Last Tuesday I returned to Moto, Chicago’s premier molecular restaurant (at least if one places Alinea in its own transcendent category), and I was surprised at the changes. The restaurant looks much the same, but the cuisine feels different. The changes at moto may mirror those decisions made by many successful artistic rebels. After their moment of publicized rebellion – after they have thrown down the gauntlet and after the media has chronicled that gauntlet – the rebel needs to ask, “what now?” These heroes come to realize that there is a lot to be learned from the standards of the world from which they have rebelled. Perhaps symbolically when we were given our kitchen tour we did not need to wear protective googles – there was no laser in evidence.
Strikingly, the dish from the ten-course dinner (with a few extra courses) that I remember most clearly and most fondly is (almost) a dish that could easily have been served at any restaurant committed to contemporary cuisine. The kitchen presented a pan-seared Texas quail with modulated hot (pequin) pepper and celery three ways. Granted the dish arrived with an edible paper that was reminiscent of buffalo wings – the dish was ostensibly a deconstruction of buffalo wings – but what struck me was how sweet and luscious and even traditional the quail was. My tablemates agreed. The “Chicago steak dinner” was likewise a lovely, modernist dish with a beautifully cooked bit of prime rib eye. Yes, it was a deconstruction of the composition of such a dinner, but not a destruction of it. Perhaps the least effective was the faux “breakfast” – a coconut and passion fruit egg (white and yolk) served with crab cake tater tots and blood orange ketchen. The crab was extremely tasty, but the egg (a borrowing, if I recall correctly, from WD-50) was more curious than enjoyable, given a texture that was perhaps too reminiscent of plastic.
As with this “egg” dish, some of the Moto oddities – the powders and a little nitro and a Cuban sandwich shaped as a cigar with ash, but for the most part the tastes were strong. There were no dipping dots to be seen. Moto’s problem has been that the concept has on occasion overwhelmed the taste. The edible menu (as the amuse) is a case in point. No one would demand to eat this cracker were it not for the jest on which it is based (eating the menu).
Pastry Chef Ben Roche’s desserts were, as usual, most enjoyable, but not so different in spirit from what one might be served as Jean-Georges, Per Se, or, in Chicago, at Blackbird. They were compositions of flavor points, following modern canons, rather than provocations. And they were all the better for that.
Moto 2009 reveals a greater attention to flavor, while sometimes the presentation seems to be minimalist (such as the BBQ beans and slaw. The roadkill (described on the menu as “roadkill of fowl”), a now canonical dish at moto (a result of the visit I organized when the restaurant had first opened) is based on duck (not raccoon) and is much more elaborately plated. However, while the dish is tasty, it has lost some of its authenticity as a just-in-time creation.
So moto is changing, as it should be. Chef Homero Cantu seems to be considering what he needs to do, rather than what he can do. After all, if it is only the ideas that matter, what would justify return visits? Moto remains vital and exciting, clever and tasty: but now a restaurant that doesn’t need to strain so hard to be worthy of its diners’ love.
Moto's edible menu (Grand Tasting Menu version)
Passion fruit and coconut egg with crab tater tots and blood orange ketchup
Saffron Scallop with Lemon oil power, Orange and Shiso syrup
Deconstructed French onion soup: Gruyere and onion cracker
House made pequin (chili) quail with trio of celery
Smoked beef brisket, frozen cole slaw, and BBQ beans
Roadkill of fowl: duck, red and yellow beets, crunchy red rice
Chicago Steak Dinner
Pina Colada forms for dessert
Pumpkin pie forms for dessert
945 West Fulton Market Street (West Loop)