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« I went to Alinea and all I got were these crappy photos (and an unbelievable meal)! | Main | Menu for Hope III -- Susur: A Culinary Life »

November 30, 2006

What's my Moto-vation? Oh right, I'm a glutton!

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Imagine a regular high school, with all the typical roles and stereotypes, but populated by established chefs:  Brulee Hills 90210.  In that school, I'd bet someone like Bobby Flay would be the arrogant jock, Tyler Florence would be the good looking but dim guy all the girls swoon over, and Ina Garten would be the “good time girl,” with a giggle and a flask of something potent at the ready.  Score!

What about Homaro Cantu, then, the technology-obsessed chef behind Moto?  Well, he'd be the president of the chess club and, let's be honest, the biggest nerd in school.  Half his peers would pick on him, slapping him on the head and yelling, "Think, Cantu, think," before tossing him in his locker.  The other half, meanwhile, would respect him, perhaps even envy him a little.  No one would understand him, however.

This would make poor Homaro very unhappy.

I can't help but thinking that, marginalized by many, poor Homaro -- and I'm talking about the real chef Cantu now -- overcompensates for his nerdiness by being the biggest, baddest nerd he can be.  And why not?  Sure, some of the kids will ridicule everything you do, but the sympathetic half will become ever more supportive with each new step down the path to uber-geekdom.

In the kitchen, where it really matters, this makes Homaro Cantu a molecular gastronomy chef who thinks too much about the "molecular," and not enough about the "gastronomy."

I say this confidently, especially after our magnificent experience at Alinea.  Grant Achatz uses food science judiciously.  Most of his dishes are about the food; the science is there if you look for it, but it's subtle.  Flavour predominates; the food comes first.

Homaro Cantu is also an abundantly talented chef, but his dishes often seem like they're not about the food.  The best molecular gastronomy chefs (Adria, Blumenthal, and Achatz, for example) are able to stop developing a dish when it looks and tastes its best.  As he matures, I'm sure Cantu will begin to approach his own creations with the same finesse.  I just don't think he's there yet.

Take Moto's chili-cheese nachos (please!).  This dish is composed of sweet corn chips and kiwi salsa, sorbet, and shredded mango sorbet masquerading respectively as guacamole, sour cream, and melted cheese. Cute.  I get the joke, but it's not nearly funny enough to compensate for the inherent deficiency in this dish: it doesn't taste good, so it shouldn't be on the menu.

Having said that, let me now heap praise upon him: Chef Cantu is inspired.  Some of his dishes taste astonishingly good (that bass baked tableside springs immediately to mind), and some just astonish.  I loved my meal at Moto, and would happily dine there again.  A dinner conceived and executed by Cantu is not to be missed; to be debated, loved, and reviled, yes, but never dismissed.

That's the big picture.  For those who love nitty, gritty details, I've added my thoughts about the specific dishes that were highlights of our experience:

Menu -- Does anything say good eats quite like a notice that the cracker cum menu you're about to eat is made using patent-pending technology?  The menu is a neat trick, but the cracker itself is nothing special, being only marginally more savoury than the paper it replaces.  Thankfully the toothsome, lemon-spiked lentil daal and the refreshing cucumber shooter accompanying it make this a menu worth eating.

Vietnamese egg drop soup --  Warm broth is poured over egg drops frozen in liquid nitrogen, so vapour rises from it as if from a witch's cauldron.  I found the broth a little oversalted for my taste.

Scallop and fruit salsa -- A battered and deep-fried, vanilla-scented scallop, served with a nugget of carbonated pineapple, a slice of carbonated pink grapefruit, and a sunchoke purée.  The scallop and vanilla flavours work well together, though the batter surrounding the scallop was pale and a little soft, a sure sign that it was not fried at a high enough temperature.

Synthetic champagne -- What the fizzle?  A frothy mixture made by injecting verjus with some magical substance via syringe tableside. Sweet, a little fizzy, and pretty forgettable, unless you're a connoisseur of novelty grape juice.

Img_20060623_2277 Goat cheese snow and balsamic -- According to our server, goat cheese snow is made using a paint sprayer.  I guess that means I need a paint sprayer for Christmas, because it's wonderful.  The goat cheese flakes melt back into a creamy state on the tongue, and the familiar tang of goat cheese matches beautifully with the sweet acidity of the balsamic.

Ahi and blood orange -- Chef Cantu is always searching for innovative ways to prepare and present food.  One of my favourite is carbonated fruit, which is prepared by leaving fruit (I gather citrus works best) in a "pressurized chamber filled with carbon dioxide."  When done properly, the fruit fizzes on the tongue, like pop.  Used sparingly, it gives certain dishes a bit of wow factor, like this one.  Not that the ahi needs it.  This is a beautiful piece of delicate, impeccable fish. It's "sauced" by squeezing the carbonated blood orange over it, whose chilled tart edge and the smoky saltiness of roe round this dish out nicely.

Img_20060623_2281 Passion fruit and crab -- Hands down, my favourite dish of the meal. The scene-stealer here is neither the impecably tender and sweet crab, nor the delicate, eyebrow-raising passion fruit noodle.  No, the popcorn purée nestling the main ingredients is a revelation.  According to our server, it's made by combining popcorn, milk, and a lot of butter.  Pure genius.

Savory dippin' dots -- Colour me underwhelmed.  This was advertised as a way to "eat our veggies."  Though novel and quite pretty, I'd prefer a bowl of plain peas and carrots to this odourless, frozen confetti .

Bass baked tableside with paprika -- A couple of courses prior, our server had set in front of each of us an amber-tinted box topped with a fine red powder.  Within seconds, our table was awash in the mouth-watering scent of paprika released by the heat of the box on which it rested.  When opened, the box revealed a piece of Hawaiian sea bass sitting on a grate, beneath which rested a rich, blood red sauce.  There are few superlatives to describe how magnificent this sea bass was.

Suffice it to say the fish was perfectly cooked -- tender and moist, but still firm and fleshy.  The sauce was richly spiced, with paprika leading the charge.  The polymer cooking box is one of Homaro Cantu's more famous inventions, and I hope he gets around to commercializing it soon, because I want one.  Badly.

Img_20060623_2287_2 Bison and aromatic utensils -- Can someone please explain to me when and why al dente went from being the proper way to cook pasta, to being an accepted way to cook just about anything?  The bison in this dish is wonderful -- with a golden seared crust and a delicate reddish pink interior -- but the accompanying beans are undercooked, another victim of the modern obsession to serve all produce and legumes al dente.  The "plate" for this dish resembles an overdone, hyper-modern Battleship board that has spent too much time on a fetish porn set.  There’s a vertical portion holding the aromatic utensils, which are a fork and knife with coils in the handles that hold big floppy bouquets of sage.  Shame about the overdone presentation and the underdone beans, because the bison itself is succulent.

Img_20060623_2291 Jalapeno, avocado and lemon myrtle -- Chunks of rich, ripe avocado and a superb lemon myrtle ice cream presented on a bed of quinoa.  Read that description, and the word "delicious" does not come to mind. No, if I were unfamiliar with this dish I might envision a nightmarish hippie creation that makes the dreadlock-set swoon and me gag.  What do I know?  This is really spectacular.  It’s creamy, with a little jalapeno heat, and an inescapable essence of Froot Loops.  Yes, those Froot Loops.  As someone who's "followed his nose" his entire life, I have to admit loving this dish.  (Here's an odd bit of trivia I uncovered researching this dish, and I won't spoil things by divulging the answer: do different colours of Froot Loops have different flavours?  Click here to learn the answer.)

Img_20060623_2294 Beef and kielbasa -- Ah, the beautiful homage of a molecular gastronomy chef to his hometown:  two gorgeous slices of crimson beef and a mound of mustard-flecked cabbage in kielbasa sauce. Yes, kielbasa sauce. Polish cuisine never had it so good (unless you've had the paczki and pierogi at Granowska's, but that's another post).  Kielbasa sauce, according to our server, is made by puréeing kielbasa with a lot of butter and some quality balsamic vinegar.  If you like kielbasa, you'll love this dish.  The familiar salty and spicy notes are there, sharpened by the vinegar and enriched by the butter.

Mac and cheese -- One of the bigger disappointments of the night, if you ask me.  This is one hectic plate: three lychee "macaroni," a beet and berry salad, and a rice paper crisp dusted with cheese in a pool of white chocolate and Explorateur cheese sauce.  The beet and berry salad was interesting, good even, but the lychee macaroni were bland, and one taste of the cheese sauce made me wonder if Chef Cantu shouldn't reconsider whether the tongue-in-cheek humour of his "mac and cheese" is worth combining three preparations that are neither delicious nor complementary.

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Fettucine alla dolce -- A ribbon of coconut noodle wrapped around a fork, garnished with a small orb of intense chocolate gelato, and all served on a bed of pistachio pesto.  A playful take on pasta, and delicious.

3 cotton candy stages -- I actually experienced five stages of this dish.

  1. Denial -- "What?  That's not cotton candy."
  2. Anger -- "Does that sonuvabitch think he can charge me these prices for this?  I'm gonna      kick his ass."
  3. Bargaining -- "I promise to stop whining if you just bring me more jalapeno, avocado and      lemon myrtle."
  4. Depression --   [uncontrollable sobbing]
  5. Acceptance -- "You know, cotton candy three ways actually tastes pretty good, and we all have to eat some time.  I'm just glad I have family and friends here to support me."

Frozen flapjacks -- A portable antigriddle-type device appears at our table, and the server deftly cooks mini-pancakes and slips them onto our plates.  Very cool, but they taste like what they are:  frozen dough.  The Canadian maple syrup was a nice touch of home.

Img_20060623_2305_2 Peanut butter and jelly -- There must be something in the water in Chicago that compels molecular gastronomy chefs to devise their own version of PB&J.  Grant Achatz's version -- a peeled grape, peanut purée, and a micro-thin slice of brioche -- has become something of signature dish.  Cantu counters with a jelly orb bursting with an unctuous peanut sauce.  Once it erupts, the sauce seeps into the surrounding mascarpone.  Nibble slowly off a too-tiny brioche crouton.

Img_20060623_2308 Reese's pieces --  The minute I laid eyes on this dish, I knew exactly how they made it.  Reese's pieces at Moto means a small bowl of tan powder that, once eaten, coalesces into sticky, unctuous peanut butter on the palate.  Alchemy!  I'd be lying if I didn't admit to a little smug self-satisfaction at our server's surprise when I revealed the key ingredient.  I'd also be lying if I denied my joy when she pointed me to an online supplier of said ingredient.  Finding calcium chloride and sodium alginate was a walk in the park by comparison. Stay tuned for yet another thrilling post where I shall reveal all.

Doughnut soup -- How exciting is this?  Finally trying a molecular gastronomy dish I've actually made (read the post here). After tasting the genuine article, I have to admit I'm rather impressed with myself.  Moto's version is superior in texture; mine is too thick and grainy (my kingdom for a fine strainer).  That said, I thought Moto's doughnut soup was ever so slightly oversalted, so I give my soup the nod on flavour, at least.

Chili-cheese nachos -- This dish was vile.  That may sound harsh, I know, but sweet nacho chips with kiwi salsa has no redeeming culinary value whatsoever.

So overall, a very memorable dinner with some pretty incredible food and some  dishes that are better considered experiments.  I can't wait to see what our geek-chic chef thinks of next.

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Comments

Renee

Rob, although our tasting menus differed in some aspects probably due to the time we each partook our meals, I have to disagree with you on the chilli cheese nacho dish, as it was a favourite of mine and my dining companions. If you like churros or even those cinnamon sugar sprinkled fried tortilla chips at Taco Bell (hangs head in shame for revealing this past love of mine), you'll like this dish. However, I do agree with you regarding the synthetic champagne (a good alternative for the kiddies, but didn't have me longing for more after the first sip) and the uber-tastic passion fruit and crab course. We also had a fantastic Maple Squash Cake in our tour. I think you might have been impressed with that.
I also agree that Moto is a place to have a culinary adventure, some fun, if you will, rather than to blow your taste buds out of the water. My recommendation for anyone interested in dining at Moto is to expect it to be a meal of diner interaction with the food. Moto may not be a place of four star cuisine, but one would certainly be greatly amused in the whimsical nature of each course and find much to talk about (a video recorder to document the reactions of Moto virgins would be neat too - I recall our child-like giggles when we popped in the cotton candy bomb!). We spent more time talking about the courses than we did eating them. That, I believe, is the whole appeal of the restaurant (in other words, a "been there, done that" sort of experience).
Alinea, on the other hand, was more refined and delicious, but a lot less "fun." ;) I felt less intimidated to chat with my companions and giggle in Moto, especially when discussing the success or failure of each preparation.

And thanks for the fruit loops tidbit. I always thought they tasted the same… that was, too sweet. :P

clinton kenawell

I think next time before you trash a new experience you should think of what the chef is trying to accomplish. If it was the most refreshing tastefull meal you wanted then go see Alice walters she can feed you some pretend organic tomatoes from chino farms. If you want to see the future beyond what is happening at El Bulli then go to moto. You have no right to put this chef down just because you did some homework on algination you think you have it together. Maybe its the foam please come up with something the Chef Cantu has yet to do and post it then you may have a slim margen of crediablity.

portable ramp

I want to eat that kind of food..^_^

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