Alkali autumn

Momiji Sushi & Grill

1401 G St.
Sacramento, CA 95814

(916) 930-9988

Sushi restaurants generally seem seasonless, but Momiji Sushi & Grill—a new, quietly stylish-looking neighborhood restaurant on the fringes of the underserved Alkali Flat area—is actually appropriate to early fall. The name, the menu notes, means the changing of colors into red and yellow, and in Japan has come to denote the autumnal color of maple trees. Fittingly, then, the trees and their colors are evoked in the restaurant’s design, which is understated but inviting, with simple pine accents and a cleanly decorated, open feel.

There’s a sushi bar in one corner of the restaurant, but it doesn’t dominate by any means—which also happens to be the role sushi fills on the longish, fairly diverse menu. There are some specialty rolls (mainly distinguished by their many additions of sauce and types of fish), nigiri, sashimi and sushi, and so-called traditional rolls (the California, negihama, Philadelphia roll, spicy scallop), but they don’t seem terribly interested in specials or really personal sushi service. When I asked what was fresh and what the sushi chef recommended, the server looked at me a little funny, went to ask and came back and said, “Tuna.” All righty, then.

We ordered various rolls, and they seemed undistinguished to me. In general, the specialty rolls were heaped with flavor-masking, strong garlicky sauce. We tried the Momiji Shrimp Roll, with shrimp tempura and avocado; the tempura was soggy, unfortunately, and so the texture balance of the whole roll was thrown off. More appealing was the Flamin’ Tuna Roll, with spicy tuna and cucumber, various other kinds of tuna and spicy sauce on the top; this one had a nice, rounded heat. The Hawaiian roll, with albacore, cucumber, avocado and tobiko didn’t taste perfectly fresh (the fish was a little too fishy) but was more restrained in style than the specialty rolls, as was a quite average California roll.

Honestly, my favorite bit of raw fish that we ordered was the Poki Delight, from the appetizer menu: diced tuna with a nutty, aromatic sesame-soy dressing, a good bit of spice and crunchy seaweed beneath, plus a festive-looking little pouf of faintly piquant daikon shreds. The pretty presentation in a wine glass did make it a bit hard to eat (we were afraid we’d topple it), but we polished it off anyway.

Also from the appetizer menu, yakitori (chicken skewers) were a plainer but still tasty choice: simple, if slightly stringy, with a teriyaki-type sauce. We also tried some fried gyoza, with a bento box, which, like the shrimp tempura, was a little limp. The chicken teriyaki in the bento box, on the other hand, was juicy and pleasantly charred, with the characteristically appealing sticky, sweet and gingery sauce—nothing out of the ordinary, but a simple dish well-executed. (There are a lot of other options for the bento boxes, including some slightly more adventurous ones like mackerel or fried oysters.)

The name of the restaurant may say “Sushi & Grill,” but the dishes I preferred were really none of those; there are several nice donburi bowls, including a homey, rather indulgent katsudon with crisply breaded fried pork, pillowy eggs and sweet-soy sauce, and a oyakodon that was a little leaner, with simmered chicken (that was a touch dry, actually) and egg and veggies. On my visit, Momiji was still waiting for its beer-and-wine license, so the drink options are pretty much tea and sodas. The dessert choices (mochi ice cream and some other ice cream) are similarly limited, but you really don’t go to a sushi place for its dessert menu.

Momiji does have, however, a bit of a specialty in noodle soups. They have several kinds of udon, including kitsune, a deep bowl of broth full of vegetables, seaweed and that skinlike sweet tofu. The toothsome, fat udon noodles were done just right, so this was a comforting bowl that would make a nice lunch on a rainy day.

Nabemono, Japanese hot pot, would fill a similar role. We tried beef nabe, sliced beef (a touch chewy and gristly, but savory in flavor) with spinach, crunchy bits of cabbage, bright shredded carrots, soft custardy tofu and fleshy shiitakes, all floating in brown, slightly sweet broth with a hint of earthy, savory umami flavor from those mushrooms. Wiry-thin rice noodles added heft to the satisfying bowlful. The noodle dishes were the kind of comfort cooking you can dig into happily, yet still light enough that you didn’t feel overwhelmed at the end—again, nothing too far out of the ordinary, but nicely presented, successful dishes, and what I’d order if I went back, in preference to the less appealing sushi—especially as the season changes, Momiji-style, to a red and gold fall.