People, at least men, saying in their biographies that “as a child I took things apart” is almost a cliché at this point. I think young boys just take things apart and for some reason men think people find this charming. In his defense, I have never heard Homaro Cantu say this about himself, but eating his food it is what comes to mind (except I imagine Homaro started with something like an old Ma Bell phone, took it all apart and put it back together looking just like an avocado; still working perfectly as a phone, but now cordless).
There is no way to talk about Homaro and his restaurant, Moto, without discussing the current trends in cuisine. There are many comparisons that can be made with what Ferran, Grant, and Katsuya are doing and I am not sure that without the current popularity of the new cuisine Moto could exist. The movement is so new a market is needed to help it gain acceptance and diners seem to associate all cuisine not served on a plate or prepared in an oven or sauté pan with the "new," but what Moto is doing is more different from the rest of the new cuisine than it is similar. Each chef has a strength he plays to when he works in this realm - Kats decomposes, Ferran reinterprets, and Grant serves. Homaru seems to be working with the hardware.
It is as if Homaru does nothing without thinking about cooking. At the moment, most of the inspiration seems to be coming from something like Omni or Discover Magazine. Once you have experienced Moto, though, it is not hard to imagine Homaru’s wait for a train one day resulting in an experiment with preparing bacon between a ten ton steel wheel and an iron track at 85 mph in his kitchen somehow. If it goes well, it is a safe bet he will both work it into a dish for dinner and patent the process. As much as he is a chef, Cantu is an inventor, maybe even more.
Late on a Friday night, Wife, Bear, Soho and I sat down to the Grand Tour Moto tasting menu and experienced:
It all starts with an amuse, and a menu, inasmuch as the menu is part of the amuse. On the right side of a divided plate is a shot of cucumber juice, on the left is a menu with your three choices of tasting flights scrawled in an edible vegetable-based ink on a curry- flavored crisp with the consistency of thin corn chips. Once you have chosen your menu (five, ten, or GTM) you break up the page and eat the French lentil dhal and preserved lemon lying under it with the resulting chips. When you have finished this, the juice serves to clean your palate.
VIETNAMESE egg drop soup: micro greens and whipped egg come to the table cradled in small colanders immersed in liquid nitrogen contained in copper pots. These are then sprinkled into bowls of hot, brown, pungent, sweet and sour broth tableside. As the pellets of egg melt, they move from sensation to flavor, from interestingly icy in the middle of the hot broth to mellowing of the broth’s high notes.
SCALLOP & fruit salsa: a scallop in a well-executed tempura accompanied by sections of effervescent grapefruit and pineapple on a vanilla scented sunchoke purée. At the moment I believe only Moto is carbonating fruit, but I expect we will see it around more. Homaru has figured out that through a process involving fresh fruit and gasses with each other under pressure, the fruit will absorb the gas giving it a sparkling aspect (more so in the citrus).
SYNTHETIC champagne: as much as I resist the temptation to draw lines between Homaru and Willy Wonka, this is unavoidably the fizzy lifting drink. A syringe of vert jus (unfermented grape juice) is plunged into a glass with cider in its bottom. When the two meet, the resulting solution foams, creating a light tart beverage reminiscent more of a sparkling cider than a champagne.
GOAT CHEESE snow & balsamic: first, thin goat cheese with milk, then feed it into a pressurized house-paint sprayer. Next, turn the sprayer on and shoot the contents into liquid nitrogen. Place the resulting hail on a plate and drizzle with aged balsamic and you will have this frozen dish that instantly turns into a tangy lactic liquid when it hits your tongue.
HAMACHI & blood orange: hamachi thinly sliced with micro greens, shiso flower, fried shallots, and salmon roe in a dish, with bubbling blood orange on the side to squeeze over the top. As good as it was all together, I have to admit to rushing through it with the simple thought that the fried shallots were interestingly out of place and good for it, in order to get to eating the orange half with a spoon. Straight from its skin, the fruit tasted like the canned Pellegrino orange drink.
PASSION FRUIT & crab: a very delicate passion fruit noodle about the same gauge as buccatini makes a loop on the plate enclosing plump sections of buttery Alaskan crab leg and coconut powder a little finer and drier than confectioner’s sugar. On the outside is chlorophyll, straddling the interior and exterior is buttered popcorn sauce. All interesting in themselves, when combined these are pleasingly contrasting and complimentary flavors, as well as textures.
SAVORY dippin dots: once you know how to make the goat cheese snow, the dippin dots seem to be a simpler version (except much colder and far more familiar flavor wise). I assume because the vegetables lacked fat more ice crystals could form so they felt or were colder. Either way this was probably the coldest thing I have ever put in my mouth. I actually did that hot thing where you try to keep food in a void between your teeth and tongue. Once it did melt, it was eerily savory like straight from the ground raw peas and carrots.
BASS baked tableside & paprika: a brown polymer box is placed on the table in front of you and you are advised that in the 200 degree bottom is a secret sauce. On the 300 degree top is sprinkled Spanish paprika so that it may offer its aroma over the next two courses while the Hawaiian bass suspended between the two halves on a wire rack inside cooks. Later, after the Jalapeno course, the servers open the box to reveal a perfectly cooked piece of fish which is then placed in a bowl on a spoon. With the fish safely in the bowl, the wire rack is removed and from the bottom half of the box the secret sauce (revealed as red pepper during the presentation) is poured into the bowl around it.
In this dish is the conundrum of Moto’s weaker points. Sure the fish is perfectly cooked, and was done in an innovative way entirely at the table, but the sauce overpowered the fish and was a little salty – aspects a chef would have controlled had everything been done conventionally, completely under his control in the kitchen. So is the uniqueness of a polymer box and tabletop cooking without the aid of a heat source worth the trade for a fish and its condiment being out of balance?
BISON & aromatic utensils: served on a metal contraption (not unlike half a Battleship game) that brings plates into a third dimension, is a roasted bit of bison loin on great northern bean purée, with favas, great northern beans and puffed jasmine rice. Pegged into two holes at the top of the vertical access of the plate are a fork and spoon with corkscrew handles. Threaded into these handles are sprigs of fresh sage. Held in your hand, the sage’s aroma becomes more powerful as it warms, also becoming more prevalent as you draw the utensils toward your face.
JALAPENO, avocado & lemon myrtle: Jalapeno avocado ice cream sitting on puffed quinoa with lemon myrtle dressing. Early in this course Wife decided it tasted like lemon fruit loops, and that stuck with me.
BEEF with kielbasa: this dish could be a cliché for the flavors of Chicago. Moto sits smack in the meat packing district of the town, a fact the almost Zen-like simplicity of its design encourages you disregard until this dish is served. I am not sure a dish comprised of triple-seared rib eye steak on a pile of mustard and sauerkraut in a pool of Kielbasa sauce could exist anywhere else. This dish is as Chicago as Bad Bad Leroy Brown, too much so. Interesting and exact in its interpretation of these classily Chicago flavors, I found it overpowering, and was worried if I finished it I would feel exactly like the front of Chris Farley’s Cubs jacket from the old SNL skit “Swersky’s Super Fans Show.”
MAC & cheese: lychee rigatoni, a berry, beet, and chocolate mint salad, a cheese-dusted rice paper crisp and a mixture of white chocolate and Explorateur triple cream cheese share a plate. No matter how many times and ways I try to tell you the cheese and chocolate combined well you won’t believe me, so I will simply say it did and that it was made even better by the other contrasting flavors and textures accompanying it.
3 COTTON candy stages: A piece of edible paper with a picture of cotton candy on it that tastes exactly like cotton candy, a hard shell bob-bon filled with a thin liquid that tastes exactly like cotton candy, and a taro root tumbleweed dusted with confectioners sugar that tastes exactly like cotton candy.
FLAPJACKS prepared tableside: the explanation is that pancakes made in the morning are turned into liquid and then negative fried tableside. What you see is a small flat piece of metal that is so cold it is smoking, onto which a thick buff liquid is extruded from a wide gauge syringe, flipped once, and set onto a spoon full of vanilla-tinged Canadian maple syrup sitting in a bowl in front of you. What you taste is pancakes, pancakes with a glorious maple syrup.
PEANUT BUTTER & jelly: a large purple orb sits on a plate with mascarpone cheese and a small piece of French toast. When you pierce the orb, peanut butter flavored liquid pours forth. Both the peanut butter and jelly components to this dish are lighter versions of the actual flavors, but what it lacks in amplitude it has in appearance.
DOUGHNUT SOUP & pancake: there is a place in America that has a neon sign indicating when its doughnuts are hot. This warm viscous liquid tastes exactly like the fourth or fifth one of those (I still have never taken the time to learn what the first three taste like).
CHILI-CHEESE nachos: Sweet corn chips with kiwi made to look like guacamole, sorbet made to look like sour cream, and mango sorbet grated into liquid nitrogen so the little strands look like melting cheddar as it warms on the plate. So good at recreating the image it isn’t until the third or fourth chip you realize that this is a tasty desert.
BROWN BUTTER & white chocolate: it wouldn’t be the new cuisine without a foam, and here it is. A small brown butter cake with a hollow center filled with white chocolate ganache, topped with a strawberry foam, and rhubarb sauce and powder.
How much do you enjoy experimental cuisine? Enough to be experimented on? Besides Moto, Homaru’s other business is Cantu Designs and in the end Moto feels somewhat like a test lab for the design business. The more interesting the preparation (the kielbasa purée or the polymer box) the more the dishes seem to strive simply to be exactly as good as if they were made conventionally, as if to prove the new way is as good, posing the question: do you go out for exceptional food or exceptional preparation? This cannot be answered without considering aspects like the utensils on the bison and the edible menu, both creations of Homaru only available at Moto, unique, and pleasing enough to probably merit the trip and expense.
The worst thing that can be said of Moto is that some of the dishes miss excellence because of their focus on ingenuity, but it is just as easy to say that it is one of the most creative meals to be had, and an entirely unique dining experience. I find it hard to imagine not checking in periodically to see what is being done, and my test of a good restaurant is how much it makes you want to come back.