Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Moto, Chicago IL

In a trip that included fantastic meals at Charlie Trotter's, Tru, Bongo Room, and Cafe Spiaggia it was my New Years Eve reservation at Moto with my sister that I looked forward to the most. With only a small amount of exposure to the world of Molecular Gastronomy I'd seen videos of Fat Duck's obsurd bacon egg with liquid nitrogen preparred tableside and read numerous reviews of the presentations at El Bulli and Alinea - according to rumor, Chef Cantu's presentations at Moto were just as impressive even if the food was "lower quality" in ingredients and flavor. Perhaps my hopes were too high or perhaps something was amiss, but on my first trip to Moto I thought the flavors were great; it was the presentation and service that were lacking. From the "too cool for you" attitude of the servers to the overall lack of "WOW" to the meal something just felt off.

Lodged in an area full of factories, galleries, and warehouses I couldn't help but think of Chelsea as the GPS steered us toward Moto and arriving at the neon green door I couldn't help but think "hmm, this is it?" From the obscure location to the cheap exterior to the bland interior and discolored paint and chipped wood leading to the bathroom I rather wonder where Chef Cantu is spending all his money. Additionally, after e-mailing and calling the restaurant days and weeks before the meal, I was surprised that the menu was only finalized 4 days beforehand and that A) many of the chef's most famous dishes were omitted, B) no "new" dishes were being created for the holiday, C) innovative items like the black box or aromatic utensils were absent, and D)the price was increased to $150 for 12 courses while the "additional surprises" promised via phone were nowhere to be found. Additionally, the meal which was promised to last 2:30-3:00 hours via E-mail in fact only lasted about 1:40 minutes leaving my sister and I stranded at the restaurant while my mother and aunt finished up elsewhere.

With all those things noted, I must say I was quite impressed by some of the tastes and textures presented at Moto and that although I felt it was quite overpriced for both the quality and the presentation, that which we did receive was all quite delicious.

Course One was (of course)the edible menu entitled “Chips and Salsa.” Essentially a tortilla chip printed with the night’s menu and served with a relatively standard guacamole, sour cream, and no-better-than-Pace salsa. Cute, but nothing to be wowed by.

Our second course, Scallop and Shiso, was the most impressive of the evening in terms of presentation and consisted of a scallop filled with a saffron liquid served on a tofu and vanilla puree with a slice of orange. This dish was then “topped” with a ladle of saffron and cheese laden liquid nitrogen and we were instructed to eat. Sticking a fork into the meaty scallop there was a notable “pop” as the liquid center came streaming out and as I placed half of the scallop as some of the cheese into my mouth my sister chuckled as a smoke billowed out of my nose and mouth. Of all aspects of the evening, it was most entertaining watching other tables receive this dish and blow forth the smoke.

Dish three, Greek Salad, consisted of a Kalmata Olive “shrimp chip” served overtop of braised African Octopus tentacles and pureed salad. In the eyedropper was a “liquid Greek salad” that we were instructed to shoot into our mouth after the octopi. Perfectly braised and poached, the octopus was delicious and the olive chip equally tasty while the liquid salad was definitely an interesting flavor with hints of vinegar, spinach, cucumber, and tomato all coming through quite potently.

Dish four, “Bar Food” was Chef Cantu’s famous chili braised quail with blue cheese, carrots and celery accompanied by a tiny piece of edible paper with buffalo wings printed on it. Unlike other pictures I’ve seen of this dish, there were no aromatic utensils and no ball-bearing tower structure, just a plate. Intriguingly, while the paper was the most ‘interesting’ aspect of the dish and did indeed taste like a very hot buffalo wing, it was the quail that was truly impressive and the flavors of each of the vegetables came through beautifully.

The next dish, my sister’s favorite of the night, was entitled “Stuffing Snow” and was described as the Chef’s holiday leftovers. In a small dish we were served what appeared to be a pile of snow, but in fact the snow tasted exactly like oyster stuffing and was complimented by two extremely tart dehydrated cranberries. Per my sister – what dippin’ dots is to Ice Cream, this is to Stovetop.

Dish six, my favorite of the savories, was the famous “Cuban Cigar” and although it was not served with the faux-ito (wait, I thought we were supposed to get “additional surprises,” not less) it was truly spectacular in form and flavor. Fried pork shoulder, wrapped in a flour tortilla and flash fried was then wrapped with a candied collard green and placed in an ash-tray serving dish with embers created by tomato and pepper with an “ash” of ground black and white sesame seeds. Sweet yet savory, crisp yet tender, beautiful to the eye and palate – a winner for sure.

Dish seven, “Brisket and Coleslaw” was a substitution for each of us since we do not consume beef flesh, but regardless of the protein I don’t think this dish ‘worked.’ While the sea-bass substitution was actually fantastic in texture and flavor and the cornbread puree delicious, the beans were incredibly spicy and no better than something from a can while the nitrogen frozen coleslaw was simply bland.

Dish eight, “Steak and Eggs,” was another substitution – this time receiving butter poached skate wing instead of the beef. Again the protein was fantastic and the skate actually the second best I’ve ever had (Daniel Humm’s version at EMP was transcendent) while the rest of the dish was merely okay. While the dish was described in detail, I don’t recall exactly what the tots or ketchup were made of, but neither made that big of an impression. The egg itself was actually a sack of curry and lemon served in the center of a greek yogurt and paprika 'white' – it was quite tasty.

Dish nine, Pina Colada, is a dish I’ve seen refered to in the past as “Under the Sea” and was the first of our desserts. While there was a lot going on here, the overall effect was indeed that of a pina colada and the highlight of the dish white ball filled with ginger milk that was placed whole in the mouth and allowed to explode. Additionally interesting was the tangerine fish. Other items on the dish included nitrogen frozen raspberries bits, dehydrated edamame sand, and raspberry "coral.” Pretty and tasty.

Dish ten, Smores, was truly fantastic and my favorite course of the evening. A chocolate shell housing liquid graham cracker over a burned vanilla creme with "campfire" dust sat to the left while a licorice stick with a liquid-smoke filled vanilla truffle sat to the right. While all aspects of the dish were fantastic, the graham cracker was particularly impressive and showed off pastry chef Matthew Gundlach’s talents with sweet sauces.

Dish eleven was a wonderful surprise considering my personal love of Tiramisu. Entitled “Grilled Panini,” the dish was anything but your standard boring sandwich. Ladyfinger "bread" dusted with cocoa grill marks, creme fraiche and espresso cream slices inside, and a cup of biscotti soup for dipping – wonderful, beautiful, and delicious – if Chef Gundlach ever decides to open his own patisserie or sweets shop I’d move in next door.

Dish twelve, our final course, was entitled “Champagne Truffles” and consisted of a single small bon-bon served on a long plate. Instructed to place the whole truffle in our mouth I first watched my sister do so and got a great chuckle out of the confused look on her face. White chocolate housing warm liquid champagne and rolled in champagne pop-rocks the experience of this dish can best be described of what it would feel like to uncork a bottle of champagne in your mouth. The snap-crackle-pop literally went on for 10 minutes.
When it was all said and done, I can’t say I regret my experience – but I also cannot say it lived up to my expectations. Given his training there is no doubt that Chef Cantu is a talented man with the skill-set to make amazing food, but given the ingredients used and the lack of props I rather wonder if the goal on NYE 2008 was simply to get people in and out as quickly as possible – despite the elevated pricetag. With presentations far less intricate than others have described in the past and no lobster, foie gras, sweet breads, or other high end items on the menu it almost seemed as though the goal was to maximize profit instead of customer satisfaction. Additionally, I personally was not a fan of the attitude of the female server, nor the 18% automatic gratuity considering the fact that our male servers fumbled over the descriptions multiple times and one of them even managed to knock over our neighbor’s wine glass with one of the plates – the concept of a tip is that better service gets a better tips, if the gratuity is automatically included there is no incentive to perform better than average.

While Moto was certainly a memorable experience with delicious food, the experience simply didn’t warrant the cost and I’d be hard pressed to return given the reviews I’ve read of Alinea, Avenues, L2O, and the experiences I had at Tru and Trotter’s the night before.


Rich said...

certainly if the service does not tie the dishes together, the dining experience will be exponentially less satisfying. i look forward to your future review on alinea for a hopefully more positive experience.

uhockey said...

If/when I make it back, I shall certainly report back. Next trip up for me is actually San Fran.

Rich said...

i'm not sure how far french laundry is from sf. but if you get to go to that legendary restaurant, bu sure to share with us!

uhockey said...

TFL on 02/17. :)

Rich said...

awesome! can't wait to read your review. btw, i went to tru over the weekend for the dessert tasting menu. although i found the wine list grossly overpriced, i enjoyed the ambiance and the good service - i was thoroughly entertained by the simultaneous serving regiment.

Rich said...

awesome! can't wait to read your review!