When describing what I did for Valentine’s Day, the words Moto or Homaro Cantu don’t always register much recognition but if I say, “you know, the laser and ink jet guy from Iron Chef” the response is generally better. “Oh, that guy. Cool.”
Yeah, it was cool. I get the sense that Moto is less serious (or taken less seriously) than the other experimental game in town, Alinea, and that was what I was in the mood for. Surprises without stuffiness. Despite hardly being a thrifty meal, I liked the general informality and sense of whimsy.
I’m not sure if it’s a NYC vs. Chicago thing or Moto vs. comparable local restaurants but the servers seemed young in a way you don’t find here. Maybe it’s because they’re not aspiring models, stylists or actors (maybe they are—that’s not the type of thing I ask). I liked our doughy guy who had a slight Capote lilt to his speech. There was another waiter with floppy blonde hair who made me nervous because he could never quite get his descriptions out right and had a spazzy, surfer-inflected delivery. A general feeling of bright-eyed proud-ness was present, though.
Minus all the molecular bells and whistles, I was surprised at how American the food actually was. I appreciated the takes on nachos, mac and cheese, rib eye, popcorn and cotton candy. I’m not sure if that’s the Midwestern influence at work or what. Tweaking familiar favorites, evoking nostalgia. It works for Brit, Heston Blumenthal, right? There is a lot of texture and temperature play, crunchy and soft, cold and hot, sometimes it’s brilliant and occasionally it’s unsettling.
Moto was most definitely fun, though it’s not the type of food that you crave when you simply want something good to eat. Sometimes you’re just hungry and don’t want to think too hard or need to be delighted by unorthodox plating and presentation. It’s certainly not an emperor’s new clothes situation but I wouldn’t feel the need to dine this way on a frequent basis. Of course there’s middle ground between grubbin’ and avant-garde and the whole range is exciting to me.
Random Aside: I’m the one who’s usually annoyed by strangers’ antics but James was losing his shit with the male half of the couple on my left. I couldn’t really see him because we were seated on the same side of the table. During the middle of our meal he confidently explained to his date, a mousy, brunet Reese Witherspoon lookalike in a charcoal gray skirt suit, “I have one word for you: MO TO” while chopping the air for emphasis. (My internal voice changed his proclamation to MO ROCCA.) He also took credit for the metal suspended spoon contraption used on Iron Chef. I don’t know what his deal was; he didn’t work at the restaurant but seemed to know everyone and appeared to be getting special treatment. His bravado didn’t appear to put off anyone except us, though, so perhaps we’re crybabies. I’ve yet to encounter a female taking this same gourmand show off approach at an upscale restaurant though I frequently find myself seated near the reverse.
Initially, you’re presented with an edible menu with the GTM parade listed on one side and the ten and five course options on the flip side. We thought ten courses seemed about right. Five would be sadly lacking and the grand tasting menu seemed a shade over the top. We chose well, and stayed sharp until two sweet courses arrived. The menu on this occasion was Mexican themed and tasted like chile-cheese frico. There was a spicy dip beneath the readable cracker.
Unless I write as I eat, which I don’t do when I’m out for fun, I tend to forget finer details of the dishes. Their descriptions are obliquely simplistic so there’s a lot of filling in the blanks. I’ve copied wine pairings from the website. There’s no way I could remember any of that. I’m only moderately about wine, James not at all, but he loved the Bechtheimer Heiligkreuz Sheurebe, comparing it favorably to Vitamin Water (he thought our rose cava at Ureña tasted like “expensive soda”). He asked about it (we couldn’t remember the name to save our lives) and the nice wine stewardess gave us a second pour. I could understand why after looking all the wines up—it was the cheapest of the lot, only around $12 a bottle. I guess we’re easy to please.
salmon and sesame
larmandier lernier, 1er cru blanc de blancs, vertus, brut nv
If I’m correct, liquid nitrogen (which is stirred up in a copper pan tableside) is mixed with lime juice and drizzled atop the cubed salmon and sesame crisp. Little tangy white blobs form. Chilly, soft, crunchy, acidic all at once.
acorn with bacon
geil, bechtheimer heiligkreuz, scheurebe, kabinett, rheinhessen 2005
Maybe because our taste buds were still sharp but I really liked this one. The maple and squash cake is frozen but creamy on mouth contact like that astronaut ice cream you could get a science museum gift shops when you were a kid. The tiny squares of warm squash meld well and contained the world’s tiniest strip of bacon.
merluzzo and popcorn
waugh cellars, indindoli vineyard, chardonnay, russian river valley 2004
The chunk of fish is wrapped with noodles made from mango (no starch, just juice) and the mustardy swipes of sauce taste surprisingly like popcorn. The green blobs are crafted from shisho. I can’t recall what the white powdery substance is.
pomegranate and caped gooseberry
A sour palate cleanser. One husk contains a real gooseberry while the other holds a square of gooseberry gel which tastes nearly the same.
bbq pork with the fixin's
sutton cellars, trimble vineyard, carignane, mendocino county 2004
I think this was intended to mimic a pulled pork sandwich. The saucy meat sits on the right and on the left is a toasty but frozen square of squid ink covered bread sitting atop what I think was described as a praline sauce. We weren’t sure about the crumbs sitting next to it. I just know realized that the black chunk is meant to resemble a lump of charcoal.
pasta and ribeye
ramey, claret, napa valley 2004
The elbow macaroni looked like it came straight from the bag but it wasn’t tooth-shattering, just slightly crispy. The strange thing is that I took this title from their menu but I don’t remember meat being in this. Perhaps the wine had fuzzed my mind by this point but I thought the brownish blobs were savory cheese curds (that’s frightening if I can’t tell the difference between cheddar and beef). I’ve looked at photos of this dish on other websites and there appears to be steak strips in the glass and diners can pour the cheese sauce from a separate cup. Ours was self-contained. I might be the only American who’s not crazy about macaroni and cheese, but this dish was great.
lychee rigatoni fruit plate
meinklang, trokenbeerenauslese, bouvier, burgenland 2001
The pastas tubes are made of lychee and the sauce is a sweet, thick concoction containing white chocolate (which also struck me as very American—I love white chocolate but it has a lowbrow stigma, doesn’t it?). Beneath the crisp is a candied slice of fuji apple and a slice of a fruit that I’m forgetting.
two and three dimensional truffle
This was the cotton candy in orb and paper form. The truffle reminded me of iced circus cookie filled with cold water. I’m not sure if that was the intended effect. I liked the edible paper better than the bonbon.
graham cracker and quince
elio perrone, moscato d'Asti “sourgal” 2006
A strange but tantalizing malty, graham cracker-ish soup topped with fruity pellets.
I thought were done at this point. I didn’t realize that we were getting nachos (and some chocolate krispie doo dads) and my stomach capacity was at maximum. When describing this dish to a friend I found it hard to articulate how this was more than mere novelty. They use kiwi for chiles, grated mango as cheese, chocolate for ground beef and a lemon sauce for sour cream. In my head I kept picturing a Kraft Foods abomination. I assure you that there was nothing atrocious about these flavors.
I don’t know why I felt compelled to snap a photo of myself in the bathroom. So MySpacey. It was my one moment of calm, a buffer from the sensory overload on the other side of the door
Moto * 945 W. Fulton St., Chicago, IL