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Not Sleeping with the Fishes: Sushi Momo
Sushi Momo occupies a small space on St. Denis, across from Théâtre du Rideau Vert. The restaurant prepares an extensive menu of interesting, delicious food that wholeheartedly embraces the idea of sushi fusion—and just happens to be vegan. Obviously, sushi purists might not enjoy, but otherwise, vegans and non-vegans alike will: Here they can dine on great food in a comfortable setting with attentive, friendly service.
In fact, to my knowledge and experience, Sushi Momo might be the best strictly vegan restaurant in the city. Of course, vegans already know about it (this is not late-breaking news). I want to make the case, however, to other non-vegans—and this involves, sadly, playing Buzz Killington by acknowledging the following: one, most fish-based sushi is not that great; and two, the consumption of fish poses numerous, serious problems. Allow me to explain, briefly.
MOST SUSHI = MEDIOCRE
Low-range sushi options (e.g. the chain stores, the counters in mall food courts, etc.) are obviously not that great. I would argue, however, that many—if not most—mid-range sushi places in town aren’t that special, either. This is simply because sushi is difficult to do well, and requires access to great fish—hard to come by here, unless you’ve got deep pockets (e.g. Park, Jun I). My point is: The sushi we like and consume regularly is satisfying, yes, but not amazing. (And Sushi Momo definitely equals—if not exceeds—many of these places.)
MOST FISH = GOING, GOING, GONE
On to my second, sadder, point: Simply stated, there are few fish left. The numbers are shocking and not hard to find, and while environmental factors (e.g. pollution and a warming climate) do contribute to falling populations, overfishing is the primary culprit. Fact of the matter is, if we continue at our current rate, many fish stocks will collapse. Which means: no more sashimi, fancy or not. (I know, I know. It sucks.)
Of course, aquaculture might seem like a viable alternative, but fish farming has its own problems, including toxins (from ambient pollution in the water; toxins in wild fish stem from their diet), the contamination of nearby ecosystems due to antibiotic and pesticide use, and so on. Not to mention, some farmed varieties of fish have negligible levels of omega fatty acids—and there is some evidence that the heart benefits of fish are overstated, anyhow.
Sigh. So, there you go; a big wet blanket. Know, however, that you have another option, at least in this city: Sushi Momo. A vegan, fusion sushi joint. I’ll give you a moment to finish rolling your eyes.
Having eaten at Sushi Momo several times, I feel confident in suggesting that you order anything on the menu; I doubt you’ll be disappointed. Also, this restaurant offers a perfect setting—and perfectly shareable food—for a group; go with friends and try as many items as you can manage. You’re bound to come away content. To provide some sense of what’s on offer, here are a few examples of what I ate.
Edamame beans make for a fun start to every meal, and Sushi Momo’s are particularly delicious, seasoned not just with salt (in this case, fleur du sel), but black pepper and “Japanese spices”—I’m not certain, but my guess would be a shichimi togarashi, a common spice mixture containing seven ingredients. The deft seasoning renders the peas salty, interesting, and a little bit spicy, but only just (they use heat cleverly here, in general). Moreish. $5.
The gyoza (dumplings) come either deep- or pan-fried ($1.50 supplement for the latter), and are served with Sushi Momo’s sake and ginger-infused sauce (I think there’s tamarind juice in there, not sure). They’re a solid option, and stand up to any non-vegan gyozas I’ve had. Good. $6.
Rolling onward (get it?), “L’Enfer 2.0” is an in-house specialty: an avocado roll topped with a pile of soft sweet potato, pickled mustard leaves, pickled shishito peppers (a sweet, East Asian variety of pepper, generally much milder than jalapeño), a Japanese chili sauce (similar to siracha in profile) and coriander-jalapeño aioli. According to the menu—and as implied by the name—these are “very spicy”; this is true. I loved the heat here, although those unaccustomed to spiciness might be overwhelmed. But eat it anyway, live a little; these towering testaments to fusion sushi are delicious, if cumbersome to eat. (Do what I did: Use your chopsticks and cut ‘em right down the middle). Excellent. $14.
The Mumbai roll employs a mock-shrimp tempura, green onion, avocado, sweet potato, and Japanese curry aioli. Asian-style mock meats are generally trustworthy, being far ahead of their Western counterparts; that is the case here. (Were you to serve these to the average diner, for example, and tell them it was shrimp, they probably wouldn’t know the difference.) This item also makes good use of heat; it’s a tamer, slower burn than the “L’Enfer 2.0”. There’s a slight powdery taste of raw spices—I’m guessing from the curry powder—but this roll still works. Good. $7.25.
For a final example, the shishito tempura hosomaki. The same pepper as above, this time fried in a tempura batter, seasoned with miso shiru salt and topped with a Japanese herb emulsion. This roll shows off the subtle sweetness of the shishito, as well as the creative efforts of the kitchen (e.g. miso salt). The emulsion adds a bright, acidic contrast. Very good. $4.95.
And there you have it: Just a few items from their extensive menu. There are, for instance, twenty-three different fusion rolls, which offer plenty of variety by varying not only the ingredients, but the wrapping paper (soy, rice, nori), the texture (fried elements, raw components), and the dipping sauce (e.g. a yuzu-infused soy sauce, in one case). Apart from these, there are fourteen hosomaki rolls, five nigiri, five in-house specialties, seven cold and nine hot entrées, and at least one dessert. All that to say, you have a lot to choose from—which means, plenty of occasion to return.
But: Book a table well in advance. This restaurant is always, always busy. Seven nights a week. There’s a common logic that you can trust a crowd when choosing a restaurant, but that’s not always the case (certainly not in this town). At Sushi Momo however, you most definitely can, and should. People aren’t coming for swank decor (it’s comfortable, but far from chic), or to see and be seen; they come for the food—and to have fun, which this place does well.
Non-vegans, give Sushi Momo a chance. Here you will not feel out of place, or pick at sad stacks of shredded vegetables and walk away hungry, having placated a vegan friend or family member. This food is good, plain and simple.
And vegans, keep going—and keep this in mind: Momo could serve as a marker of what to demand from all vegan restaurants: consistently delicious, well-seasoned, well-prepared food; a thoughtful take on taste, temperature, texture; and a lack of pandering to omnivores with semi-familiar and semi-flavoursome meat surrogates. In short, proper and capable cooking.
Vegan food is, after all, just food—that is, food that avoids meat, dairy, fish, and eggs. The list of what vegans cannot eat is short; the list of what they can comprises every other ingredient on earth. And vegan cuisine achieves its best when it reflects this fact, and relies not on the conventional formula and format for cooking what it cannot use (e.g. a pretend burger, a pretend kebab), but rather reaches for what it can—the possibilities and combinations of which are endless.
Sushi Momo does this, with confidence, and gives me great expectations for this type of cooking. At Momo, vegan cuisine is in good hands; other vegan restaurants, take note.