In South America, a momo is a mummy (or a reactionary); in Tibet, it's a kind of wonton. I don't know what it means in Beijing, but at China Basin, MoMo's is a sleek new baseball-themed restaurant, serving modern American cuisine -- dishes from four continents, rendered native in the colossal California melting pot. In the construction desert surrounding the future PacBell Park, MoMo's beckons like some postmodern roadhouse, neon signs gleaming through the fog.
Until the crowds of Giants' fans arrive, MoMo's survives on local patrons drawn by hearty food in a choice of microclimates. The restaurant was designed by the same team that created Elroy's many rec rooms, and the ornate and singular Loongbar. The chef is Tricia Tracey, veteran of the deluxe downtown hotel restaurant Roti. Stepping inside, we were engulfed by a wave of noise -- exuberant sports fans in the bar yelling "Go! Go! Go!" at the tube. I couldn't make out the picture, but given the hour they must have been cheering a big play in Scottish golf or East Indian cricket.
On the other side of the lobby, in the huge, handsome dining room decorated with baseball memorabilia, the look is at once old-timey and contemporary: Wood-rich semiprivate alcoves evoking stadium boxes line one wall, while a shiny, steely kitchen stretches across the end of the room like a theater stage. A jazz duet was riffing at the piano for post-work revelers dressed in many styles, all of them respectable, but on this last sweet night before the deluge, I chose yet another of MoMo's multiple milieus: our own little tailgate party under the propane stanchions of the front terrace.
We enjoyed, and I do mean enjoyed, the light, semisour table bread, so fresh that it must have been house-made, and the zippy garlic butter that came with it. Our exuberant waiter, sensing the secret yens of November night-picnickers, recommended the evening's soup ($5), a full-flavored pot-tage of lentils and black mushrooms in chicken broth, each element maintaining its own voice in the harmony.
Warmed through, we tried a trio of ballpark snacks. A huge heap of crispy battered onion strips ($4) proved thinner than Burger King's rings but not a drop less greasy. Puffy, greaseless french fries ($4) beat them by miles; their accompanying "chipotle ketchup," a smooth, less-tomatoey sweet-and-sour dip, was reminiscent of a Chinese-American restaurant table sauce. (A bottle of Heinz arrived, too, but we ignored it.) Bourbon-marinated baby-back ribs ($8.50) were robust and simple -- in genuine tailgater fashion, the ultratender meat was probably lightly simmered before hitting the grill, and the big upfront hot sauce and sugar hits revealed no hidden dimensions during the chew. One ballpark nosh we passed on was the day's special pizza -- a topping of blue cheese, garlic paste, and salad just sounded way too creative to eat.
From thigh-pinching steel-mesh patio chairs, we glimpsed the bay shimmering behind giant cranes, and felt we were in another city -- perhaps some Midwestern boomtown bracing for a World's Fair. The pile drivers were done for the day and all was peaceful but for autos roaring and overpunctual Breda streetcars shrieking down King Street. (Where are all those N Judahs when I need one?)
Our favorite appetizer (ordered to please the sole beet-nik in our trio) was a marinated baby beet salad ($8) with horseradish cream dressing and the peppery little greens called upland cress. The beets were crimson, rose, and yellow, in order of mildness, and a subtle marinade had turned them not just edible but pleasurable. Sharing the plate were heaps of flageolets (tiny French green beans) robed in a sheer and delicious creamy dressing. Normally I hate beets, but I'd go back to MoMo's just to eat this dish again.
The two seafood choices we tried seemed overworked. An appetizer of fire-roasted Manila clams with chorizo and corn kernels ($8.50) may echo classic Iberian cuisine, but this particular chorizo (so fine-minced, you couldn't escape it) was coarse-flavored and greasy, overwhelming the shellfish and lending the sauce a lardy undertone.
We ventured back into the water with an entree of salmon crusted in fennel, served on a bed of lentils ($17). The fish wasn't overcooked, but was dull and slightly dry nonetheless, as though it had been frozen. Much as I love excess, the fennel-seed paving seemed excessive, its flavor palling quickly. Among other maritime choices are a seared ahi appetizer (yet one more among the thousands), and a cold seafood platter ($40). The latter has suddenly become abundant on local menus (Absinthe and Savoy, among others, offer versions), but always makes me think of hotel dining rooms, where the diners' desire for safe simplicity matches management's preference for easy preparation and high prices.
Our other entrees were scrumptious -- good enough to make us glad we'd come to MoMo's before the stadium opens and the joint's overrun. Maple glazed quail ($21.50) consisted of three juicy pieces of the huge-thighed queen of all quails. Under crisp skin touched by a light, sweet glaze, the flesh was ruddy velvet. (Unlike common chicken, quail is best rare.) Alongside was an earthy moist mixture of wild and short-grain rice and pecans in a tart dressing, and an enticing pool of creamed corn sporting both whole kernels and grated ones.
At our waiter's clever recommendation, we tried grilled pork chops ($16.50), marinated for two days in an herbed brine that turned them tender, moist, and deliciously (if dangerously) salty. The generous chops were charred outside, rosy inside, and came with good, lightly garlicked mashed potatoes and a regrettable little heap of mushrooms. The menu called the latter "smoked chanterelles." With their rubbery texture, I thought they tasted more like rehydrated dried chanterelles -- the species doesn't dry well.
The wine list is long and potentially terrific, but steep and mainly young, with no full-size bottle under $20 and few reds old enough to have reached their peaks. (This is often a problem at new restaurants.) The stars, running $80 and up, are listed in a section called "Pete's Cellar" (after proprietor Peter Osborne, whose other restaurant is the Washbag). Our jailbait '96 Chateau St. Jean merlot ($24) proved friendly but undeveloped. If you're on a budget, look for the half-bottles (most about $15), which mature more quickly, if never quite as fully. By the time PacBell Park sees its first game, some of the affordable choices will have grown up. The beer list (with five lights on tap, five heavyweights by the bottle) centers on unexotic baseball beers, distinguished for their Rocky Mountain waters or chatty mascot frogs.
Melissa Roberts, fresh from a year at Rose Pistola and Rose's Cafe, is in charge of desserts. Those we sampled were very big, sweet, and American -- and many people enjoy this genre, even if I don't. Our hulking slab of butterscotch pumpkin cake ($6.50) with a hefty buttercream frosting was accompanied by a scooplet of vanilla ice cream dusted with crackly candied cinnamon. Sorbet ($5) is house-made, but in that evening's tangerine rendition, sugar outscored fruit.
If the food and ambience at MoMo's sound appealing, now's the time to go for it. Once the park opens, for nine months each year the bases will be loaded with barbarian hordes seeking booze and bites -- and who knows how the kitchen will cope with them. If some dishes, even now, seem designed to anticipate post-game noshers, many others (especially salads and entrees) will please the local food-fans on whose enthusiasm MoMo's existence still depends. I'll return for another meal some week when the Giants are playing across the street (although probably not on game day). Until then, the restaurant's for the home team.