Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Highs and Lows of Morimoto

Morimoto New York
88 10th Avenue
New York, NY 10011
(212) 989-8883
Lunch weekdays
Dinner nightly

Morimoto on Urbanspoon

Tried: December 2007

Scariest place ever. If you actually like sushi or genuine Japanese food, do not waste time with this place. Poorly executed fusion fare that looked like it belonged in an airport Panda Express (Nobu midwest, anyone?), cheap disco decor, and dessicated fish-- the uni looked like umeboshi. How disappointing.

Morimoto on Urbanspoon

723 Chestnut Street
Philadelphia, PA 19106
(215) 413-9070
Lunch weekdays
Dinner nightly

Tried: November 2005

After trying Chef Morimoto's namesake restaurant in Philadelphia, I can see why he is an Iron Chef in America as well as in Japan. The menu at Morimoto is the same neo-Japanese with French influence that brought Morimoto such acclaim while he was at Nobu in New York but far better articulated. (Indeed, I was as impressed with Morimoto as I had been disappointed with my previous experience at Nobu a few months earlier.)

The omakase menu started with mashed toro inside a ceramic dish the size of an espresso cup, mixed with both fresh and crispy fried shallots and a variation of the Japanese mother sauce of soy/sake/mirin, and topped with a dollop of caviar. The sweetness of the toro and the sauce contrasted beautifully with the salty caviar.

Next came three kumamoto oysters on the half-shell, garnished with an edible orchid-- the first oyster was served with a jalapeno fish sauce, the second with what was described as Japanese salsa (no such thing; it was just chopped fresh tomato and chives with some type of light vinegar sauce), and the third with a champagne mignonette sauce. The oysters were fresh and briny, and the sauces were well executed, although I found the fish sauce to be too strong. The edible orchid had the texture and taste of a dried slice of cucumber and while mostly tasteless, provided an interesting touch.

The oysters were followed by raw scallops with matsutake mushrooms in a hot oil and yuzu sauce, topped with mitsuba (Japanese wild parsley). The hot oil slightly warmed the scallops while the tang of the yuzu and the pungent mitsuba made the flavors of the scallops and the delectable matsutake mushrooms dance.

The next course was a sashimi salad comprised of shimaji (striped jack) and thickly shaved slices of bonito on a bed of wild bitter greens and drizzled with a creamy yuzu vinaigrette. The creamy shimaji tasted like a cross between mackerel and yellowtail, and the bonito tasted like bacon. These Japanese ingredients somehow came together tasting like a salad with lardons that one might find at a quality French bistro.

The palate cleanser that punctuated the tasting menu at this point was also delightful. The raspberry wasabi sorbet was clean, fresh, sweet, tart, and very spicy all at once. It was the ideal precursor to the cajun lobster dish that followed. The lobster tail and claw had been expertly cracked so that they were presented in the shell but required almost no effort on my part to extract the well-spiced chunks of lobster meat. Grilled carrots, broccoli, and asparagus accompanied the lobster, along with a mixture of citrus creme fraiche and chives.

The piece de resistance was the final savory dish-- seared slices of rare kobe beef that had been marinated in the soy/sake/mirin Japanese mother sauce, garnished with grilled scallions and toasted sesame seeds, topped with a sizable hunk of perfectly seared Hudson Valley foie gras, and served with scoops of sweet creamy Japanese sweet potatoes. I was awestruck at how harmoniously the flavors of these luxurious ingredients blended together to create this incredible incarnation of beef and foie gras. After this sensation, the dessert-- a warm chocolate souffle with white miso ice cream, apple puree, and slivers of Chinese almonds-- while solid, was a bit of a letdown. The miso ice cream and almonds alone, which were deliciously unique, may have been cleaner and more impressive served without the slightly cakey chocolate souffle.

Where Restaurant Morimoto falls somewhat short is service. Although friendly, the servers often lacked knowledge about ingredients or composition of a number of the dishes being served. In addition, the timing was off for delivering the wines intended for pairing with the various dishes, such that sometimes the wine was delivered after the course was already half (or almost entirely) consumed, or brought so early that I ended up drinking most of the wine while waiting for the paired course to arrive. I was also surprised that a $120 omakase menu, while excellent in virtually all aspects, did not begin with any type of amuse. Overall, however, my experience at Morimoto was amazing, and I found myself no longer bothered about the long travel to Philadelphia or the perfunctory business I had to attend to there.

I am very curious to see how the second Morimoto, a 160-seat restaurant scheduled to open in the Chelsea district of New York City in February 2006, will be. Will Morimoto be able to maintain quality control over both restaurants while continuing to defend his title on Iron Chef America?

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