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MOTO, or more officially Moto Yakitori & Sake Bar, has a good corner pitch quite a few streets into the labyrinth that is Tin Hau’s restaurant district. This heavy concentration of mainly Japanese restaurants, with a smattering of bars and other venues noticeably at odds with the general vibe of the area, offers some good-value dining options within walking distance of Causeway Bay’s credit-card-crippling eateries.
Passing plenty of lanterns, traditional Japanese sliding wooden frontages and laminated photos of generous noodle offerings, jet-fresh sushi and the ubiquitous frosty Asahi tankards, you reach the warm red glow of MOTO’s symmetrical logo, with its characters “本本” translating to “original” – as in original and best, I’m hoping.
It’s a reassuring welcome, not in the seedy red-light way, of course, and it feels distinctly Japanese, being somewhat minimal, simple and neat. As a sake lover of many years, I am naturally excited to see the overt references to SAKE BAR and YAKITORI on the external noren (暖簾) curtain, and it sets the pulses racing.
Like any true sake drinker starved this year of the usual multiple trips to Japan, I’m on the hunt for any nods to authenticity, and I’m not disappointed with MOTO. Inside, the first thing I see is a healthily stocked sake refrigerator. Bonus points awarded and I haven’t even sat down yet. There’s also evidence of previous good sake indulgence, with more than a handful of empty bottles lined up above the counter – good to count a 1.8-litre isshobin bottle amongst them.
Sake choices aplenty at MOTO
There’s no sake menu per se, but it’s nice to take a stroll up to the refrigerator and see what’s in there, a bit like selecting your thrashing fish at a Lamma Island restaurant, avoiding those that have given up the will to live. But there seem to be no victims here. We choose a bottle from Hokkaido’s Kamikawa Taisetsu brewery, made with a 100% Suisei rice varietal, a rice local to the prefecture.
These rice grains have been carefully polished down to 60% for fermentation, yet it’s categorised as a Junmai (“pure rice”) sake, but with the added word of Tokubetsu (“special”) – a vague legal term often used by brewers who don’t want to mess with their premium sake line-up. For us consumers, this category is one of the best-value quality styles to go for. It’s rich in umami, and I can already tell it’s a sake made to be enjoyed with food.
Over the course of the night, the staff keep our ochoko cups well filled, and although the temptation is there to reach back into the fridge for another bottle of sake, perhaps the Jikon Junmai Ginjo from Mie Prefecture’s Kiyasho Brewery, a tankard or two of refreshing Asahi tides us over.
Let’s not forget the food though – that’s primarily why we’re here. Decent wafts of smoking charcoal-grilling can clearly be seen billowing up behind a primitive aluminium screen, there to protect the customer from the fat-spitting skewers on the other side.
So let’s eat. A scruffy blackboard (although I quite like its rustic individuality) announces today’s specials. As ever, the Wagyu sando ($288) leaps out at me and is a fraction of the price of glitzy Central’s options. But I’m here for the skewers, or kushi (串), as I’m sure most people are; this is yakitori, after all.
Chicken hearts yakitori
A token edamame dish aside (although it’s one of the better ones I’ve had, served finger-scaldingly hot and well seasoned), I single out the chicken wings, chicken breast, pork collar, chicken hearts and negima (alternating chicken-thigh meat and fat Japanese scallion cylinders) to soak up some of that sake.
Chicken breast yakitori
The dishes come out in good time, one by one, and at a decent pace. The friendly staff announce each and are there when you need them, but they’re not intrusive. The pork is good, enhanced as most things are by a sprinkle of MOTO shichimi, and the hearts are iron-rich and gamy.
But the stars of the show are the wings. They come two to a portion, priced unlike the kushi, which are single skewers. This is the mid-joint of the wing, often the most faff with those two bones and plenty of gristle to contend with, but MOTO’s come prepped with much of that problem removed and the bones pushed out or gnawed around easily. The chef is generous with the seasoning, and the wings are all the better for it.
A second scan over the well-thumbed menu – the illustrations aren’t there to help in navigating it, but they give some personality, which is nice – results in an order of sake clams as well as a grilled lobster tail with truffle.
Grilled lobster tail with truffle
Not holding out much for the latter (we’re very much in the realm of casual dining here), yet the lobster comes generously portioned and rich with truffle earthiness and decadence. At the twilight of our dinner, the portion is amicably shared, my wife deftly coaxing out any truffle detritus whilst I head over to the clams.
The immediate aura surrounding the bowl is enveloped in a good lungful of sake aromas, mixed with the saline goodness of those clams. The boozy steam from their liquor is intoxicating and the clam meat is well cooked, hoovered up eagerly, mostly by me as the truffle coma kicks in on the other side of the table.
A few more sips of the Hokkaido sake and we realise that the room has quietened down. Absorbed by the aromas, sights and flavours of the parade of dishes, we’ve failed to notice couples and families come and go. The charcoal grill wafts rather than balloons smoke, letting out all but an occasional squirt of audible cooking.
It’s been a really rather good night.
There’s no surprise twist to be handed out here. MOTO is a beacon for casual Japanese food lovers amidst plenty of competition. It delivers no-frills yakitori, cooked with precision and care, a good grasp of seasoning and a genuine commitment to using quality raw ingredients. Little touches – the easy-eat wings, the quick expedition of dishes from chef to diner – made a big difference. Throw into that a VIP room for when COVID-19 abates and a fully functional bathroom to make space for even more Asahi and MOTO has a winning formula. Best of all, the hum of the refrigerator as you leave is a nice little reminder that there’s plenty more sake awaiting your return. We’re going back next week actually…
21 Brown Street, Tin Hau, 2688 7007
About the author:
A certified sake sommelier, Will Jarvis is the owner and founder of Sake Matters, consulting for a variety of clients in Hong Kong and around the world. He has over 20 years’ experience working in the F&B industry in Europe, the Middle East and Asia, is a trained chef and holds a diploma in hospitality.
Note that this was a private dinner and not a compensated review.
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