In Boston, the term izakaya is about as flexible as bistro or trattoria. We apply it to everything from the scarily costly O Ya to the humble Ittoku, nevermind the original Japanese notion of a pub where you knock back a few after work, using food mainly as a cushion for boozing. Momi Nonmi, the new Inman Square hole-in-the-wall from chef/owner Chris Chung (formerly of Lincoln’s bygone Aka Bistro and the Back Bay’s Uni) and his partner Elaine Wong, understands the traditional izakaya focus on imbibing, but bolsters it with a roster of raw and cooked dishes that hide surprising, sophisticated depths under lovely but often simple-seeming exteriors.
But let’s start with those drinks. Momi Nonmi has a sake sommelier, Stephen Connolly (also formerly of Uni), who joyfully guides guests through a versatile list of sakes ($8-$10/2.5 ounces, $12-$15/5 ounces, $11-$64/larger formats) and shochus ($10-$12) offered in a panoply of styles. Exploring these traditional beverages is part of the fun here, with their mostly austere, unbusy flavors—the distilled spirit shochu falling somewhere between vodka and grappa—serving as clean foils to the food, with variations offered in temperature (one rendition of sake is precisely warmed with an immersion circulator), admixtures (warm water, a single large ice cube, etc.) and serving vessels (choose-your-own sake cup, or the five-ounce wooden box called a masu). Drinkers looking for punchier flavors can opt for Japanese whiskies ($10-$25), barrel-aged shochus and a few specialty cocktails ($11-$13). A handful of draft beers ($6-$7) and plonky wines ($9-$12) round out the list. And there’s an even longer list of sakes and spirits for the adventurous and deep-pocketed.
Now that you have a beverage, this is when an American tavern might offer you a fried mozzarella stick. Chung instead serves up three edamame croquettes ($6) with citrus-accented yuzu ketchup: crunchy without, tender within—a lighter, healthier fried snack. Onigiri of duck confit ($12) presents a pad of rice topped with a square of crisp, meaty, sweet duck and a crown of crushed sancho peppercorns around which you roll a strip of nori before dragging it through a streak of chocolate glace and eating it like a giant maki roll: delectable, but almost too hot to handle. Grilled tuna onigiri ($10) has similarly vivid flavors of fried garlic and shallots, but the fish is presented in smaller chunks making it a challenge to wrap up tightly. Wagyu dumplings ($18) are more familiar and manageable, their tender fatty centers wrapped in wispy wonton wrappers floating in delicate sukiyaki consommé: pricey but superb.
Sashimi dishes are mostly gorgeous and subtle, like a pretty presentation of the Rose ($16), sea bream set in a puddle of ponzu gently infused with the flavor of smoked tea, and the exquisite, delicate live scallop ($16) with subtle accents of black garlic and pickled cauliflower. The painterly presentation of Hien’s special bronzini ($12) on a black rectangle dish includes feathery-thin slices of raw fish topped with strips of acerbic pickled burdock root and mild jalapeño slices in a bath of soy sauce and sesame oil. Among these gentle beauties, Hawaiian poke ($16) stands out brashly, its cubes of raw tuna rocketed into transcendent sublimity by a complex, sesame-nutty mix of scallions, ginger and sprouts.
Cooked dishes show off fine technique, notably in tempura dishes like rock shrimp ($15) in miraculously light, crisp, gluten-free batter gently drizzled with saffron aioli and dusted with togarashi. Seafood dynamite ($14) earns its name, barely cooking tiny bay scallops, little shrimp, rings of squid and a few mussels in a dreamy aioli loaded with black garlic—it’s heavenly. Hawaiian teppanyaki loco moco ($15) offers a witty, gluten-free take on a burger, layering a pad of rice, grass-fed beef patty and sunny side egg and then adding fajitas-like sizzle by spooning gravy onto its hot iron plate tableside. Chung keeps gluten out of another dish, using a batter of mountain yam, rice flour and egg for the big, gloriously crunchy pancake that is seafood okonomiyaki ($15). Loaded with scallop, shrimp, squid and cabbage, squiggled with aioli and topped with pickled ginger, it’s substantial and delicious.
Desserts include fabulous ice cream from the nearby Christina’s ($4) and the head-turning, vaguely modernist wonder that is the Raindrop, also known as mizu shingen mochi ($6). A disk of transparent agar gelatin that resembles a jellyfish is flanked by a blob of brown-sugar syrup and a pile of roasted soybean powder. Drag a spoon from powder to syrup to raindrop for one novelly sweet/savory, texturally marvelous bite at a time.
Momi Nonmi’s room is a charming bandbox—25 seats plus four at the bar and three counter stools—with of-the-moment decor, including reclaimed-wood walls, plank floors, maple tabletops and simple metal chairs. Friendly, enthusiastic staffers tag-team their way to attentive service, though watching as you fumble through a tablet-based payment and tipping system can make for an awkward moment. That’s a quibble in a place that otherwise feels so inviting, low-key and fairly priced, especially when many of our self-styled izakayas are so pretentious and pricey. After taking a spin or two through the talented Chung’s menu, though, you won’t be able to call it just drinking food.
Hien’s special bronzini
Rock shrimp tempura
Hawaiian teppanyaki loco moco
Momi Nonmi, 1128 Cambridge St., Cambridge (617-945-7328) mominonmi.com; Hours: Lunch: Mon.-Fri., noon-2 pm, Sat.-Sun., noon-3 pm; Dinner: Tue.-Wed., 5:30-10 pm, Thu.-Sat., 5:30 pm-1 am, Sun., 5:30-9 pm; Reservations: Yes; Liquor: Full; Parking: Metered street spaces and nearby public lots