Sunday, August 21, 2005

Moto 3.0

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 He has been replaced by Matthew Gundlach, who does an admirable job.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

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

A Tale of Two Restaurants : Le Bec-Fin and Striped Bass

Being stuck in Philadelphia this week, I was able to dine at Striped Bass and at Le Bec-Fin, and their contrast startled me. The restaurants are located within a block of each other, but miles apart in their haute philosophies. (I also dined at Morimoto, at Dimics, and at Pat's, but that is a tale for another occasion).

The contrast between Le Bec-Fin and Striped Bass suggests something of the changes in American haute cuisine over the past 35 years - changes that are not entirely salutary.

In passing I note that my girlfriend (now wife) and I used to frequent La Panetière when Georges Perrier was the head chef in the late 60s and we were undergraduates at Penn. (There is a moral about giving one's collegiate offspring much too much spending money - but we chose the right aphrodisiac in selecting chanterelles over psilocybes). We followed Perrier to Le Bec-Fin when he opened his establishment on Spruce Street in 1970. La Panetière and Le Bec-Fin constituted the mainstays of Philadelphia dining until the Philadelphia restaurant revolution of the early years of the 1980s.

And what miracles they were! Georges Perrier captured my palate with the seduction of taste. He was unafraid to use powerful tastes, but his dishes were never showy. He was no hot dog. And at its best this was how dining could be imagined. I confess that I never had any grand desire to meet Georges Perrier, just to sup at his table forever.

Contrast this with our celebrity chefs today. If Charlie Trotter, Thomas Keller, Grant Achetz, Mark Miller, Paul Prudhomme (and these are some of my favorites) do not stop to chat somehow dinner is not complete. The food - even when spectacular - is but an expression of the vision of the chef/auteur.

Along with this culture of culinary celebrity is the sense that a meal must be a form of spectacle. And so we have vertical food, technocuisine, or the 31-flavors of fusion. If a dish doesn't have a dozen feuding ingredients (each identified by the helpful server), it is a dusty relic.

Blessedly Georges Perrier (and some others in the backwater haute cuisine temples of yesterday) will have none of it. The meal that I ate at Le Bec-Fin was as clean, as strong, and as confident as any dinner that I have eaten since, say, I last ate at Le Bec-Fin in the early 1970s (if this is a slight exaggeration, I hope no one will catch me).

I began with a cassolette of snails in a champagne and hazelnut garlic butter sauce (Cassolette d'escargots aux noisettes en hommage à Monsieur Cleuvenot [a lucky man was M. Cleuvenot]). Snails in butter is, of course, cliche, but not here. It was the touch of hazelnut and champagne that created transcendence from the mundane. With the snails and the nuts, I was presented with two earthy elements made ethereal through champagne and (oh yes!) the butter. The hazelnut oil combined with the butter in such as way as to make the snails seem newly fashioned, a more complex escargot but with neither chef nor diner forgetting that the dish was about the snail.

I selected black bass as my fish course: black sea bass barigoule, fresh herb and artichoke fricassee (Loup en barigoule avec son émulsion à l'huile d'olive, fricassée d'artichauts et ses herbes fraiches). Chilean sea bass has become rather common these days, but loup is somewhat rarer. I find that it has a slightly stronger, more assertive taste. It is a fish that can dance with a flavorful olive oil. Artichokes are not a garnish that goes with everything, but it certainly did with the olive oil and herbs. As with so many of chef Perrier's dishes this was a dish that appeared simpler on the plate than in the mouth.

The meat course was Pennsylvania rack of lamb, lupini beans and bell pepper fricassee, garlic confit, lamb jus and chorizo emulsion (the geographical descriptor is perhaps to placate local boosters - would it have mattered if the lambkins had swum across the Delaware River? And did those lupinis have their green card?). (Carré d'agneau de Pennsylvanie servi avec sa Basquaise, purée de lupins et ail confit, jus d'agneau et émulsion de chorizo). I admit that I didn't notice the chorizo and just as well.

The lamb was perfectly prepared. I couldn't imagine it needing a millisecond of more or less heat (and couldn't understand some fellow diners who insisted it their way. This ain't Sizzler). A noble lamb rack doesn't need much except itself and a whiff of garlic. The lupini and bell peppers (one mild, the other forceful) nicely set off the purity of the lamb. This is dining without artificial lights and fireworks. No need for a highwire when one stands on clouds.

After a cassis sorbet, we reached the fine cheese tray and then a dessert tray that again reached for the transcendence of simplicity: pineapple in a ginger jus, a tart that was the essence of lemon, and a definitive Philadelphia cheesecake (I insist that classic under-sweetened New York cheesecake has no equal).

Georges Perrier is a chef from the days that a chef was a worker, from the days that craftsmanship mattered, and from a day in which simplicity rather than elaboration - taste not decoration - mattered. Even the setting was the traditional Parisian salon (I prefer my architecture modernist, but, no matter, nostalgia has its virtues).

Contrast this to Striped Bass, the reopening of beloved Philadelphia seafood restaurant, part of the Stephen Starr family of restaurants in the lobby of an old brokerage house, from when investing in the market conveyed something about social class. Starr brought in Alfred Portole (of New York's Gotham Grill) as consulting chef and hired Christopher Lee his working chef. At this point Portole provides advice (although his touch, delightful and sometimes malign is evident). Lee, we were told with pride, received the James Beard Foundation's annual award (for Rising Star Chef of the Year). Ahhh, a celebrity chef on the march.

This little essay is not the account of a grand restaurant and a poor one. Striped Bass is a restaurant to which I would happily return if Le Bec-Fin were closed or if Pat's ran out of provolone (no Whiz, please). Striped Bass can be a superior restaurant, although at times too clever for its own good. Portole and now Lee seem to believe in a cuisine of excess. If five ingredients are good, fifteen must be yummy. Maybe.

We ordered the seasonal five course tasting menu. It began well with a yellowfin tuna tartare with English cucumber, shiso leaf, sweet miso, and Asian ginger dressing. It did not equal the sashimi at Morimoto (and why call it tartare), but the fish was fresh and not overly encumbered by cucumber, shiso, miso, or ginger. The plate was perhaps a little busy, but the tastes harmonized.

The second course was, well, a mess. Seared Diver Sea Scallops with barley grains, baby white asparagus, sun trout roe, lemon pepper sauce, and (ulp) microgreens. I am unsure how I feel about the licensing of handguns; however I wish someone would licence microgreens. But perhaps one of the NRAs would have use their considerable muscle to prevent what seems to me to be a most modest proposal. It was not that the dish was poorly executed, piece by piece, but less is more, and more is less. When each bite is a separate dish, something is wrong. And when the purity of the scallop is walloped by a lemon pepper sauce we can only sigh.

The third course - Organic Scottish Salmon with Artichoke Ravioli, Green Lentils, Smoked Yellow Tomato, and Warm Horseradish Vinaigrette - had some of the challenges of its predecessors, except for a better combination of tastes. Fortunately the artichoke ravioli - the essence of pureed artichokes - was at some distance from its neighbors and could be enjoyed on its own. Unlike Scallops, Salmon is able to stand up to rough justice, and the lentils were a fine complement.

Course four was christened "Philadelphia ‘Cheeseskate'." Trouble. Braised short rib surrounded by skate in a protein-laden hockey puck, Hen of the Woods mushrooms, caramelized onions, Parmesan cream and hot sauce (?). The braised short rib was delicious, although the skate was added just for a laugh. The skate, like the scallop, couldn't stand up to all the fanfare. Had the skate gone missing, the dish would have been superb, an inspired take on a definitive cheesesteak.

Desserts were anchored by an excellent (and simple) chocolate pot de creme, raspberry yogurt with mint ice cream, and a white grasshopper mousse. All were exemplary.

The problem of Striped Bass (and of Chefs Portole and Lee) is that they don't trust their ingredients and, perhaps, the attention of their diners. We do not all have gustatory ADD. They fear that we might not notice their work if the dish was not gussied up, bundled, and masqueraded. Chef Perrier trusts us, and knows that he need not strive for Disneyland or for the Time-Warner Center, just for Escoffier as lighted by Twenty-first Century preferences. Here we see the difference between the Enchantment of the Raucous Dish and the Enchantment of Taste.

Le Bec-Fin
1523 Walnut Street

Striped Bass
1500 Walnut Street