Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Morimoto

We finally got a chance to sample Morimoto, the Philadelphia outpost of Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto, and it really is an experience. Sleek and modern, the interior looks like something from a sci-fi movie. Upon entering the restaurant, one is greeted by attractive hostesses in short skirts, always a welcome sight. It's almost like going into a cave, because it's dark and the blond wood ceiling is so low. The undulating ceiling rises up as one enters the restaurant proper, almost like you are entering another world. In a way, the ceiling struck me as being reminiscent of the bamboo rollers used to roll sushi, while the dividers between the tables were reminiscent of Bento boxes. The tables and chairs are really funky looking, and each table has upon it a strangely phallic electric "candle." The place was loud and packed with people. Nonetheless, we were seated promptly at the time of our reservation, which suggests they run the front of the house pretty well.

We got the "Omakase" menu, which I am given to understand is Japanese for "trust me." Ideally, for an Omakase menu, you'd want Morimoto himself standing there, picking stuff and fixing it for you. But the guy has three restaurants, the Iron Chef gig, cookbooks and the like, so I think it's fair enough that he has, supposedly, personally designed the Omakase menu to highlight his cuisine. There are actually three different price levels for the Omakase, we got the highest one, at $120 a pop. We were told that the number of courses actually remains constant, but that price of the ingredients goes up at higher prices. So with the high-end menu you get the toro and lobster and wagyu beef and such, while if you pay $45, it's the dog food for you.

Part of the fun of the Omakase menu is that it's a surprise. Unlike the normal tasting menu, they don't tell you in advance what's coming up. Or even how many courses there are. So if you are thinking about enjoying the Omakase menu at Morimoto, the bottom line is that it's great, and it's well worth the (high) price, if you enjoy that sort of cuisine. Don't read any further if you want to be surprised.

We also got the medium beverage omakase, which was mostly wine -- one dish came with a Morimoto Martini, and the sushi course came with sake. At the highest end, you can have all sake. The beverages were good, and they paired well with the main courses, but at Morimoto the food is definitely the star, and the beverages are a very good supporting player.

The first four courses were effectively the appetizers for the meal. All pretty small servings of some form of raw fish. To me, the item that stood out the least of this bunch were the three oysters topped with different sorts of gunk. I slurped 'em down and enjoyed them, and Morimoto showed a bit with the different toppings for the oysters, but they didn't blow me away. They were raw oysters. Good raw oysters, topped with some pretty interesting gunk on the top, but nothing to write home about. The second least appealing of the first four items was, believe it or not, a sashimi sampler. Again, it was good, and I cleaned my plate, but it wasn't knock-your-socks off good. I expected Morimoto's sashimi to really stand out, and it didn't.

The other two items in the first group were more than good -- they were incredible. One was the first item served, and it was heck of a way to begin the meal. The ubiquitous tuna tartare, something you see a lot these days. But this wasn't your average tuna tartare appetizer; it was toro tartare with caviar and wasabi. This is also on the appetizer menu, and I will say, if you like tuna tartare, get it. It was what I expected his sashimi to be: the best example of that thing I've ever had. An incredible, complex, balanced dish. And it also showed some originality, the way it combined the toro, the caviar, and the wasabi.

Finally, the other item from the first flight of four was a scallop carpaccio. Yeah, I know there's no such thing as scallop carpaccio, but there is now at Morimoto, and it's incredible. The scallop was sliced inhumanly thin, and it was arranged on the plate in one of those presentations you could never match. It looked like a work of art, and it tasted, well, like a work of art. Out of this world good.

I will say that, after four raw fish dishes, we really were hankering for some cooked food. And we got it: what was effectively the first half of the main course: the eight spice lobster, served with a dipping sauce made out of creme fraiche with some stuff in it. Yeah, the creme fraiche dipping sauce sounds weird, but it worked. The spices gave the lobster some real zip, and the sauce cooled it down. The dynamic is almost the same as good buffalo wings with bleu cheese, except about a million times better because of the underlying quality of the ingredients. The spices were really good, the dipping sauce was great, and what's amazing is that, with all this going on in your mouth, the lobster itself still came through. It was not overshadowed at all. I tend to like lobster a lot, but I also tend to prefer it plain, rather than all gussied up. This was absolutely one of the best things I have ever tasted. Lobster like I've never had it before, absolutely delicious combination that really shouldn't work. Truly worthy of an Iron Chef.

Next was the Kobe Beef, and it was great too. Absolutely delicious flavor. This was also one place where the drink pairing stood out: it was paired with a South African pinotage that was good on its own but which really stood out when paired with the Kobe Beef. Then came the sushi course with sake, and it was some of the best sushi I've ever tasted, particularly the toro. There was nothing particularly creative or weird here, just really good sushi.

We ended with a desert that was good but forgettable. In fact, I've forgotten it already. But you don't go to a place like Morimoto for desert -- you go for two things: creative edge cuisine that you haven't had before and raw fish. In both cases, Morimoto delivered. I probably wouldn't want to eat that way every night, but it was a real experience.

If I had one criticism of the Omakase menu, it was a bit heavy on the raw fish. Don't get me wrong, I like the raw stuff, but five of the eight courses were based on raw stuff from the water. I'd have been happy with four. In addition, I wish it had included a tempura dish. This may have been a function of the fact that we were sitting near the back, and all night viewed waiters and waitresses carrying the tempura appetizer past our table. It looked really good.

The service gets an A minus. Generally good, but it could have been a bit quicker between courses. The hosting staff at the front of the house did a good job, and for the most part they explained each dish well. A couple of times we weren't told about the wine, but mostly the seemed knowledgeable and attentive without hovering.

Morimoto was definitely a fun experience, and I'll give it another try at some point in the future. Although next time I will probably order off the regular menu, and I will definitely get the tempura.

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