Monday, August 21, 2006

Dinner at Moto

I apologize for the blogging hiatus. We have been very busy celebrating Stephanie's birthday. More on that to follow.

Last Saturday, however, Stephanie was out of town, and I invited my friend John, a law professor who appeared earlier in this blog as Jonathan's dining companion at Le Bernardin, to a last-minute dinner at Moto. We took the 9:30 reservation, as it was all that was left as of Friday afternoon. Moto, for those unfamiliar with cutting-edge gastronomy, is one of these "molecular gastronomy" restaurants that serves food inspired and created by various scientific processes. Chef Homaro Cantu was kind enough to be interviewed for my paper on the copyrightability of recipes, and many of the dishes we consumed were created with patent-pending technologies.

The meal began when we were presented with edible menus that also served as both the amuse bouche and a legal statement. An edible strip of paper was attached to a piece of crisp bread, which were used to eat Indian-flavored lentils with preserved lemon. This was matched with the best cucumer juice shooter I've ever tasted. The shooter let us know that dinner would not simply offer a progression of "gee-whiz" flare but a seriously tasty gastronomic experience. The menu, however, very clearly warned us against attempting to recreate any of the chef's patent-pending techniques without first purchasing a license.

After some indecision about which tasting menu to order (the restaurant offers 5-course, 10-course, and the 20-course GTM menus), John and I settled on the GTM - Grand Tour of Moto - and we decided to order wine by the glass rather than purchase the course-by-course accompaniments. But more on the wine later.

Dinner began with a Vietnamese egg-drop soup, where the egg had been dipped in liquid nitrogen (as you will see, a familiar theme for the evening) and "cooked" in the warm, spicy soup. This was followed by one of our favorite courses of the evening, sweet corn ice cream with liquid nitrogen (LI) kernels and mussels and clams in bacony broth. Many of the courses, and most of the truly successful ones, made use of temperature contrasts such as this. By tacking between warm and cold, the meal seemed more like a dance than slog through a series of heavier and warmer courses. It made the 20 courses seem almost not insane.

The corn was followed by "synthetic champagne" where a liquid in a glass is combined tableside with a different liquid in a syringe over the glass, carbonating the resulting liquid, which, while tasty, bears little resemblance to champagne. Next came the only disappointing savory course, goat cheese snow with balsamic. The cheese had been dipped in LI and then shattered to create small white flakes. It was drizzled with the balsamic. I found the flavors too abrupt and poorly integrated. Another ingredient was necessary to bring them together - perhaps hills of bread.

The meal continued with a series of fish courses: hamachi sashimi (over-)marinated in "carbonated" clementine with parsnip puree, a delicious crab dish with passion fruit and "popcorn butter" sauce, and bass cooked in patented ovens placed on the table. This last course was served with heirloom tomato sauce and mushrooms. It was reasonably tasty, but John and I were surprised to have received very differently shaped pieces of fish.

The fish courses were briefly interupted for one of my favorite courses - "savory dippin dots" (no doubt a trademark violation on Chef Cantu's part). We received "peas and carrots," a spoon of frozen dots made from liquified and sweetned vegetable juices. I found it both delicious and playful.

We next received our meat courses. Tender bison in a red runner bean puree was eaten with patented "aromatic utensils," which sport spiral handles stuffed with sage leaves. After a bite of frozen jalapeno, we enjoyed a thrice seared beef ribeye with a pureed kielbasa sauce. The meat was divine; the sauce a bit peculiar and not especially helpful to the meat.

As we began a progression of nine sweet courses I noticed that John was looking a bit full. I think he had begun to wish that we had chosen the 10-course menu. John does not sport my well-earned girth, and having almost eaten himself to death at Joel Robuchon earlier in the month, Moto was proving to be quite a challenge for him. Committed gastronomer that he is, John tucked into the first "dessert" - mac & cheese where the "noodles" were made from hollowed out fruit and the cheese was a triple-cream mixed with white chocolate. The next dessert, "fettuccine alla dolce" was my favorite - sweetened pasta noodles (real noodles this time) with a lovely sauce. John really enjoyed the next dessert of cotton candy 3 ways - paper printed with cotton-candy flavored ink, a cotton candy truffle, and malanga root strips flavored with cotton candy and white chocolate.

By 1:30 am the finishing courses became something of a blur, but I must credit pastry chef Ben Roche for their daring contrasts of textures and flavors and their ability to put familiar sensations in unfamiliar contexts. Only one proved to over step the line, the next to last course of "chili-cheese nachos." At 2:15 the visual pun was simply too intense, as sweetened nacho chips were served with some kind of "cheese" and a salsa made of kiwi. I may have enjoyed this course had I tasted it earlier, perhaps after the mac & cheese, but 19th was too late to serve it.

The service at Moto was friendly, knowledgeable, and well-coordinated if a little less professional than one might expect for a bill this large. We received solid advice on wine selection, and our questions about techniques, ingredient sources, and other minutiae were all answered.

The wine program, however, leaves quite a bit to be desired. The wine list is quite small in comparison to similarly priced restaurants, and only four reds and four whites are offered by the glass. Admittedly, cuisine like this is not easy to match to wine. Even if you know what to match with shellfish, for example, how are you supposed to decide what to drink when the shellfish comes with a side of corn ice cream? We followed some of the staff's wine recommendations and went out on our own for others, but had little meaningful success either way. John and I seemed to agree that a diner at Moto is best served by choosing a glasses of white, red, and sweet wine that look interesting instead of making any attempt to match the wine to particular courses.

In sum, the dinner was a great success. The dishes were thoughtful, exciting, and most of all, delicious. Despite the muted decor, the atmosphere is alive with wonder and awe. I would happily go back and would strongly recommend even the 5-course meal for a very reasonable $65. Moto plays an important role in Chicago's current reputation as America's most innovative dining city.

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