Mention comfort food and it usually conjures up visions of mac and cheese or mashed potatoes. Every country of course has its own versions, though perhaps no less carb-heavy in nature. But carbs are the stuff of happiness, aren’t they?
In Hell’s Kitchen, Aya Tatsushiro, who runs Mocu-Mocu with her sister Tomomi, uses nothing more than half spherical molds made of copper and a stick to make octopus balls, one of Japan’s comfort foods.
Octopus balls—let’s be clear, this isn’t about cephalopod anatomy. It’s the translation of “takoyaki” (tako: “octopus” and yaki: “fried”/”cooked”), a tasty Japanese street snack made with a flour-based batter. It takes eight minutes of nonstop flipping and wrist flicking to turn the batter into these puffy balls. Patience aside, there is a lulling, meditative rhythm to watching them being flipped and formed over and over until they take on a golden hue.
Finally, eight pillowy takoyaki are handed over, beneath a mass of thinner-than-paper bonito flakes. As the heat emanates from the takoyaki, these flakes sway to and fro as if dancing to a song unheard by human ears.
It’s easy to fixate on their movements, but underneath the flakes and thin slices of scallion, the takoyaki await. One bite yields creamy gooeyness—a trademark of Osaka-style takoyaki. Elsewhere these savory treats might feel more like a solid fried ball, but these spheres submissively melt into creaminess, melding with the secret sauce. Then, in the middle there it is: a small chunk of boiled octopus providing a textural contrast.
Although takoyaki can be ordered on its own ($7.95 for eight pieces), the set experience is worthwhile—it allows for a more rounded meal showcasing seasonal dishes that often blend Western and Japanese ingredients. Think of pumpkin soup with seaweed; a perfectly autumnal kale salad, with dried cranberries, sunflower seeds, shiitake mushrooms, and light, sweet dressing; or kinpira, an earthy traditional dish of shredded burdock and carrot. These are all healthy and delicious.
The consulting chefs are Hiroko Shimbo and Kazuo Mitsuya. Shimbo is the author of several award-winning Japanese cookbooks; Mitsuya ran the popular Naniwa restaurant in Midtown for more than 30 years.
Takoyaki sets run from $9.90 to $16.
‘What You Like’
Another signature dish at Mocu-Mocu is “okonomiyaki” (from the word “okonomi,” translated as “what you like”), a sort of “kitchen sink” comfort food.
To wit, a traditional Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki is comprised of the following (take a deep breath): a crepe, a huge mound of cabbage, pickled ginger, pork belly, a hunk of ramen noodles, a fried egg, aonori (powdered dried seaweed), okonomiyaki sauce, a housemade spicy miso mayo, and a pile of those dancing bonito flakes. It is, in other words, an enormous pancake, dripping with umami and worth every penny ($9).
For the health conscious, there’s a more modestly sized baked okonomiyaki. The benefit here is that you can choose your filling: either chicken, baked coconut shrimp, or pork belly ($9.44, $8.99, or $9.89 respectively).
Okonomiyaki is also offered à la carte as part of a set ($10.80 to $17.74).
Molds are also used to churn out obanyaki (also known as “imagawayaki”). In Japan these sweet pancakes, with a filling rather than a topping, are mostly found at festivals.
At Mocu-Mocu, there’s a unique colorful twist to these: twin flavors in one obanyaki. The yuzu-flavored apple compote and custard cream hits the spot for fall. There are also East-meets-West flavor combinations like the Matcha del Bosco obanyaki, pairing matcha cream and mixed berries ($4.25), or a maple syrup matcha with sweet azuki beans. The newest flavor, Matcha Shiro-An With Shiratama Mochi (matcha white bean paste with sweet mochi), sold out at a recent Japan Block Fair. (Priced from $2.75 to $4.25.)
Sake cocktails like the Smoky Yuzu Pepper ($12) are offered, as well as a selection of wines, and Japanese beers and sakes.
For caffeine fiends, Mocu-Mocu also operates a takeout window, dispensing coffees (including a great iced matcha latte) from 9:30 a.m.
An artful adjoining shop showcases one-of-a-kind goods, including traditional Japanese items, some made by the Parsons-trained Tatsushiro, like the kappogi apron made from a cotton normally reserved for summer kimonos.
746 10th Ave. (between 50th and 51st streets)
Tuesday–Thursday 11:30 a.m.–10 p.m. (last order 9:30 p.m.)
Friday & Saturday 11:30 a.m.–11 p.m. (last order 10:30 p.m.)
Sunday 11:30 a.m.–9 p.m. (last order 8.30 p.m.)
Tuesday–Sunday 9:30 a.m.–2:30 p.m.