Ooma Rockwell: Nouveau Japanese Joint Takes on New Identity as a Sake BarJune 21, 2016
When Ooma first opened its doors in Megamall, it was a dream collaboration between two fierce talents in the industry. Bruce Ricketts is the sort of young chef that might be considered a rare breed, with heaps of talent, and amplifying potential with hardly an ego outside of the kitchen. His partners on this venture, The Moment Group, have turned into a restaurant empire whose keen eye for quality has not changed since they opened their first store. Their more casual partnership (the antithesis to upscale Mecha Uma) showed that fusion could be achieved without kitsch, and without compromising the integrity and reputation both collaborators have worked so hard to cement. Its selection of maki, bowls, udon, and other staples never seemed to pander too much to please the crowd, and instead showed them what else could be done with their Japanese favorites.
This combination was potent enough to turn Ooma into one of The Moment Group’s most popular brands (although deciding on their best one is akin to choosing a favorite child), resulting in another branch in the somewhat stagnant—at least food-wise—neighborhood of Rockwell. What makes this little outlet better is the addition of a sake bar upstairs, with low seating to make you feel as if you are in a tiny Ginza izakaya, rubbing elbows with salarymen with hands cupped around sake glasses. This bar element of Ooma allows not just Bruce Ricketts’ food to be accessible, but good, delicious, quality sake to be more readily available too.
The story is quite simple, really. The group’s founders have a shared affinity for the drink as it has emerged as the alcohol which has, out of any other, fuelled crazy ideas and brought them together the most. The new Ooma’s out-of-mall location allows them to bring their favorite drink to their customers, in an un-intimidating way that allows them to be educated, and ultimately, to just have some fun.
One of Moment Group’s founders, Abba Napa, tries to break sake grades down as simply as she can for us plebeians: “The quality of the sake is based on a number of different things: one, the brewer that makes the sake; two, the water that they use from whatever prefecture of Japan they come from; three, the variety of rice, and then four, the quality of the polish. So for rice, the more you polish, the more you take off the dirty stuff from outside the grain. So the more you polish, the finer the rice that’s left over. The way to find out how much the rice has been polished for each sake is to look for a number. The way I do it, is I look for the Japanese character that looks like a little house, and always after the little house is a number percentage which tells you all you need to know.”
This number tells you essentially, the level of polish, which defines the refinement of the drink. The more the polish, the less the rice, the more of the grain you need, which makes it more expensive. Napa reiterates: “There are basically two kinds, honjozo and junmai. Junmai is closer to something pure—there’s nothing added to it. Honjozo has distilled alcohol [added]. When you go to the rice polish—there are junmai, junmai ginjo, junmai daiginjo. What junmai daiginjo is is they polish away half of the rice kernel, so you’ll always read 50% or below. The most that I’ve ever tried is 23%, which is really smooth and amazing. Then you’ve got the junmai ginjos. Junmai ginjo means they polish up to 40% away, so you’ll see the number here is 60 or 55. Then you’ve got the junmais, meaning they polish up to 30%.”
While these are technically grades, this doesn’t necessarily make more polished drinks better; it’s really up to one’s preference or palate as taste may not rely on whether the sake is smoother or finer. In fact, during a tasting of five out of the six sakes that will make an appearance on Ooma’s menu, a clear favorite was a honjozo with distilled alcohol called a Tokubetsu, whose clarity made it taste distinctly like crisp, clean water, with slightly sweet undertones of rice. Whatever your poison may be however, Ooma’s dishes are a perfect match and for good reason. “There is a proverb which tells you that sake doesn’t fight with food: nihonshu wa ryori wo erabanai” says Napa. With clarity as its main flavor profile, how can it?
If you insist on a pairing, then the new dishes in the Rockwell branch are beautiful additions to a menu which already has a lot of devotees at its feet. Ricketts’ taco maki gets a fresh makeover with maguro zuke, a sublimely thin slice of tuna dressed with raw egg yolk. The new maki selection includes steak aburi and ebi tempura, a little forgettable, and totally eclipsed by another starter of agedashi tofu, whose potently sweet-tart sauce is so good, it’s almost drinkable. The best new offering is an umami-laden bowl of hot soba, a result of the chef’s more recent obsession with the noodle, topped with a light, crisp tempura of anago, or salt-water eel.
Sake has brought together the founders of The Moment Group often, and the liquor will serve the very same purpose at the new Ooma. Interiors that are rough and moody, underscoring their previous interpretation of Tsukiji market, will turn their take on the Japanese restaurant into the approachable drinking den they’ve always dreamed of.