I love "Iron Chef," the real, Japanese "Iron Chef." I watch it regularly, I love to impersonate Outa and Dr. Yukio Hattori, and I can tell you how many drinks you should take if the featured ingredient comes down from the rafters as opposed to up from the podium. I have hypothesized with friends what would happen if the choir of angels and Ditka entered kitchen stadium and took on Kenichi, or if there were a special all-star version and Vin Diesel, Mr. T and Chuck Norris took on Sakai, but wait... Sakai is being assisted by a wild jackal and a rabid wolf AND the theme ingredient is Kobe veal, one special calf raised only for the "rebirth special" of the greatest cooking show of all time.
Without fail, the winners of our battles are the Iron Chefs. These guys just kick ass. No one else is more willing to skin live animals on TV and then combine them with foie gras and truffles faster then the Iron Chefs. No one is more humble in both victory and defeat than these noble gladiators of Kitchen Stadium. The best part, of course, is that none of us had ever tasted the food; we know Sakai uses the ring mold and that Morimoto's cuisine is such an amalgam of international styles that to call it fusion would be to somehow trivialize all the inspirations he draws from. But we had never tried the food of these geniuses, all we had to go on was that Mayuko Takat thought a dish was like a haiku on her tongue, or that Kazuko Hosoki thought the chefs did a good job of overcoming the bitter aroma of the river fish.
Then Morimoto opened in Philly and the opportunity at last arose to try an Iron Chef's food. This, coupled with the fact that my friend Mark Addelbran was made Chef de Cuisine at the Philly restaurant, and I had to go. I finally went last summer (about three years after it opened) with Bear and Thursday, and had a 16 course omakase with its paired drinks. It was fantastic. It was the first time I had seen genius in Sushi. I had an amazing intermezzo dish of raspberry and wasabi sorbet. But, more than anything else, Bear declared it the "best meal (he) has had," and Bear eats very well.
So when Mark made me aware that Steven Starr, Chef Moriomoto, and he would be opening a New York restaurant with an eight-seat bar designated omakase, I asked him to promise me I could be there on the first night.
The feel of the room is somewhere between Japanese Minimalist and Tribeca Industrial. There is a white fiberglass ceiling made to look like the sand of a Zen garden and, with the lighting they have used, it looks like it could be made of linen. There are raw columns of poured concrete and blond wood chairs, with a downstairs bar largely comprised of lexan. After being in the room a while you realize that, as stark as it seems, every useable inch is used.
The omakase bar itself is the south side of the sushi bar; there are eight stools that sit flush on the ground that provide a seat back to lean against and a trough to drop your feet into in front of a bar made of simple, blonde wood. There is a full, small-scale version of the kitchen in front of you with burners, grills, fryers, steamers, and an entire sushi station just to handle the action at the omakase bar. Sadly, this set-up makes you stand or at least lean forward, to see over the wooden bar-front in order to see what the chefs are doing, and seeing what the chefs are doing is much of the fun.
Night one: Met a couple of friends at the bar, had about two Morimotinis each, and headed up to the omakase bar for dinner. After removing our shoes, we took our seats and gave ourselves over to Chef Moriomoto, Chef Mikoto (head sushi chef), Chef Omai (head omakase chef) and their team to feed us. The food was fantastic; the highlights were an Intermezzo of yuzu foam that had been flash-frozen in liquid nitrogen at the bar, slices of beef that we cooked ourselves on hot stones, with Morimoto's assistance, and a round of vintage Sake. There was also the wonderful sushi and sashimi accompanied by a 10yr-old soy sauce and a 20yr-old soy sauce especially for the otoro, as well as one California roll ordered as a goof because one of the group kept joking he was going to insist on it (the funny part is we all agreed it was the best example of a California roll we had ever had).
The service was very deft and attentive, only lacking in that it was the first time the place had ever been used and some of the foods were being prepared for the first time, so the best way to get them to the diners at the bar has yet to be figured out. This will obviously settle as they get used to the space and I am interested to see what choices are ultimately made.
Night Two: Well, if night one was a "lets explore our new space" night, night two was "hey, lets remind them that it is a mastery of the finest ingredients and creativity that made Morimoto famous" night. You could tell that the chef was still not exactly delighted with the all of the aspects of service, but as a customer of the omakase bar the level was about five steps more efficient and confident than the night before.
The real highlights of the night were a chu toro book made of wood, and a seared otoro so rich it was more like bacon then butter. There was also a soup eaten from a bowl made of paper that did not burn in spite of the flame directly under it keeping the shantung broth hot, and a set of three fritters, one of which was made of foie gras. What could be better then deep-fried foie?
Night Three: Confidence is settling in among the staff. We had the same waiter as night two, Ben, who is up from Philly for the opening. He is great; besides being a skilled waiter with history with Morimoto, he is obviously a fan of the show and the chef. His item descriptions were very enthusiastic and insightful and it ended up feeling as if we had our own Outa doing color, "the vase chef Morimoto is using is crystal by Tiffany."
One of the highlights of this meal was Drunken shrimp, in which live Japanese prawns are put in the aforementioned vase with a bottle of sake that is on the list for something like $300 where they "drink the sake until they go to sleep," and are then steamed. There were also two exceptional dishes involving gastropods -- soup of sake, butter and abalone, and a roasted giant snail with butter and garlic. Awesome having the two in the same meal for comparison sake, one sea, one land, both delicate yet toothsome, both vehicles for aroma, very similar, yet very different. But best of all was a porridge of broken rice with a 12-hour pork belly and black truffle. All food should taste like this, it was rich and comforting and pleasing on many levels.
Over the weekend, I popped into Morimoto for some food off the menu in the lounge. We had the rock shrimp, the oysters with uni and foie, an assorted sushi and an assorted sashimi. It was all safe and will please people raised on American sushi, while not flooring purists. It benefits from great fish, real fresh grated wasabi, deeply-flavored home-brewed soy, and rice that is really award-worthy.
Night Four: Fugu made its appearance on this night. The first course was fried fugu with a fugu-infused sake, and the second was a sashimi salad of fugu. There was a pot-au-feu with a wagyu tongue. The same Japanese king crab from night two played a part in this night's menu, except this time served warm out of the steamer, making it even sweeter. Tilefish was grilled and the skin was dressed with sea salt. The tilefish was a perfect expression of umami, had I not seen it prepared I would have sworn it was butter-poached. Dessert tonight was a salted chocolate and caramel dish that was definitely one of the best chocolate dishes I have had, of late.
Night Five: If there was a night that wasn't as great as the rest it was this one. We were late in sitting (totally our fault, there was a toddler and a babysitter involved) but the night never seemed to hit its stride. The food was as creative as ever, comprised of the largest portion of courses depending on subtlety so far. One of my favorite dishes from Morimoto Philly, the scallop carpaccio, appeared in a fugu version, and it was even better than before if that is possible. The realization I will take home from this night it is that fugu, which was in four of the dishes, is about aroma that comes up well after it has been digested (kind of the way you see no reason to eat castelmagno cheese until the warm flavor of milk hits you ten minutes after you have swallowed). I think standing around drinking for two hours may have overrun the subtlety of tonight's food a little. Everyone was in good form but Bruni was in the dining room (is there a more embarrassingly poorly kept secret in town then his identity? I am just a food geek and can easily pick him out of a crowd?) so I think that must have been distracting to the staff, although I can't prove it. Anyway, one out of five being just great instead of amazing is still a good enough record.
Night Six: Maybe because it was the last night of the run, but it was all there this night --toro in the form of prosciutto, hairy crab, uni, fugu, wagyu beef, and a Schezuan lobster. It was all tied together with a sense of purpose that made sense of every step of the process. There was the subtle aromatic quality of fugu paired with chives; there was a soup of chopped daikon with wagyu beef, showing the genius assurance of hearty beef stew as interpreted by Morimoto. This menu was all over the place and built every step of the way, no course out of balance, each successive dish profound compared to its predecessor, but never so strong that you forgot where you had been.
Except for the late evening in the lounge, I have not even ordered from the restaurant's menu yet. I simply have walked in as part of a group of eight, sat at the omakase bar and watched while Morimoto and his team took us down a culinary road. The stops along the way were amazing and varied. At times Morimoto's cuisine is a subtle thing, more so than at any other. There are white wines out there that would trample some of these dishes. At other times he is making food that could be described as comfort food, you may not have had wagyu beef in daikon broth growing up, but when you eat it, it feels like home.
A part of me very much wanted to ask for some of my favorite things from along the way before sitting on night 6, maybe the chu toro book from night 2 and the bacon porridge from night 3, or the fugu sashimi from night 4, but looking back I realize the three never would have gone together. A big part of the genius of the omakase bar isn't only the creativity that made every single dish completely different, but tying them all together so that they were even better as a whole. Each night had its own flow and its own logic, and at the end of each night the creativity and continuity came together to make it unique and fantastic. I am glad I didn't let my trepidation or ego get in the way.
A night at Morimoto very much depends on your company. Remember the first time you went to a hibachi joint as a kid and the chef flicked a shrimp-tail on the top of his hat? The joy of interacting with the chefs while they expertly prepared your dishes? Morimoto's omakase bar is the first place I have found that inspires that kind of glee in adult New Yorkers so it helps very much to be in the company of people that are open to this kind of experience and not looking for ways it is not that different from Go Sushi.
Inevitably, comparisons will be made to Nobu and Masa, but neither has the magic of the omakase bar at Morimoto. The reason that the New York Nobu is such an institution and so superior to its London, Miami, and L.A. counterparts is Morimoto's involvement in its beginnings, and now he is doing his own thing, right in front of you. The food is far more nuanced than that of Nobu, so if you do not appreciate delicacy and grace in food this may not be the place for you. If you do love touch and finesse and want a room where reveling in the joys of fine food is encouraged, this is. Masa definitely offers sushi of this quality but lacks the composed dishes and sometimes can feel a little staid for a hedonist in its sense of self and Japanese aesthetic.
If you have a group of bon vivant friends, and want a night to experience the creativity of a true talent, unfettered by trying to please anyone other than you, there is no place like this. The truth is this Iron Chef is as good as you had hoped, and by giving yourself over to his whim you will experience truly thrilling and inventive cuisine, at times you will understand how a bite can “ dance like a haiku.” Go, get seats, make sure you never run out of Morimoto's ginjo sake, and enjoy the hell out of life, that's what it is for.