More Questions Than Answers At Moto
Chef Homaro Cantu died on April 14, 2015 at age 38, apparently a suicide, an act that caught everyone who knew him by surprise, especially since he was a man with such a great sense of humor. I wrote this review of my first dinner at his Chicago restaurant, Moto, on July 20, 2007. He wrote me a thoughtful thankyou and on the few occasions I saw him, he would tell anyone around "he gets it."
I have just had some of the most amazing smoked pork I have ever tasted. And it was not served at a barbecue competition or served on butcher paper in a rickety joint south of the Mason Dixon Line. It was at a sleek, cutting edge restaurant with a Japanese name in Chicago: Moto.
Moto is a leader of a new food movement that is called "Molecular Gastronomy" and Chef Homaro Cantu has appeared on the covers of Gourmet, New Scientist, Fast Company, and the Los Angeles Times, and more. Trained at Le Cordon Bleu and under Charlie Trotter, he beat Masaharu Morimoto in an Iron Chef America battle in 2006, with beets as the mystery ingredient. He and Pastry Chef Ben Roche have chops. Pork, lamb, and culinary.
Molecular gastronomy is a perfectly awful appellation as well as an assault on the senses and this gastronome's definition of cooking. Sometimes called "Post Modern Cuisine" or "Culinology", proponents deconstruct food and put it back together, prep it with lasers and liquid nitrogen, cook it at 140°F for 24 hours in a vacuum pouch, dye it, and practice other innovations and experiments on its hapless molecules.
Although we did not leave Moto hungry for food, we left hungry for answers. The experience raised a multitude of questions:
Is this the beginning of a long-term trend, or just a flash in the pan? Is this a revolution or a gimmick? Is this space-age cooking or a giant leap backwards? Are these innovations or perversions? Does this belong in a restaurant or in a corporate lab? Is this just the next logical step in the march of chefs towards Hollywood, or just a fad? Has dining as theatre crossed the line into theatrics when chefs wear goggles?
It is not new to point out that dining out has become a form of entertainment, and the prices are comparable. Tickets to professional sports, theatre, opera, and dinner at Moto are about the same, and the performance takes about the same time. And the principles are similar.
Cantu's core concept is play, fun, shock and awe. His menu itself is a good example. It is ink-jet printed with edible food coloring on rice paper attached to a thin cracker made of parmesan cheese mixed with sun dried tomatoes and herbs. There are three menu options at Moto: A five course meal for $70, a 10 course meal for $105, and GTM (Grand Tour Moto) with 20 courses for $165. We ordered the 10. Here are some of the dishes he served us.
SALMON & SESAME. The salmon was raw, cut in precise cubes, with a small amount of mayonnaise. The waiter brought out a pot with billowing white liquid nitrogen vapors coming off the top. He reached in with a strainer and scooped out a cream colored powder of freeze dried sesame oil to top the dish. As we ate, frigid clouds from the sesame oil powder came out of our nostrils making us look like overdressed dragons! We were laughing and snorting steam, all the while blown away by buttery salmon with a classic accompaniment, sesame oil, albeit in powder form. My favorite dish of the night.
BEET WITH BACON. The next dish was red and yellow beets that had been broken down, made into a foam, frozen into a fluffy two-colored wedge that looked like cake, and served with red and yellow sauces made from beets and goat cheese. Scattered on the plate were intensely flavorful pea-sized chunks of bacon. I hate beets. I loved this dish.
SKATE & POPCORN. In the center was a waaaay too small piece of fabulous pan-seared skate wing framed by smears of two sauces, a pale yellow one made by liquefying buttered popcorn, and the other, bright green from mint and miso. Beautifully plated. Great tasting. Popcorn and skating. Wheeeee!
CUCUMBER WITH LEMON & BASIL. Small shards of intensely flavored cuke in sugar and vinegar, almost gherkin-like, with fresh basil. Frankly, my Thai cukes are better. But it was accompanied by a shot glass of clear green liquid: Cucumber juice, concentrated, clarified, and sweetened. Unbelievably intense, yet remarkably refreshing.
SMOKED PORK WITH FROZEN FRIED RICE. A 3" long brick of smoked pork shoulder that may have been the best pork shoulder I have ever had. The bark was pliable and flavorful, and I'll be damned if I can figure out what was in his rub. Asian spices, I think. But it was incredibly tender and juicy. I cut it with my fork and it melted in my mouth. On the side were "greens." I think they were more like Italian greens than collards, and they tasted as if it had been braised in concentrated stock. You can bet I will be working to duplicate this. There were some noodles that I guess were made from fried rice. Frankly, I don't remember that part of the plate, the pork and greens so enthralled me. Interestingly, the pork and greens were the most conventional foods of the night.
BBQ PORK WITH THE FIXIN'S. Pig cheeks with frozen fried rice smothered in what he called a Kansas City barbecue sauce, but it was not. It was loaded with spices, and all of us thought it was clumsy. Including the misplaced apostrophe.
CHICKEN FRIED MAC-N-CHEESE. Tender quail, breaded and fried, served on top of macaroni that had been cooked the day before, then dried so it was crunchy, like pretzels. It was topped with cheese and liberally seasoned with truffle oil. Served in a cocktail glass rather than in a red and white bucket, this was more whimsical and cleverly haute trashy, but I didn't think it worked all that well. The earthy truffle oil infused everything and dominated.
FRUIT & BUBBLES. Cubes of pink and yellow watermelon that had been carbonated! Surrounding them was a sauce made of white chocolate and Explorateur cheese with tiny nuggets of candied black walnuts. The combination of flavors was boggling.
CHICAGO DOG. A half-size Chicago Hot Dog, perfect in every detail right down to the sport peppers, pickle spear, tomato, mustard, onions, bright green relish, and the folds on the tips of the dog, all made from frozen fruits and fruit juices! The poppy seed bun was cake, and you ate the whole thing like a hot dog, with your hands. What fun!
2 & 3 DIMENSIONAL TRUFFLE. A white chocolate truffle filled with liquid, and cotton candy flattened into paper and printed with a picture of cotton candy. Now it was obvious he was goofing on us. I was reminded of the guy who handed me a jar of strawberry preserves the first time I smoked marijuana in college.
Among the other oddities Cantu and crew have become known for that we did not taste: A clear Lucite box that sits on a hot stone in which your fish cooks at tableside; forks with corkscrew handles through which are threaded fresh herbs to tickle the nose as you eat (shown above); foams instead of conventional sauces; and perfect globe shaped foods made by freezing liquids inside a balloon and peeling off the balloon.
The service was spot on perfect. Most of Moto's chefs take turns working the front room, so the wait staff was chefs in business suits, and they know a lot about the dishes. The small minimalist black and tan dining room, perhaps 60 seats, swarms with 6-8 server/chefs at any one time, and they are all available to you. They walk with their heads up, willing to make eye contact, rather than looking at the floor, and they all have earpieces so they are in close contact with the kitchen. When food is ready, they hear about it.
So while I'm eating, I'm wrestling with my definitions of food and cooking. My religious love of simple fresh ingredients with minimal fuss was being shaken. So much of the food was uncooked, pureed, concentrated, colored, and processed. Raw and processed are usually on opposing ends of the culinary continuum.
And then the whole thing fell apart under its own weight:
GRAHAM CRACKER & BLUEBERRY. A dessert with blueberry puree, something that looked like Dippin' Dots (a commercial brand of ice cream beads popular with kids), and liquefied graham cracker sauce. It was tasty, and as I was dissecting it I remembered the fresh blueberries I picked that morning from my back yard and sprinkled on my cereal. It was so much better than Cantu's creation. He had gone too far. Why would you deconstruct something so perfect as a blueberry in the height of blueberry season? In winter perhaps, but not mid-July.
So what started so breathtakingly with raw salmon and freeze dried sesame oil, knocked me out with a peasant dish like pork shoulder and greens taken to a new level, degenerated into a Frankenstein: Fresh blueberries at the peak of the season, ruined.
So I was left with some final questions:
Was it worth it? The 10 course meal for $105 per person (with two "freebies" thrown in), plus a bottle of red and a bottle of white (very good values at about $50 each), a dessert wine by the glass, coffee, tax, and tip (which is built-in at 18%), plus the valet parking, and cha-ching: We broke the $700 barrier for four diners, about $175 each. The food was extremely tasty, stunningly beautiful, all my senses were working overtime, and every dish brought me a challenge. I was both inspired and puzzled. Cantu and Roche forced me to think hard about my concepts of food and cooking. How often does this happen? What is that worth?
But will I be going back? Although I enjoyed myself immensely, I will not be going back soon. Like a great play, I may choose to see it again in a few years, but I got the point the first time around. But I will be going to Charlie Trotter's in September, as I do every couple of years. What does that mean?
What do you call this stuff? Cantu and Roche are equal parts punks, Pucks, Wolfgang Pucks, and punsters. We laughed and smiled almost non-stop for three hours. Perhaps a better name than Molecular Gastronomy or Post Modern Cuisine or Culinology would be Funny Food. Funny because it is both weird and because it makes you laugh. And who can complain about food that makes you laugh? Well, one of us did. My wife. A fine gardener, cook, PhD. microbiologist, and food safety expert, she thought the food, and the bill, were jokes.
All this begs one last question: Is Chef Cantu the second coming of Escoffier or Willy Wonka?