Of all the restaurants featuring modern cuisine in America, Moto is clearly the most controversial. Most of today’s young chefs who are working in the avant garde genre prepare cuisines that are derivative of the famous modern Spanish chefs like Adrià, Roca, Adoni, and Beresetegui. But Moto’s chef/owner, Homaru Cantu, has tried to avoid that model, and as a result he marches to the beat of his own drummer. Cantu is also interested in created entirely new cooking and dining apparatus, as well as creating new techniques, and that results in the restaurant serving a few dishes that you won't see anywhere else. Even the décor and ambience of Moto are different from your usual high-end restaurant. Modern, casual, with chill out music playing in the background, it’s more like eating at Moromoto in Philadelphia than Per Se or Charlie Trottter’s.
There are a number of different menu choices, from ten courses up to twenty. I opted for the “Grand Tour Moto,” the largest of the menus, along with the pre-set wine pairings that are chosen by the restaurant. I normally do not like to order the wine pairings as I am typically unhappy with the sommelier's choices. But I was dining alone, and it made more sense to have a variety of wines than to order a single bottle.
I started with one of the dishes that gets a good deal of publicity for the restaurant, “Maki in the 4th Dimension,” a sushi-style roll with nori powder-flavored rice, pickled vegetables, and tuna loin, all wrapped in edible paper made of potato and soy starch, on which traditional makis have been printed with an inkjet printer, served with togarashi, a traditional Japanese spice blend. The concept is more outlandish sounding than the result; the edible paper is more of a theoretical, without a culinary impact. What’s left is pretty much a sushi roll that is more highly spiced than your average maki.
“Champagne and King Crab” was a butter-poached king crab, citrus crème fraiche, and freeze-dried shallot served with carbonated grapes (the champagne of the course). The whole is then topped with Caspian Sea sturgeon caviar. This is a superb dish. Taking the dish in its component parts, the lobster crème fraiche combination is luxurious. And the carbonated grapes (how do they do that?) add a unique textural dimension to the dish, as well as both a sweetness and some nice acidity. The combination is luxurious, and if this dish was served at a restaurant whose proffer was focused more on serving delicious food than technology-driven food, I think the critics would be raving about it. Though I can pick a nit with the sturgeon roe; its saltiness is a distraction which ultimately detracts from the deliciousness of this dish.
“Onion…crouton….nitrogenation,” a soup of caramelized onions and crispy rye crouton, topped with a sweet onion broth which featured a smoking pot of liquid worthy of being used as a smoke machine at a live concert. This turned out to be more smoke than fire, as it was a fairly ordinary onion soup, albeit one with smoke rising from it after it is poured into the bowl. Not a bad dish, but nothing really unusual, and the flavor was a letdown after the pyrotechnics. I should add that this was the first hot nitrogen dish I’ve seen—the typical nitrogen dish you see at restaurants is frozen.
“Lobster and Orange” was a butter-poached Maine lobster, celery root purée, and brown butter ice cream. A carbonated orange is on the side to squeeze over the dish, which as a practical matter is like pouring orange soda on it. Also a very good dish, although maybe not quite as good as the crab with carbonated grape dish. I wonder how much of the enjoyment in these dishes is in the names attached to them? For example, if this dish were served at The French Laundry or Alinea, they might name it something like “Lobster Creamsicle,” and that would orient your palate a certain way. But calling it Lobster and Orange makes one look at it from a different perspective. I don‘t want to digress into a discussion about how names cause us to see things differently (I guess it’s really a discussion of intentionality), but I have to think that more people would be talking about this dish as being delicious if it had a whimsical name attached to it.
The next dish falls into the goofy category. “MC Sweetbreads,” lightly fried veal sweetbreads with traditional dipping sauces—BBQ, pineapple sweet & sour, and honey mustard. The sauces are served in individual pipettes and are meant to be squeezed into your mouth. For me, the theater of this dish didn’t really add very much, and the sweetbreads and dipping sauces were pretty ordinary. I did have one unpleasant incident regarding some squirting dipping sauce when I couldn’t figure out how to unload the pipette properly. Fortunately, it missed my shirt.
Then the server appeared and placed a plastic box on my table. The box had a dark gray bottom and an opaque yellow top. The server announced: “This is your fish box. The bottom section has a sauce of roasted tomatillos, bacon, Thai chili, and garlic that is at a temperature of 200 degrees Fahrenheit. Sitting on the perforated insert is a piece of Hawaiian sea bass. I am going to leave the box on your table while the fish cooks. It will be done in exactly 12 minutes.” Well, alrighty.
While the fish was cooking on my tabletop they continued to serve the meal. Artichoke and Macadamia was fairly straightforward. A.toasted macademia nut, artichoke sorbet, and a drop of 100-year-old balsamico. Would one call a vegetable sorbet savory? I’m not sure. I don’t recall it being sweet so I guess one would. Not my favorite dish, but not something I disliked either.
Sweet Potato “Pie” with Savoy Cabbage was an unbroken chain link of sweet potato, sweet potato pie purée, and Savoy cabbage and fennel mash. The focus of the dish is the carving mastery that creates what is a square chain link of sweet potato. I found the sweet potato undercooked and somewhat al dente for my taste. I’m not sure how good this dish would be if the potato was cooked properly.
At last they opened the fish box that had been sitting on my table and they composed the dish out of its contents. The Hawaiian Sea Bass was rather ordinary (not in a bad way), considering the wow factor of how the fish is cooked right on your table in that special box which Cantu invented. To review how the dish is made, a piece of sea bass is cooked over a 200 degree liquid in a sealed plastic box, right on top of your table. The liquid then becomes the sauce for the dish. It’s a nice concept and it certainly makes for great theater, but I found the dish disappointing–the box didn’t have any real culinary impact. Don’t get me wrong, the dish was fine. But what it lacked was the fish being permeated by the aroma of the liquid. If the box had a dual purpose (which, it seemed to me, could be accomplished easily enough by using a liquid that would create a greater degree of aromatics in the fish), then the culinary wow would match the technical and theatrical wow. Just my .02 on how to maximize what is a unique invention.
Quail “Pull Apart” is a pan-seared, Indiana Bobwhite quail, and the pull-apart is a homemade wonton that is injected with a sweet and sour cilantro sauce. You break the wonton apart to sauce the dish. Fairly straightforward and the pull apart really doesn’t do very much except for dispensing the condiment. The quail was very good quality.
Margarita with Chips and Salsa was served on a spoon. The combination of white corn tortilla chip purée, clarified salsa cube, and Jose Cuervo margarita sorbet tasted just like the Real McCoy, as if someone had handed you a bag of chips and salsa. Very good, but I didn’t understand why it came at this point in the progression. It would seem to work better as one of the amuse that come out at the beginning of the meal.
Lamb with Braised Pizza and Garlic was superb. A sautéed lamb chop with Swiss chard greens flavored with the traditional seasonings of a pizza. This dish uses special utensils designed by Cantu—the handle of the utensil is a spiral like a corkscrew, allowing Cantu to place an aromatic ingredient at the end of the utensil. With the lamb chop, he had placed cloves of garlic on the end of the utensil, adding a subtle layer of complexity. Superb quality lamb and this mostly straight ahead dish was delicious.
“Edible Literature,” a slice of Morbier cheese with a line of ash down the center to signify the separation of morning milk and night milk, came with inedible ash that is ignited at the table for added aromas, some chopped nuts, and some cherry confiture. The recipe for the dish is printed right on the slice of Morbier and it disappears as you eat the cheese. Not being an art historian, I can’t quite tell you what it all means, but I can say there is something existential about watching the recipe disappear while you’re eating the cheese. Which, by the way, wasn’t a half-bad hunk of Morbier.
Desserts were more of the same. A toasted granola dish; Sous vide hearts of palm with a sodium alginate ball made of spiced basil filled with vanilla and maple syrup, with basil and coconut on the outside; Freeze-dried pina colada, freeze-dried pineapple and coconut powder with lime jelly and ice chips; Sous vide white beets, carrot purée, and an ajowan marshmallow; "Doughnut Soup", doughnuts in a liquid form; White and dark chocolate with yuzu was a frozen, hollow sphere of yuzu juice, chocolate ganache, candied kumquats, layers of white chocolate and coconut marshmallow with dark chocolate crackers; and chocolate cake with hot ice cream, chilled, liquid malt-center chocolate cake rolled in praline walnuts and topped with a seasoned rice crisp (mace and soy powder). The hot ice cream is on the side.
After the meal Chef Cantu came to my table and sat with me for about 15 minutes. A soft-spoken and unpretentious fellow who cut his teeth in Charlie Trotter’s kitchen for the four years preceding the opening of Moto, he explained his goals for the restaurant. Cantu said that he wanted to create something new, and that the technical aspects of cuisine interested him the most. He told me that based on the publicity the restaurant has gotten, he had attracted a different type of customer including MIT scientists, NASA engineers, and executives from technology companies like Microsoft, in addition to the regular high-end dining base. It was a fascinating discussion, and it made me view the meal from a different perspective than the one I had while I was eating it. Here I was, having spent the last two and one-half hours having a meal, and as a result of a 15-minute discussion with the person who crafted the meal, my impressions were altered significantly. That brings me back to the point about intentionality I raised earlier in the review. Had my meal been presented in the context of the post-meal discussion, I think I would have enjoyed it more. Clearly a fascinating topic to explore in an article dedicated specifically to the topic.
Considering that I was prepared to dislike Moto, because most of the people I spoke to who had been to the restaurant didn’t like it, I have to say that I rather enjoyed it. In fact the more distance I got from the meal, the more of an impression it made on me. Okay not everything works, and some of the combinations are downright weird and feature strong flavors that I wouldn’t necessarily prefer. But the cerebral factor can’t be discounted, and given how the modern techniques developed by the Spanish chefs are beginning to become common in restaurants, Moto is unique in its genre. I like that, and it gets a lot of points from me for staking out that ground. I would like to go back, although it’s not the kind of place I would rush back to. Maybe in a year’s time to see how Cantu is progressing. Clearly a restaurant to watch and it wouldn’t surprise me if one day it all clicked and it turned into the best restaurant in the country. B+