forkfork forkfork

excellent

Cost: Expensive
Last visited:06/04
#of visits: 2
Where? What to Get What to Skip
723 Chestnut Street
215-413-9070
Omakase nothing
 


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I suppose the irritating Yin to the chic Yang of having a celebrity chef wander his dining room is frequent camera flashes disrupting the zen cool of the space. The gentle wave of the bamboo ceiling and the slowly morphing colors of the lucite booths would be more calming if not punctuated by sudden blasts of white light. I think I still have blue dots burned onto my retinas.

Despite the distractions, the restaurant itself is quite lovely: futuristic, but more serious than Pod, high-concept without the overkill of some Steven Starr productions. It's all hard surfaces, and a little loud, but due to the abstract patterns in the walls and that undulating ceiling, the noise level is not as punishing as one might expect.

But the setting is not the main attraction, it's the contemporary Japanese cuisine of Masaharu Morimoto, focusing on his sophisticated, globally-tinged updating of Asian classics, as practiced at his own restaurants and at New York's Nobu, rather than the pop culture weirdness of the Iron Chef TV show, where he ruled as Iron Chef Japanese from 1998-2000. We weren't presented with multiple courses all featuring eel, or sea urchin or anything, although it was hard to resist scoring each plate and giggling like a young movie actress.

While there is a standard menu that ranges from sushi and tempura to more unusual fusion creations, the real attraction here is the "omakase" dining, a series of courses selected by the kitchen. You literally put yourself in the chef's hands and are treated to a parade of surprises. You can give some guidelines about what you like and don't, or if there's something you can't eat, but beyond that it's up to the whim of the kitchen. This does not come cheap: $80, $100, $120 "and up" will bring a wide variety of raw and cooked food. The price-points correlate to the exotic-ness of the ingredients, not the number or size of courses.

The array of dishes even at the $80 price point was quite impressive, eight courses, each substantial, varied and often innovative. To start, we were presented with an island of of finely chopped Yellowtail Tartare protruding from a pool of citrusy Yuzu and Soy-flavored sauce, with some freshly grated (real) wasabi on the side. A bit of caviar and a crunch of bonito flakes completed this complex and immensely satisfying dish. A cherry sized yamamomo peach was a cleansing element after the rich and intense flavors of the fish.

A fairly straightforward plate of perfectly carved Mackerel Sashimi followed. The next offering of thinly sliced Striped Bass was slightly firmed from a quick sear, and might have even gotten a ceviche effect from a light dressing, a sprinkle of baby cilantro adding more flavor than its minimal appearance would suggest. Small changes in texture from the preceding sashimi gave the progress of the meal an enjoyable contour.

We then had a seared Tuna Salad, which has almost become a cliché on modern menus, but this was the most beautiful ruby-red tuna we've ever seen, ringed with only the slightest seared edge. The soy flavored sweet roasted onion dressing, and spring greens added to the refreshing appeal.

An intermezzo of Yuzu-Wasbi sorbet showed little evidence of wasabi, but was a bracing palate-cleanser and a nice lead-in to the second half of our meal.

The hot stuff started with Shrimp Tempura, a popular dish at Morimoto featuring a microscopically thin layer of crisp batter, doused in a rich remulade sauce. I had requested no shrimp, so the kitchen obligingly substituted two large butterflied Scallops perfectly steamed and topped with salty black bean sauce, shredded ginger and scallion, a treatment applied to sea bass on the a la carte menu with equal success. AVDP loved the shrimp, I loved the scallops, we were happy.

Roasted Black Cod was rich on its own, but all Steven Starr restaurants seem to be contractually obligated to lob lobes of foie gras onto as many plates as possible, so a small triangle of caramelized liver added an extra dose of decadence. More interesting was the reduced balsamic vinegar, the sugar cured black beans, and sweet pickled bell pepper that brightened the plate.

The final course, a board of conventional sushi: two types of yellowtail, mackerel, and tuna was the best sushi I've ever had, but was nonetheless almost an anticlimax. The perfect rice, reputedly custom milled in the basement, and superior fish were quite tasty, but too subtle after the previous courses.

Dessert was a bit dull, a pleasant almond cake, accompanied by passionfruit sorbet.

In the final assessment, despite the fact that many of the courses were similar (we had lots of variations on sliced raw fish) each had enough variety and novelty that we enjoyed this meal immensely. AVDP likened it to performance art, and he's right, the presentations, the creative juxtapositions and the lovely surroundings all conspire to make a theatrical moment that adds to the enjoyment of the flavors and textures.

On our earlier visit we stayed a bit more conventional, ordering from the menu, even somehow avoiding sushi altogether, which misses a clear strong point of this restaurant. In retrospect, I realize that our party ended up choosing mostly items that would not be completely unexpected at Buddakan or Pod: fascinating modern asian-fusion food, but not distinctly Morimoto. This is not to imply that the food was disappointing, in fact many of the items I'd get again, it's just that we should have investigated the specific food available only here.

One of the more unique items was the "yose-dofu," fresh tofu conjured in a clay pot on your table. You can't get any fresher than this, and indeed the delicate, silky-soft tofu had a light creamy texture and mild flavor that was quite pleasing. Two dipping sauces are provided, the subtle soy-based sauce melded nicely with the light curd, and a heavier, more gelatinous dashi-flavored sauce gave a contrasting kick. In the end, it is just tofu and sauce, and before the bottom of the bowl this became a bit tedious, but if a group is sharing several appetizers that would provide some textural variety, this was an interesting, light diversion.

The rock shrimp tempura provided some crunch, the small shrimp providing a good foil for the paper-thin breading. Surprisingly, the tempura arrives already coated with a tangy sauce, but eat them quickly, and the crispy texture sustains.

Some additional satisfying snap can be found in the asparagus salad, lightly cooked tips and thin stalks in a thick sesame sauce.

The ramen soup was a rich chicken broth with delicate fresh ramen noodles, with chunks of chicken. I didn't get a chance to taste it, but two bowls disappeared pretty quickly at our table, so it must have been good.

My entree of Sea Bass with black bean sauce and fresh ginger and scallion was perfectly executed, the salty bean paste contrasting nicely with the sweet white fish and tingley strands of ginger. A pan-roasted Arctic Char was seated on a luxurious thick lobster sauce. Both fish dishes were quite tasty, but could have used some sort of accompaniment. I'm not sure if this presentation is more Japanese, but both were: fish, sauce, that's it. For the sake of variety and textural contrast, a little rice, or some vegetables, or some of the inventive sides that we've grown accustomed to at other Starr restaurants would have been welcome. I don't even see any place on the menu where I could order some simple additions.

A more complete entree was perhaps our favorite: the "Yellowtail Buri Bop," an inventive mix of sushi, the traditional Japanese ricebowl meals called Donburi and the Korean rice dish served in a hot bowl, Bi Bim Bap. Slices of sushi quality Yellowtail are seared against the sides of a hot stone bowl, while a raw egg, a common element in donburi, is stirred into the bowl's hot contents. The rice, some shredded nori and sauce are stirred together and allowed to cook further in the bowl, as with Bi Bim Bap. The thin slices of fish were lightly opaque from their contact with the hot bowl, remaining wonderfully tender and juicy, but with a textural complexity somewhere between raw and cooked. The rice had an intriguing density, infused with a sauce of light soy and lemony yuzu. The restaurant reputedly has its own rice-polishing machine and this perfect rice seems to indicate it's worth that level of control.

All the searing and stirring is done by a server, who arrives with the separate ingredients and explains, perhaps a bit too laboriously, every step along the way. This might be more drama than is needed, but there's no arguing with the results: a fresh, vibrant combination of flavors and textures.

And vibrant is about the only word I can conjure to describe the dessert we shared, a Wasabi Tiramisu. The spicy root is baked into a cake that is then soaked with sweet syrup, napped with whipped cream, and was that sesame, salt and pepper? Whatever it was, the final effect was the most dramatic dessert we've ever had, a swirl of sensations: sweet-spicy, hot-cool, cakey-creamy. I'm not sure it was our favorite confection ever, but certainly the most interesting!

Morimoto is an exciting and challenging restaurant, with the finest ingredients woven into innovative original dishes. Or you can get excellent chicken soup and sushi. Like so many Steven Starr productions, this place feels like a destination, inside one can't help but feel a little special. Just do me a favor, memorize the subtleties of the decor and tell your friends, don't feel obliged to take a picture. Or at least turn the freaking flash off!!

I love the feel of sitting in the color changing booths, it's less vertiginous than the retinal roller coaster inside a pod at Pod. The reputedly $15,000 flatscreen display near the reception area is wasted, easily overlooked, and not all that thrilling even when it is noticed. The tables are oversized to the point that servers couldn't reach the inner place-settings and we had to aid in the distribution and collection of dishes, but overall the design is quite pleasing. The service was quite good, if a little fragmented in the Steven Starr fashion, with random runners tag-teaming with an order-taker. In the end, dinners were very enjoyable experiences on many levels, food and atmosphere combining to create a memorable event.

We're going back. You should go too, just do me a favor and leave your camera at home.


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