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March 06, 2007

The Dinner That Defeated Morimoto

Dominic Armato
Well, Kitchen Stadium hasn't been terribly kind to our Chicago chefs.

Bayless, Tramonto, Cantu and Bowles. If you had asked me to handicap those who I felt had the best chance of winning, I would have picked Bowles, Bayless, Tramonto and Cantu, in that order. But Bayless was barely buffaloed by Flay. Rick Tramonto and Gale Gand ran into a brick wall in the form of a fennel-wielding Batali. Flay, either disingenuously or ignorantly, insisted that chocolate didn't mesh well with his style, and still took down a wonderfully creative Bowles. And the only Chicago chef who managed to sneak through? The one I would have least expected, just barely edging the only Iron Chef to hop the pond. Granted, beet was a tough ingredient for Morimoto to work with, while chocolate and fennel seemed hand-picked for Flay and Batali, but based on my limited history with Moto I was still surprised.

I had eaten at Moto just once, about three years ago, and had come away with very mixed emotions. Cantu's approach was playful and interesting, and there were some truly tasty items. But that dinner was also marred by some very basic flaws like overcooked fish, as well as dishes where a funky technique not only didn't contribute to a dish, but actively detracted from it. I appreciated Cantu's willingness to have fun and take risks, and with risks come misses, and it was unfortunate that my first meal at Moto was too much miss and not enough hit. But those hits haunted me, making me feel that I really should give Moto another shot. And then, about a month ago, I was presented with a rather unusual opportunity and decided that it was the perfect time to return.

Dominic Armato
Chef Cantu has always been remarkably open and friendly with the folks over at LTH Forum, and when someone suggested to him that he reprise his winning menu for a special LTH dinner, he seemed even more excited about it than the LTHers. Jumping in myself was a foregone conclusion. How often to you get a chance to sample a menu that defeated an Iron Chef? Not to mention which, it isn't as though I haven't always seized every opportunity to extol the virtues of the noble beet. And so, last week, my ladylove and I (and two dozen other food-obsessed folk) descended upon Moto's private room for Chef Cantu's winning "transmogrification dinner." I feel I can safely say that this dinner gave me a much better sense of the chef, but it was only partly due to the food.

If his body is any reflection of his mind, Cantu's mind is constantly in motion. On a few occasions during the dinner, he came out to address the crowd. But rather than discussing the dishes on the table, he would instead frantically pace the room while describing his ideas for bringing new culinary techniques to the mass market, about redesigning basic kitchen equipment with convergence and energy conservation in mind, and about marrying food and technology in ways that would change the world. For better or worse, the guy is thinking big. Very big. And while this revelation may not have greatly affected my appreciation of his food, it definitely affected my understanding of his food... and possibly my appreciation of him.

Dominic Armato
But what of the food? Well, we had a feast. Eight courses, officially, though a couple of other items snuck their way in. As it turned out, Cantu didn't prepare an exact copy of his Iron Chef menu, but most of those dishes made an appearance, if occasionally in slightly modified form. In typical Cantu fashion, the first thing to hit the table was something of a tease: a frozen beet octahedron that would actually become the third course, but only after sitting in front of us and slowly melting while we consumed the first two. Necessary? No. Meaningful? Not really. Kinda fun? Totally. In any case, while the octahedron did its thing, we dug into the first few courses.

The evening started with one of Cantu's little signature moves, the edible menu. In this case, lovingly personalized for our event and affixed to a crispy cracker. In another signature Cantu move, the bottom of the menu was filled with barely legible legal fine type, but I'm pretty sure the copyright symbol and the phrase "patent pending" were in there somewhere. It was accompanied by a little dip, the nature of which I missed, but it was creamy and tasty and a fun way to start.

Dominic Armato
BEET MAKI & miso

The first official course was an exact reproduction of one of the Iron Chef dishes. It was a "maki" of sushi rice, nori powder, golden beets and a healthy dose of miso mayonnaise, wrapped in edible paper printed with images of maki, which I believe officially makes this metamaki (that one's mine, Homaro!). It would make any Japanese traditionalist cringe (and even some non-traditionalists), but setting aside any preconceived notions of what maki should be, I enjoyed it a little more than I'd like to admit. It was exceptionally creamy and very sweet and had absolutely nothing to do with sushi bar simplicity and elegance whatsoever. I mean, I've been known to sometimes grumble about funki maki, but this takes the practice to an extreme. I knew I was being bought, but... well... I didn't mind. I could've pounded five or six of these, easy.


Dominic Armato
BEET with borscht

The second course was a two part dish. On the left, a sort of light, airy, frozen beet fluff. Very mild in flavor, and more textural than anything. It had a sort of crystalline feel on the tongue, almost like those frozen chocolate malt cups you get at baseball game and eat with a wooden stick. But it wasn't nearly as dense. On the right, a really nicely spiced, intense warm beet borscht with chunks of beet and a tiny dollop of sour cream. I'm not sure what the left lent to the dish other than an opportunity to present something funky, but the borscht was really delicious. Though I'm sure there are those who disagreed, this struck me as one of those dishes where Cantu was throwing technique out there without much thought behind it. I just didn't feel that the fluff contributed anything to the dish, and it only served to draw my attention away from its partner, which really was excellent.

Dominic Armato
HOT & SOUR with beet juice

By this time, the frozen beet octahedron had melted and collapsed into a slushy pile which, when mixed around a bit, created the third course, an icy cold "hot and sour" soup with beet greens and bacon. I use quotation marks because, frankly, I don't see any connection to hot & sour soup other than the fact that they're both liquids in bowls that you eat with a spoon. That said, however, this was probably my favorite dish of the evening. Something about the beet and bacon worked beautifully, especially surprising since it's difficult to get bacon fat to translate well to a cold environment. It was fun and unique and really delicious. Cantu made this dish for the IC episode, except he used balloon-formed spheres instead of the octahedrons. As he explained, somewhere between his Iron Chef victory and our dinner, he was inspired while doing some reading about Michelangelo's technique for casting bronze sculpture. So we got octahedrons.

Dominic Armato
BEET, monkfish & raccoon

This one's going to require a little explanation.

This was actually the second dinner that Cantu prepared specially for LTH, the first being a seven hour marathon a couple of years back. As the story was explained to me, one of the LTHers in attendance was coming straight from some other food-related event, where she had acquired a substantial amount of raccoon meat. As such, upon arriving at Moto, she asked if it would be possible for them to store it in the cooler for the duration of the meal. Then, midway through dinner, an unannounced dish hit the table... a large square plate painted with sauces to look like a highway, with a small pile of raccoon "roadkill" on the shoulder. Needless to say, this immediately became the stuff of legend.

This next dish, then, was a raccoon reprise of sorts. Working from the bottom to the top, first there were crispy toasted beet macaroni (something along the lines of Rice Krispies, but crunchier), a white cheddar sauce, a pile of tender strands of raccoon meat that had also been treated with beet, two pieces of battered and fried monkfish, and finally some white truffle powder. It had a certain snacky feel, almost upscale junkfood-ish. It was definitely enjoyable, and I got to add a new critter to my list, which is always a bonus.

Dominic Armato
Here, there was a brief intermission before the final savory course, during which we were handed safety goggles and whisked into the kitchen to see the crew, the funky lighting... and yes... the class four laser. Now, to some degree I can sympathize with a desire to seize every possible opportunity to cook with a fricking laser, but count me among those who thought its use in Kitchen Stadium seemed totally gratuitous. Here, however, I thought they were putting it to really interesting use... perhaps not that necessitated the use of a class four laser, but interesting nonetheless. They focused the laser on a spoonful of orange zest, held beneath an inverted wine glass. The glasses were then transferred to the table where they remained upside down until they were filled with wine for the next course. It did, in fact, add a rather intense smoky, citrusy nose to the wine. I'm not entirely convinced that this particular wine and this particular scent were the right pairing, but I like the concept.

Dominic Armato
BLOODSHOT surf & turf

Back to the food. Our final savory dish was another that was essentially the same as one of the Iron Chef dishes. It consisted of very simply prepared pieces of ribeye and Hawaiian sea bass sitting atop crispy rice noodles. To finish the dish, a saffron scented beet broth was poured over the top. I'm all for simplicity, but this particular dish struck me as a little too simple. It helped that the beef and fish were two perfectly prepared pieces of protein , but I thought the dish was missing a little oomph. And though it's something I've often ridiculed others for saying, with the long, stiff, crispy noodles, for the first time I found myself thinking that -- at least for the setting -- the dish was really difficult to eat. I did appreciate that the iron-laden beet jus not only picked up but emphasized the rare piece of meat. If it was an intentional parallel, it was a good call.

Dominic Armato
OAXACAN chocolate & citrus

Before our first official dessert arrived, the second tease of the evening hit the table. Wahey, another octahedron! No photo because... well... this one looked exactly the same as the first, with the exception of a small drizzle of some yogurt on top. So once again, we went on to other dishes while a future dish slowly decayed in front of us.

The first dessert was a smudge of barely sweetened chocolate mousse, with a couple bits of beet and three accompanying squirts... lemon, lime and chocolate. All of the sweetness was in the eyedroppers, so both elements definitely needed to work in concert. It was a tasty and fun dish, if unexceptional, and though I know the fellas over at Schwa are also working this combo right now, I'm still not sold on chocolate and beets as a pairing. I feel like they need something else to marry them. What that something is, I have no idea.

Dominic Armato
ORANGE & BEET with tasty pudding

The second dessert had a number of components, and my memory of the details is a little fuzzy so take the description with a grain of salt. Nearest the camera was an orange concoction that fell somewhere between custard and gelee in terms of consistency, but it was tart and tasty. Then you see some bits of golden beet, and more of the custard/gelee with a beet powder dusted edible packing peanut. Past that was a small pool of lime mascarpone that had been kicked up a touch with serrano, and finally a sesame chocolate pudding that was closer to a wet mousse in texture. Delicious across the board, especially the pudding that lived up to its name... the sesame flavor was full-on, and that was just fine by me. My only complaint would be the packing peanut. I thought it was a fun idea, but not terribly enjoyable to eat past the novelty factor.

Dominic Armato
PYRAMID OF BEET, yogurt & yuzu

Where the first octahedron of beet melted away to reveal beet greens and bacon, the second octahedron of beet melted away to reveal... a sphere of beet! Also frozen, this inner beet geometry was yuzu-fied and maintained its icy texture while the outer octahedron melted around it to create the soup. Drizzled on top was the yogurt. At heart, the dish was far simpler than its presentation, but it was really very nice and refreshing... a great finale. Plus, it was good to finish with a lot of beet flavor, as the previous two desserts just barely hinted at the theme.

In the end, while there were some very tasty items, I have to say that I expected more from an Iron Chef winning dinner. And like my first Moto experience, I felt that there were too many occasions when the food seemed to take a back seat to the wonky technique. Most notable, however, was the fact that I walked away still craving beets. Though beet was present in almost every dish, it was always transmogrified (to swipe one of Cantu's favorite terms) or presented only as a miniscule little segment of beet. This isn't to say that I didn't appreciate the more subtle uses or that I expected every plate to bowl me over with beetyness, but out of eight courses I felt as though I would have liked at least one dish with enough unadulterated beet for me to sink my teeth into. I think even one would have been enough for me to hang my hat on, so that I didn't feel unfulfilled. But we didn't get that chance.

I don't mean to give the impression, however, that I didn't enjoy the meal. I thought it was tasty, a great deal of fun, and to some degree I think it allowed me to make my peace with Moto. Cantu is a man who wants to deal in superlatives, but to approach his food in that manner is, I think, to invite disappointment. The meal was more fun than epic, and Cantu's approach was more playful than genius. I realize that may sound as though I'm damning with faint praise, and... well... that may be the case, but I found myself really liking Cantu. The guy's brain appears to be in a constant state of overdrive, which may explain why he seems to attack certain ideas with laser focus while letting other details escape his attention. But there's a goofy enthusiasm there and a willingness to just throw any crazy idea on the plate that I have to admire on some level. I'm not certain that I'd feel the same way had this been outside the context of a special event, but I'll be curious to see what the guy's up to in the future... I'm just not in a big hurry to return.

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