Sunday, November 19, 2006

Moto 4.0 Chicago

Jay Jacobs, the former New York restaurant critic for Gourmet, wrote of what he termed the “home-field advantage.” As applies to dining, it is the “Cheers” phenomenon, the place where everyone knows your name. And an advantage is to be had. These restaurants provide social comfort and the assurance that any problem will quickly be set right. My upscale Chicago go-to place is Moto. Moto is where I bring friends whom I really wish to impress with the possibility of cuisine

Dining at Moto is not for everyone, and perhaps is not for many. A diner who wants to stick a toe in molecular cuisine should choose the snappy and accessible Butter. But Moto provides an unforgettable and joyous evening. And, unlike so many other establishments, the entertainment is dancing on the plate and in the twinkling of eyes. I never have so much fun as when I dine on Fulton Market Street. The other grand molecular establishments - Alinea, for one – have a seriousness of purpose, absent at Moto. And, happily for diners, their price points are different (if $300 can be differentiated from $400 for the full show – less expensive for smaller menus).

Chef Cantu’s problem – or perhaps it is our problem – is that at times he seems constrained by his techniques. One feels that he has set his challenge as what dish can he make using one of his Tom Swift toys, rather than beginning with the conception of the dish and then discovering the method. Some dishes were spectacular creations, but others were modified versions of previous efforts. We were served an edible menu, dippin’ dots, nitrogenated fruit, fish cooked in a box, pizza and salad soup, liquefied Krispie Kremes, packing peanuts - greatest hits, but with the danger of soon becoming same old, same old. At his best, Chef Cantu serves remarkably evocative dishes, but at times his ideas are cramped. And as dearly as I love Moto, his genius does not shine as consistently as Trotter or Achatz. Still Cantu regularly provides a cuisine of amazement, a Cuisine Agape, distinct from what has been labeled as Molecular Cuisine. At least in the West Loop, shock and awe triumphs.

Our group of four decided on the Grand Tasting Menu. This is not the choice that I would have preferred. Once one knows the range of Chef Cantu’s abilities, he seems more accomplished working on the larger plates of the five-course menu. However, my three companions were Moto-virgins, and we selected the twenty course tour.

Moto (and other similar outposts) does not make a course-by-course evaluation easy. The menu is designed to misdirect diners: “ITALIAN food” (the pizza and the Caesar salad soup); “Chili-Cheese Nachos” (the final Ben Roche dessert with frozen mango, milk chocolate, diced kiwis and candied tortilla chips); and “Synthetic Champagne” (apple cider and verjus). The servers announce the ingredients, but in the rush, this scribe could not inscribe the complexity of the dish.

Although I didn’t realize it at the time (and although I would have enjoyed the hefty version on the five course menu), the dish that I best recall is “Rabbit and Aromatic Utensils” (utensils with a sage tassel). The dish was served with several preparation of rabbit, scarlet runner beans, white truffle power, and puffed rice. The serving was too small for its intensity, but it was a brilliant combination. A second astonishing dish was Maple Squash Cake – a squash soufflé with maple flakes and cider sauce and diced bacon. It was one of the most complete and integrated dishes I have enjoyed at Moto. The “main course,” a perfectly cooked Lamb Chop with stone-ground mustard, braised cabbage and ground kielbasa, revealed Chef Cantu’s skills in a recognizably traditional preparation, Passion Fruit and Crab, perhaps owing something to Wylie Dufresne’s attempt to create noodles of everything, was remarkable with a surprising, herbal Japanese shiso sauce and buttered popcorn puree. The Hamachi and Nitrogenated Orange worked as well – or perhaps better – than when the citrus was paired with lobster, and the Bass baked tableside had a lovely paprika smokiness. The Chili-Cheese Nachos, although a conceit, was the most impressive of the five desserts.

I find Chef Cantu’s ice creams are less appealing; the least stirring dish was Jalapeno ice cream, too salty, served with toasted quinoa. The goat cheese snow with balsamic vinegar was quickly passed over. Tonight’s doughnut soup was bubbly. I preferred the velvety version I was served at my first meal.

At the first dinner (our seven-and-a-half hour banquet referred to in Time), I commented on the wonder of the wine pairing. Since then, Moto has a new wine director, Matthew Gundlach, and I had been less impressed with the pairings, but tonight was splendid. The vintage Quebec beer (Unibroue 2005, Chambly) was eye-opening. Also notable was a 2004 August Kesseler Spatlese Riesling Rheingau, a 2004 Huia Pinot from New Zealand, and a honeyed Austrian Meinklang 2001 Trockenbeeren. We quaffed memorable dozen with only a single unimpressive pour (a 2001 Susana Balbo Brioso Mendoza). The Martini library, a set of colorful cocktails served in plastic pipettes, was an odd, giggly curiosity.

Like other diners, we were given a tour of the kitchen. Let me confess my misgivings. My guests (and I) welcomed meeting with Chef Cantu. However, this was an attempt to make the backstage a performance. Wearing goggles (and being warned not to remove them), we were to be wowed by technology. Yes, this was a memorable break, but perhaps distracted from the fact that we were there to eat and perhaps distracted the staff who were there to cook. This tension between cuisine and technology is the line that Chef Cantu must tread carefully.

Moto is a restaurant to treasure and to revisit. When I wish to persuade friends that some meals will never be forgotten this is where I take them. There are many worse things than to be known as the man from Moto.

Moto Restaurant
945 W. Fulton Market
Chicago (West Loop)

Martini Library
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Edible Menu
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Tasmanian Salmon, Daikon and Yuzu
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Italian Food (Pizza and Caesar Salad Soup)
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Maple Squash Cake
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Synthetic Champagne
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Goat Cheese Snow and Balsamic Vinegar
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Hamachi and Orange
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Passion Fruit and Crab
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Fall Fruits and Aged Sherry
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Baking Bass Tableside
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Bass Baked Tableside and Eggplant
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Rabbit (with Aromatic Utensils, not shown)
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Jalapeno, Cilantro and Avocado
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Quail and Persimmon (with Splatted Sauce)
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Lamb with Kielbasa
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Mac and Cheese (Lychee pasta)
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3 Cotton Candy Stages
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Flapjacks Prepared Tableside
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Peanut Butter and Jelly
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Banana Split Deconstructed
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Doughnut Soup and Pancakes
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Chili-Cheese Nachos
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