The morsels — some the color of ruby red grapefruit, some as golden as corn silk — stretch the poultry spectrum beyond the dark and white meats that define the standard American chicken experience.
Their eye-candy appeal aside, these shio yakitori skewers (“yaki” roughly translates into “broil” or “blister” in English, and “tori” into “bird”) also stretch the definition of whole-animal cooking to include the lowly chicken. One skewer comes lanced with two “oysters” wrapped in thigh skin, a pair of charred dark-meat nuggets excavated from either side of the chicken’s backbone. Another features some tight, semi-chewy lengths of meat sliced from the inner thigh. A third spears the almost translucent strips of belly that were once connected to the diaphragm. The fourth and fifth skewers are relative commoners by comparison: They support sections of breast and drumette meat (though the former comes swaddled in neck skin, too).
“Yakitori is a lot about textures,” says co-chef and co-owner Andrew Chiou. “Some are soft, some are meaty, some are very chewy.”
A French-trained chef might be tempted to braise the bejesus out of these chicken bits, offal and all, and bury them in sauce until they resemble something more pleasing to the Western palate. But Momo chefs Chiou and Masako Morishita follow a traditional yakitori path and season their birds with salt (shio) only, before giving the skewers a roll over binchotan, a turbocharged Japanese charcoal that produces almost no smoke. You’re left with something elemental. Each section that’s cut from these Amish Green Circle birds offers you a taste of what chicken must have been like before industrialization — not just clean and juicy but also strangely life-affirming, as if each bite triggers some ancestral memory stored in your DNA.
Momo Yakitori is a Brookland/Woodridge neighborhood restaurant that manages to balance the discipline of a fine-dining temple with the frivolity of a cat cafe. In that way, Momo is as much an extension of the chef-owners’ personalities as it is a reflection of their craft. A Texas native from a Taiwanese family, Chiou is a formally trained chef who has clocked time as an intern at Ming Tsai’s Blue Ginger outside Boston and as director of operations for the Southeast Restaurant Group, which includes DCity Smokehouse. Morishita is a Japanese native and a former Redskins cheerleader who ran her own catering company when not trying to motivate the increasingly hostile fan base at FedEx Field.
Chiou and Morishita are business partners. They are a couple. They are serious students of yakitori. Oh, and they love cats, which is reflected in their minimalist main-floor dining room, a whitewashed space that used to be home to Nido, the short-lived Mediterranean outpost. Your skewer of duck hearts, tasty little poppers of iron and char, might arrive in a bowl with a smiling cat peering up from the bottom. Your Cherry Bomb cocktail — an Umepon shochu-based drink that practically bounces in place — may come with a lemon-rind garnish on the lip of the glass, cut to look like kitty ears. Your used skewers may be dropped into an empty coffee mug emblazoned with a cat in sunglasses and the phrase “Ready to Pawty.”
The kitsch, of course, would be insufferable without the counterweight of Chiou and Morishita’s creativity. Their skills have been honed to a fine edge from a variety of sharpening stones along their path: the Culinary Institute of America, where Chiou studied; a tachinomi (a small standing bar) in Kobe, where Morishita’s mother cooked snacks; Japanese street foods; American fine-dining; and even a humble Chinese restaurant in Richardson, Tex., where Chiou was once an apprentice to a man named Tony Hong. Chef Tony was an unrepentant perfectionist.
“Let’s put it this way,” Chiou says. “The first nine months, I cooked every day, but not anything I touched left his kitchen. He just put it aside.”
You can almost trace the influence of every dish on Momo’s menu straight back to its source. The precision of Chiou’s knifework can be seen in his four breast-meat skewers, each one pierced with rectangles of flesh cut so perfectly they look like they were machine-stamped. Chef Tony would be proud. He’d also delight in the understated harmony between the succulent breast meat and their sauces, whether the sweet housemade tare or the pungent red miso with roasted garlic.
The small-bites section of the menu is Morishita’s turf, and the sublime yaki imo appetizer is an homage to the sweet potato trucks of her youth. Her yaki imo are football-shaped slices of sweet potato, their skins charred as dark as coal. The bitterness of the blackened skin plays the foil to silky, sweet-roasted flesh within, the combination irresistible. I’m just as smitten with her bowl of green beans, mixed with a black sesame sauce whose nuttiness lands somewhere midway between tahini and peanut butter.
Some of the finest dishes at Momo — aside from those chicken skewers — are the ones featuring mushrooms, which the restaurant’s suppliers have learned to grow thick and hearty enough to stand up to the high-heat binchotan. The maitake, or hen of the woods, are so charred, toothsome and savory they assume a meaty persona. The vegetarians at my table one night left Momo as stuffed and happy as the meat-eaters.
It’s hard to imagine anyone leaving grumpy after sampling the glorious simplicity of Momo’s charcoal-toasted marshmallow dessert, a campfire favorite reimagined for the yakitori crowd. Predictably, the brick of gooey marshmallow arrives goosed with a skewer and then placed in a shallow gray bowl, which, on closer inspection, is plastered with a microscopic layer of black sesame buttercream. I don’t fully understand what the black sesame buttercream does for the marshmallow. All I know is that I can’t. Stop. Eating. It.
2214 Rhode Island Ave. NE, momoyakitori.com
Hours: 5 to 10 p.m. Monday, Thursday and Sunday; 5 to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday.
Prices: $4 to $20 for small bites, yakitori skewers and kushiyaki skewers.