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Moto - style over substance

gourmet traveller Sep 8, 2009 06:41 AM

I originally wasn't going to put up my review on my recent trip to Moto as it was the biggest let-down out of all our dinners in Chicago. However it wasn't all bad so decided it probably was worth a mention...

Moto is helmed by Cordon-bleu chef and molecular gastronomy enthusiast Homaro Cantu, who started his career working for Charlie Trotter. The restaurant is located in Chicago’s trendy meatpacking district of Fulton Market, and we were reminded of this fact on our arrival; when we were greeted with an unpleasant whiff of the nearby fish-handling facilities as we stepped out of our cab.

Upon entering the sparse, dimly lit dining room we were seated by the efficient staff and presented with the amuse bouche, menu and bread course all rolled into one – a thin garlic toast with the evening’s two menu offerings pasted on each sides. To achieve this, Cantu modified an ink-jet printer with the help of computer specialists and loaded it with cartridges of fruit and vegetable dyes to print onto edible sheets of soybean and potato starch. The outrageously creative edible menu (accompanied by an asparagus mousse, whipped garlic butter, red wine salt, balsamic reduction and garlic confit) got us excited and we bravely decided on the 20-course GTM (Grand Tasting Menu) rather than the more sensible 10-course menu, unfazed by the waiter’s warning that the GTM would take us 4 to 5 hours to complete. We also chose to have the wine progression suggested by the sommelier to pair with the menu, which apart from the La Fin du Monde (a Canadian 9% ABV golden ale) served with the buffalo wing course, was nothing to write home about. Anyway, on to the mammoth meal which commenced with…

BREAKFAST with gazpacho
consisting of 3 components: a fried shrimp “tater tot” (springy, like thai prawn cakes), faux “eggs” of carrot and lemon vinaigrette on a mélange of diced vegetables and a garlic “muffin” with popcorn butter. The garlic muffin looked like a lightly seared piece of styrofoam and when placed in the mouth just collapses – it was like eating a very airy piece of popcorn. The components were rather disparate and apart from the popcorn meringue, wasn’t particularly exciting. Onto the next dish…

FRENCH ONION SOUP
a deconstructed french onion soup of caramelised onions, onion chip, gruyere cheese paste (not dissimilar to Kraft cheez whizz), topped with a light onion broth. I wasn’t too keen on this as the onions were far too sweet, however I did like the spoon the dish was served with – it had a spiral handle which held a sprig of rosemary so that the scent of the herb enhanced the soup with every sip. Genius!

URBAN garden
served in a small terracotta flower pot, the garden was made up of edible “trash” (again, using Cantu’s inkjet printing) of pepperoni flavoured rice paper printed to appear like a magazine clipping, borage flowers and “soil” of balsamic vinegar breadcrumbs which covered a tomato mozzarella salad. The whole thing was quite whimsical but there was far too much of the salad, and taste-wise it was rather pedestrian.

FRUITS de mer
monkfish ‘noodles’, mussels, tomato, shallot concasse, fish fume and a parsley lime broth. The noodles resembled udon and were rubbery, requiring a great deal of chewing. B found this dish pleasant, me not so much.

LOADED fries
the waitress set a small pile of cheddar mashed potatoes topped with fried shallots, jalepeno and bacon before us, then picked up the candle sitting on our table, blew it out, and poured the “wax” (french fried liquor) over it! Lots of fun, but all it really did was add a stale oily taste to the otherwise ok dish (the fried shallots was plenty enough oil to allude to fried potato skins).

SEARED buffalo hot wings
this confit and sliced capon on a bed of shaved celery with hot sauce was served with another piece of edible paper, this one flavoured with hot sauce. I love buffalo wings and had high hopes for this but sadly the capon was dry and the hot sauce too mild, lacking the usual buffalo wing kick. The earlier mentioned accompanying La Fin du Monde however was full, creamy, rich and smooth, with a beautiful honeyed malty nose. Delicious.

ARNOLD palmer
a palate cleanser in the shape of a double ice pop (the ice lollies in tubes of plastic you enjoyed as a child), one filled with ice tea and the other, lemonade (Arnold Palmer is a drink named after the golfer, made up of equal portions of iced tea and lemonade). This was another case of good idea, bad execution – it was watered down and tasteless, like drinking the last dregs of an iced lemon tea on a hot day.

CUBAN pork sandwich
roasted red pepper purée, fried bread and roast pork shoulder wrapped in blanched collard greens, with black and white sesame “ash”. FINALLY, a stunner! This shows Cantu at his full potential, delivering both on taste and appearance. The pulled pork was flavourful and succulent, fried bread crunchy but not overly greasy, juxtaposed nicely by sweet pepper purée and slightly bitter greens.

DELI STYLE pasta
a “reuben” lasagne with pickle potato chip and thousand island dressing. This was also a success, the cheesy lasagne had a great depth of flavour and the pickle chip and thousand countered the richness with much needed acidity. What was evident in both this and the previous dish was a more conscious effort in balancing of flavours.

SHABUcino
raw wagyu beef with diced potatoes, mushrooms and raw peas, cooked with a soy and black garlic broth (poured on at the table), topped with potato foam and a white truffle sugar cube. This was a pleasant, solid dish and the tea, milk and sugar concept was a great one.

CO2 PINEAPPLE & jerk
jerk chicken in liquid form (served in a pipette) with pineapple ring soaked in carbon dioxide. This was just flat out strange – the liquid chicken that tasted like diluted chicken jus was bad on its own and even worse paired with the oddly fizzy fresh pineapple. Not really sure what the kitchen was trying to achieve with this.

DUCK & molé
braised duck confit cannoli, lemon sour cream, molé and chocolate sauce. We were fooled into thinking this was the start of the sweet courses when it came out, the “cannoli” was actually a rolled up taco and it tasted a bit like a duck spring roll. Not bad.

STRAWBERRY flakes
freeze dried strawberries, fried rice crackers, liquid nitrogen and vanilla-infused soy milk. The first of the desserts was not a delight, being unappealing reminiscent of strawberry flavoured baby formula.

RASPBERRY soufflé
raspberry sponge, raspberry soufflé, freeze dried raspberry, sweet cream ice cream and créme anglais biscuit. I honestly have no recollection of this dish so it is doubtful to have been any good (or maybe I was just so insanely full at this point I momentarily forgotten to take notes).

RAINBOW sprinkles
foie gras cupcake with a foie gras mousse filling, cherry gastric icing and pistachio sprinkles. An interesting idea, the sweetness definitely works with foie gras however the sponge was heavy and stodgy and the whole thing was just far too rich for a 15th course.

POPPYSEED & lemon
pound cake, blueberry coulis and preserved meyer lemon. This was actually an airy frozen pound cake ice cream with a cake crumb texture. It was very unusual and deliciously light and airy, accented nicely with the sharp lemon rind. If you have ever had Sara Lee pound cake straight from the freezer in your youth, that is how it tastes but 90% lighter.

PEACHES and creamed corn
hot caramel corn cake with corn syrup filling, tea foam, sweet peaches and candy corn. I physically was unable to manage more than a bite of this, the corn cake was so dense and filling and the accompanying elements so sweet they verged on sickly.

ACME s’mores
s’mores chocolate “bomb” with a liquid graham cracker centre. It had a marshmallow fuse which the waiter lit up with a blow torch in front you. I enjoyed how as I bit into it the filling oozed out, filling my mouth with all the familiar flavours of a s’more – chocolate, crackers and toasted marshmallow. It was playful and more importantly at this point, bite-size.

BURGER with ketchup
another bite-sized dessert! this time a mini cheeseburger, with sesame encrusted peanut butter bun, chocolate crumb filling, banana purée (cheese) and lettuce. Cute, but stuck to my teeth and tasted mostly of peanut butter – much like a snickers bar.

SNACK FOODS
chocolate mousse, green cardamon, raisin foam and peanut ice cream. By this time I had fallen into a food coma, evident from the lack of notes (and memory) of this dish.

I think it’s no surprise that we found Moto to be a real disappointment, especially after all the great reviews we had read prior to our trip. I think Cantu should definitely be commended for his immense creativity and technical skill (a lot of his offerings were pure works of art); his dishes however lack the balance and finesse needed to turn his artistic creations into truly great dishes. And at the end of the day molecular gastronomy is just a gimmick if it doesn’t taste good – it is food after all.