I've been a huge Iron Chef fan for years, and, while Iron Chef America doesn't quite live up to the original, it is nonetheless entertaining. If anything, The Next Iron Chef is even more fun: watching these eight really accomplished chefs go through a gruelling series of challenges.
Two of the judges -- Michael Ruhlman and Andrew Knowlten -- have blogged about the show. The latest casualty is Morou (he has a last name, but prefers the single-name moniker, like Cher), chef at Farrah Olivia in Alexandria, Virginia. Both Knowlten and Ruhlman had problems with Morou's plating style. You see, he makes a lot of "deconstructed" dishes -- small piles of food with artistic splashes of sauces and powders and the like. His plates really do look gorgeous -- like works of art, more than plates of food. Knowlten criticized Morou for "for consistently (and tediously) plating his dishes with all sorts of swishes, spurts, and splashes." Despite his apparent annoyance with the plating style, Knowlten said that Morou's dishes were "complex and full of interesting flavors and techniques." Ruhlman was even more harsh, saying Morou's food was "too fussy, dainty, and compartmentalized."
Well, nothing like judging for yourself. So, the Main Squeeze and I headed out to Farrah Olivia the fairly complex dishes -- . It's a smallish place, tastefully decorated, with some onsite parking. Our waiter wasn't going to ever win a "world's best waiter" award, but he had the basics down: he got to our table, took our orders in a timely manner, brought us more bread and water when we needed more, got the orders right, and generally did his job. If he had a weakness, it was in explaningMorou uses foams and powders and sauces and the like spread all over the plate, and a "world's best waiter" candidate would have it all down cold. You could tell he'd been trained on it, but he didn't quite, have it down the way he should. For example, he didn't know what the foam on my lobster was -- in fact it was "banana air." Yes, it was on my menu, but I had forgotten.
But the food itself came in a timely manner, and it was every bit as gorgeous as it seemed on TV. Yes, Morou's style includes unusual combinations -- butter poached lobster with tapioca and banana air, for example. And yes a lot of his dishes are deconstructed. But you know what? Butter poached lobster with tapioca and banana air happens to be really good, at least when Morou is preparing it. I suspect that if I tried it, it would be a disaster. And isn't that the point of a fancy restaurant? To get something you can't do at home yourself? The Main Squeeze's scallops with bacon powder were likewise delicious -- I just wished she had been more generous with her loving husband.
I'll take issue with Ruhlman's characterization of Morou's cuisine as being "dainty." Yes, it is complex -- if all you want is a big slab of meat on a plate, go to Outback, or, for a better slab, go to the Capital Grille. He uses really high quality ingredients -- my steak was very tender -- and he works magic to impart flavor. But the meat was hearty and well-seasoned, the opposite of dainty. And yes, he puts sauce on using artistic splashes and spurts. But that allows the diner to taste the meat first without any sauce at all. It was great -- tasted like steak, but with a layer of complex flavors to let you know that you were paying for more than just a seared chunk of animal flesh. And, when dipped in the sauce, it added additional complexity and flavor. Whatever you say about his flashy plating, the man knows how to cook meat.
And his deserts. Well, all I can say is "hang on to that pastry chef -- you have a winner." Amazing, fun, interesting flavors.
Truth be told, I like the way Morou plates his dishes, and I like the way the guy cooks. The food was uniformly excellent, with some really nice flavor combinations. It's unique and interesting -- he follows his own vision, sort of like Howard Roark in the kitchen. Maybe he won't be the Next Iron Chef, but the man can cook, and his restaurant is well worth a visit.
I will add, in the interest of full disclosure, that our waiter mentioned to Morou that we had seen him on The Next Iron Chef, and that we liked his plating style. He was nice enough to come out of the kitchen and say hello as we were leaving. Does that affect my judgment as a critic? Possibly, although I was a pretty happy well-fed camper when I got up from the table, before I had met him. Morou seems like a really great guy, and I hope that being a losing Next Iron Chef contestant gives him a boost. Would I like to see every restaurant plate its food like he does? Well, no. But his cuisine is unique and interesting, and well worth a try.