Dubai doesn't suffer from a dearth of high-end Japanese restaurants. Can't get a table at Zuma? Try Okku. Fully-booked? Head to Nobu. Lusting for yet another morsel of buttery black cod? Try the newest joint jostling for elbow-space in this crowded market - Nozomi. Momotaro is another Japanese haunt, which opened in late 2008 and is tucked away upstairs at the Souk Al Bahar. But though it may secretly yearn to be cast in the same league as the others, it falls somewhere behind them. It's as if the snotty-nosed, playground nerd is trying to keep up with the cool kids, which seems a shame, given that certain dishes being turned out by the kitchen are good. Very good, in fact.
"Momotaro. Weird. I never get trendy Japanese restaurant names," observed my English friend (confusingly called India - keep up), as we sat down for dinner there on a recent weekday night. Having meandered outside to peer at the terrace, we had plumped for an inside table. There was a trace of airport smoking-room to the pokey space, which unfortunately is not one with a view of the Burj Khalifa or the fountains beneath. If it was, then Momotaro might find itself busier. On this particular evening, half the tables outside were free and three or four tables inside were taken. This was inauspicious, given that the contemporary surroundings - black tables, cream banquettes, black and red walls - certainly suggested they're aiming for the style-aware Zuma crowd.
Things perked up after we were handed our menus. India was won over immediately by the Momotaro fable, printed proudly on the menu's first page. It is a Japanese fairy tale, involving a barren couple who are miraculously given a son late in life. Where do they find this son? Hidden in a giant peach that the elderly woman spies on a river one day. Of course. They named him Momotaro, as he had arrived by peach (momo) and he was their eldest son, so given the suffix -taro.
"That's so sweet," said India happily, promptly insisting that we must order the Momotaro roll - a dubious-sounding combination of spicy tuna and peach. The menu is huge, and split into sections that demand careful study. There are hot and cold otsumami options (essentially, "little dishes"), large cuts of meat available off the robatayaki grill, others cooked by teppanyaki (by griddle), sushi, sashimi, tempura, noodles, rice and, of course, the ubiquitous miso black cod. Wagyu beef, caviar, and foie gras scatter the menu in another nod to the high-end market.
So India and I weren't messing around. If Momotaro wanted to stand up alongside the finest Japanese restaurants, we would trot them through their paces. A small bowl of Chirashi came first, a salad of salmon, tuna and hammour sashimi flecked with small balls of caviar. The lettuce involved was essentially a vehicle for the mentaiko (pollack roe) dressing, which made it rather rich and yet its modest size meant it wasn't overpowering. We had limbered up.
Next came the foagura gyuniku cokokke, otherwise known as foie gras and beef croquettes (too greasy) followed by a vast mound of okra tempura and perhaps the largest prawn tempura pieces in the entire world. Genetically modified prawns? Surely not, but they were enormous and perfectly fresh, though let down by the batter, which was thick and flabby. Scallops peeled from the robata grill followed; the plump little white discs came tucked between lettuce leaves and licked with spicy cream. The scallops were well-cooked, the cream sauce too sweet and fussy. Chicken-wrapped asparagus spears, with teriyaki mayonnaise, were more successful. As were the grilled mushrooms - deliciously smoked and slightly blackened mounds of shiitake, oyster and enoki straight off the robata.
There was then a pause, as India and I took deep breaths and prepared ourselves for the sushi and sashimi onslaught. This was a while in coming, but then at least we knew the kitchen was knocking everything up freshly. Disappointing were the bland unagi (eel) maki rolls, which came rolled in sesame seeds and stuffed with little nuggets of foie gras. But the Momotaro rolls - of peach and tuna - worked, in spite of their vastness, which left us with that classic sushi dilemma of biting them in half and dropping the rest inelegantly on the plate, or poking the whole lot into our mouths like gannets wielding chopsticks.
As sizeable were the pieces of salmon and tuna sashimi, which came in fat slabs as thick as my little finger. Delicious, smooth pieces but swallowing that much raw fish in one go might daunt some. Phew. It all just about left space for ginger tempura ice-cream, which came in two generous scoops but again with flabby batter. This rounded up the final bill to just over Dh400 a head, too much for the general quality and for which you could eat better at one of their high-end competitors. Sure, there are several hits on the menu, but Momotaro could ditch its pretensions and needlessly expensive ingredients and carve its own niche with solid, authentically Japanese fare. It has clearly got the talent for it.
Momotaro, Souk Al Bahar, Downtown Burj Khalifa, 04 425 7976. Our reviewer's meal for two cost Dh800. Restaurants are reviewed incognito and the meals are paid for by The National.