To visit a visionary restaurant three times in six months might seem like an instance of American excess, but in visiting Moto again I have watched Homero Cantu grow from a (remarkable) enfant terrible to a more confident and mature gustatory stylist. To what to attribute such a salutary change, I can not state with confidence, but perhaps one can only have so many food fights before tiring of the cleanup.
Our party selected Moto's ten course menu ($100 plus $60 for the wine progression). (We had fifteen dishes in slightly over four hours). The food was recognizably Homero's creations, but for most of the dishes the tricks and experiments were no longer the point - but contributed to the overall seductive delight of the dish. With but a single exception the versions of those dishes that I had eaten before were markedly improved. Moto now seems firmly about the food, and less about deconstruction theory. I hope that the chef will not take it ill that I was quite pleased not to be served any "dipping dots" - a few iced goes a long way. At times Moto August 2005 seems a more traditional restaurant than Alinea, as often as not to its credit. (Chef Cantu has not reached the same level of confidence in flavors and savors of Chef Achatz, but, as I wrote previously, Cantu is a work in progress).
Matthew McCammon is no longer Moto's general manager and wine director, and I miss his presence. He was uniquely able to select both appropriate and memorable wines for the chefs creations. He has been replaced by Matthew Gundlach, who does an admirable job. One of the nine wines (a luscious, off-sweet Vignalta "Alpianae" Coli Euganei Fior d'arancio, Veneto 2002) was superb. It was filled with lichi and honey notes without the sticky, too-honeyed tastes of lesser Sauternes. The Kesselstatt Mosel Riesling, an Australian Two Hands Shiraz, and a Domaine Schoffit Gewurtztraminer were also very pleasurable for a summer dinner. A Movia, Ribolla from Brda (Slovenia) was worth trying, assertive and full of spice. I missed the Warwick Pinotage (from Stellenbosch, South Africa), promised on the website and one of the very best of the post-Apartheid South African wines, which was replaced by a good, but not terribly special Paulliac, Chateau Behere (it is supposed to have an aroma of pencil lead, but I couldn't taste that as much as the berries that are also characteristic). The big bust of the evening was a harsh and flat Spanish Bodegas Pucho, Bierzo 2003, served with the bass course. The pairing was linked to the bacon in the sauce, but this was not a wine that attracts me (I am not enamored by Spanish reds, other than, sigh, Sangria).
We settled in to consume Chef Cantu's edible menu, swimming in a cream risotto of puffed rice. We can gave our chef little extravagance, an idea that overwhelmed its pleasant taste. No chef treats his Amuse Bouche more amusingly than Homero.
The dinner began with what may be the finest of the forty or so dishes that I have had at Moto: Champagne & King Crab. What made it definitive was that it was a riff on traditional haute cuisine. It was a dish that would only barely have been out of place at Everest or even Lutece. The chef presents small piles of perfectly sweet and delicate king crab in pools of sweet pea puree, precisely flavored with a touch of jalapeno. Nestled under our serving implements (a fork and a spoon, to be clear) was a dollop of exuberant citrus cream. Every bite was a delight. The delight was in part the glorious taste and in part that Chef Cantu didn't feel that he needed to strain to stick a finger in the eye of the culinary establishment. This was a transcendent dish. (Perhaps it is significant that my preferred dish from my five course April menu was also the first: white elf mushrooms with pearl onions).
The second course - a Lesson in Cuitlacoche (huitlacoche by another name) - may become a superb course. Now it suffers from a certain pretension, a work in progress. On the bowl's side is a cuitloche smear (an unappealing brown daub). In the center of the bowl servers pour a nitrogenated saffron foam over popcorn (?!). Perhaps I am not a honors student at Moto U. but I require remedial assistance. The dish seemed, like some earlier attempts, to be done for its own sake. Cuitlacoche has such a distinctive taste and texture that pureeing it was a shame, but perhaps we should be grateful that the chef didn't retreat to his inkjet and create an edible image inspired by a dish of "corn smut." Don't even think it.
One of the most striking dishes of the February LTH 21 course extravaganza (the "raccoon-athon," forever memoralized by Time) was Cantu's "Lobster with Freshly Squeezed Orange Soda." This latest version was far more satisfying and demonstrated that the rough edges of Moto are smoothed. As I recall the earlier version, the Lobster and the carbonated orange were given equal stature, but why? We hope for lobster dreams. This lobster was given top billing with the tingly orange comic relief. The poached lobster (again, precisely fresh) was enrobed in a velvety celery root (buerre blanc?) sauce, with a tight scoop of brown butter ice cream. Perhaps ice cream and lobster can't work, but it did this warm weekend. The orange was homage, not sabotage. As in the opening preparation, Cantu creatively rethought haute cuisine, rather than discovering victuals on some other planet. It is cheering to see that dishes are critically rethought.
Because of the passion of one of our party - "Sweetbreads & Cheese Grits", a dish on the grand menu - was added to our menu and it was a jewel. The sweetbreads were prepared in a tempura batter and nestled with cheese grits. Cheese grits and sweetbreads belong together, not at all offal (yes, I'm deeply ashamed ). With the presence of collards, sweet potato, and Krispy Kreme Soup on the menu one wonders whether Chef Cantu is pursing a southern strategy.
We turned to "Artichoke, Balsamic and Macadamia" - one bite wonder. Some at the table didn't find the artichoke flavor sufficiently intense, but with vinegar this good, who would notice. We did, but it didn't prevent a highly satisfying bite.
The next course, "French Fry (Sweet) Potato Chain Links, Sweet Potato Pie and Veal Breast," was another revision from the first menu, and, again, a far superior version. (I had found that earlier version, more curiosity than culinary). This was much better realized, and the chef is coming to reveal his attention to core ingredients, in this case veal breast. If the chain carving lacked the intricacy of winter, but the dining satisfaction was higher. Veal goes well with sweet potatoes in a pairing that might otherwise be startling.
At the moment that the artichoke bite was served, our servers revealed Cantu's Magic Boxes. Tonight he slow cooked sea bass: "Bass With a Grilled Tomatillo Broth." Again it was a remarkably improved version of "Bouillabaisse Deconstructed then Reconstructed Tableside." Even the titles reveals a shift from technology to cuisine. The bass was sited in a subtle broth with the happy addition of chantrelles, paprika, jalapeno, and bacon. It rivaled the king crab for its elegance, and it, too, was a dish of which any chef would be proud.
Following this highpoint came the meat dish - "Beef with collards." This was a new dish, and it rather modest. I wished for a more assertive hunk of flesh, but it was not to be. This was a good dish, but would have been better if it hadn't come after the masterful fish in a box. Admittedly in a ten course meal, this is the point that some diners are slowing down, but the presentation seemed designed to display the corkscrew silverware rather than the meat.
As we slide towards dessert, we were presented with "Spanish Strofoam, Manchego & Chorizo," one of the two least successful dishes of the evening. When visiting Moto in February, I was agape at the presentation of butter flavored packing peanuts. What seemed inspired in February seemed annoying in a larger dish that should be about taste. Diners might appreciate these startling snacks at the start or end, but let us be semi-serious. When mixed in a complex dish with cheese, sausage, bayleaf jelly, apple butter, the dish - despite astonishing visual appeal - didn't work in its own terms or as a means of presented Cantu's unique signature, which at the consumption had become somewhat soggy. If this is eye candy, I might diet.
Our palate cleanser was a surprising drink of watermelon and cilanto essences, as processed through a centrifuge to purify it. Some chefs might have been satisfied with a strainer, but perhaps Argonne National Laboratory was free. However achieved, the combination of strong fruit with herbal flavors was a stunning success. In its glass, one was recalled the shimmering light of absinthe, making this green fairy magical.
"Doughnut soup" is a Moto signature: essence of Krispy Kreme. If this won't gain Moto a James Beard award, it is a rich pleasures of dining at Moto.
The first dessert was my least favorite dish. Honesty demands that I confess that I find desserts at Moto generally less compelling than the main courses. And so it was with "Strawberry, Rice Pudding, Peanut & Soy Ice Cream." I might have dodged the bullet had I announced that I am not supposed to eat soy (Nobody should eat soy, but that is a rant for another day). The crisp topping was soggy and the flavors seemed neither bright or compelling.
We were blessed by a more compelling dessert - "Fettuccine Alla Dolce" - slightly sweetened pasta with a light basil thyme sauce, and milk chocolate ice cream. If it was not the most satisfying dessert, it was delightful, again with a proper herbal note to cut the sweetness.
The final touch was a lovely take on a white chocolate truffle, filled with a liquid mango-ginger center. Delicious. The ginger recast the otherwise mundane mango liqueur.
A recognition of the defensible boundaries of haute cuisine is transforming the Cantu style. This was the first moment that I felt ready recommend Moto to any friend who enjoys fine dining, even if they lack a background in Jacques Derrida's mischievous deconstruction. It is satisfying to see that Chef Cantu can paint within the lines, only straying when he must, and not when he wants. I edge Moto 3.0 to 3.5 stars; yet I suspect that I may never award four stars. If I do, I would enjoy the experience measurably less.
945 West Fulton Market
Chicago, IL 60607
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